Why 9 council members, instead of 13, is a better option for Milton

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Starting 2018 Milton will have two additional regional councillors. This required re-visiting number of local councillors to balance boundaries. There were two options: 1) add two additional councillors for a total Council of size 13 or 2) two fewer councillors for a total Council size of 9. This post explains my thought process that helped me arrive at the latter option. 

Fewer politicians is not always the right approach. One of the things PM Harper got right was increasing the number of MPs in the Parliament to improve representation by population. City of Toronto absolutely must increase number of councillors to make sure people continue to have representation they deserve (fortunately, it’s doing that). United States could substantially improve its political system by doubling or tripling members of Congress (unfortunately they won’t do that).

In a representative democracy, voters must be able to appoint, and access, representatives to fight for their behalf.

In light of this, this week’s Milton council’s decision to set the size of its council to 9 members, rather than 13, seems like a poor decision. However, as is often the case, devil’s in the details.

On Monday the Council also renewed the transit contract, merely 3 days before it expired.  A delay in the vote would cancel all transit services in Milton. Staff had also written two versions of a report, one recommending a library in the new Sherwood Community Centre in ward 8 (Savoline and Main) and one with no library. They did this because the library lease was not signed until the deadline for the report.

Increasing number of councillors would not have changed any of this.

9 councillors are perfectly capable of providing good representation, provided that they have proper training and support.  13 councillors will continue to provide poor representation without training and support.

Milton stands alone when compared to virtually any municipality around us (whether councillors are part-time or full-time) that provides councillors with $0 budget for training and communicating with constituents.  THAT, and not number of councillors, is the real problem.

Not giving councillors any budget for education gives corporate staff incredible power as councillors must take what they are told on face value in absence of the ability to get properly educated. When public and staff are at odds, something that happens from time to time, councillors in Milton only have same staff as source of information that they oversee. That is neither democratic nor smart.

In past 6 years in the Council not a single councillor has ever complained that they were not able to meet or talk to every constituent who wanted to meet or talk to them.  However, on many occasions councillors mentioned that they had to vote relying on staff recommendation and explanation in a domain that they otherwise did not understand well.

This shortchanges residents.  It is utterly stupid to elect people to represent you but provide them with no discretionary budget for continuing education or to communicating with constituents.

I represent the largest ward in Milton by population. Doubling e-mails and phone calls I receive will not have much of an influence in my ability to provide service to my constituents, since the challenge I face isn’t number of phone calls and e-mails.

Proponents of 13 council members are aware of this and argue that we should be able to increase councillors by 4 (9 to 13) and still add more budget for staff and expenses. Unfortunately in real-life money doesn’t grow on trees. The reason why have not been able to solve this problem in so many  years is because at budget time constituents prefer hard services (library, park, arena, bus, roads) over concepts (democratic representation).

The reason I supported 9 councillors over 13 is because it gives us the opportunity to finally fix this issue. We can add an education and communications budget, similar to every other municipality around us, and still save a ton of money for taxpayers. That will give a much better representation for constituents, rather than simply adding four more seat warmer with no training or support.

For now, residents are better represented by 9 councillors who have the ability to attend seminars and education session independently (AMO provides plenty of opportunities) without having to trust staff on every issue, rather than 13 councillors following the status quo of having staff as the only source of information.

As for more council members, we will have another review in 8 years and will likely add at least 2 (if not more) councillors. But we will do it properly, with proper education and communications budget like every other municipality around us.

To wrap up, the system we adopted is very similar to Oakville.  Each ward will have 1 local and 1 regional councillor.  I’ll leave this comparison between Oakville and Milton after this change in 2018, so people can see whether they are getting shortchanged in Milton or not.

Makeup of Oakville and Milton councils, after 2018 elections

Makeup of Oakville and Milton councils, after 2018 elections

Monday’s council meeting

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Packed council  meeting this Monday! Some of the items in the agenda are:

Senior of the Year award
Library leasing space in the Sherwood Community Centre (Savoline / Main)
Hometown Hockey Tour
New Development Charges By-law
Council Composition
Downtown Milton Market Analysis
Few development applications

See the whole agenda here.

Please let me know if you have any feedback.

Budget Survey

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If you are a resident or business owner in Milton, we invite you to share your thoughts on the 2017 Capital & Operating Budgets as we set priorities for civic infrastructure, programs and services. The survey closes June 30, 2016.

Share your suggestions by completing the survey online:www.milton.ca/budgetsurvey.

Bronte Road Expansion

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A number of questions came up from the Bronte Street Closure post. It’s easier to answer them in a post of its own.

Yes, the road will be expanded to four lanes and the design includes two roundabouts.  Here’s the rough schedule :-

  • The Region will be installing a watermain on the east side during June
  • Union gas has installed a gas main on the west side
  • Bell Canada will be installing servicing in June
  • Milton Hydro will be extending their primary lines in June
  • We will begin the expansion on Aug 2nd and finish it by Dec 5th.

As an incentive to get the job done within the timeframe expected, we will be including a bonus/penalty clause in the contract. This strategy was very successful when constructing Main Street west of Bronte Street.

Check out the video we did after the completion of that road: https://www.facebook.com/votezee/videos/10153771114614100/

One question that came up was: “why was this not done earlier”.  Answer: people did not live there earlier.

We no longer delay road construction by years, as was done in the past. In fact, roads are now expanded as population grows. The section south of Louis St Laurent until Britannia just started developing. This road will be done in 2016, whereas the area will take a few more years to finish growing.

If money was no issue then sure, we would expand roads before anybody moved in. Sadly, in real world money is an issue. These projects are financed by development charges from new homes that are constructed in the area.

In theory we could build the road by debt financing ahead of time, and then pay back the debt using development charges. This exposes us to risks. If subdivision development slows down (as it did a few years ago), then we’ll get stuck with debt that existing taxpayers will have to carry.

We follow the “new growth should pay for itself” philosophy. That means we cannot (and will not) force existing taxpayers to build infrastructure for future growth.  The important thing to note is that roads are expanded as people start moving into an area.  That is what happened with Louis St Laurent expansion, Tremaine expansion and this current Bronte expansion.

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Bronte Street Closure

Zeeshan Hamid Information 5 Comments

Please note that Bronte Street South between Louis St Laurent Avenue and Britannia Road will be closed from June 6th –  Dec 1st. 

The Region of Halton will be installing a watermain on Bronte Street South between Louis St Laurent Avenue and Britannia Road commencing June 6, 2016. During the months of June and July, Milton Hydro will be replacing hydro poles along this road segment.  Immediately upon the completion of the watermain, the Town will begin the road reconstruction which is expected to be base course asphalt by December 1, 2016.

Access will be maintained for all local residents on this portion of Bronte Street South and all through traffic will be detoured via Tremaine Road, Louis St Laurent Avenue, Regional Road 25 and Britannia Road.

I know this will be inconvenient for a lot of us on the west-end, but unfortunately the short-term pain is necessary for the long-term gain that comes with the project completion.

Council Composition Review

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Milton’s Council consists of 11 elected officials: Mayor, 4 Regional Councillors and 8 Local Councillors. We are adding two additional regional seats, which will give us :- Mayor + 4 Regional Councillors (up from 2).

The question is: how do we add the two additional Regional Councillors?

First: read the Phase 1 report to learn about all the options.

Then, come out to the public input session:

Tuesday, May 31, 2016
7 p.m. to 9 p.m. (Presentation at 7:30 p.m.)
Milton Town Hall – Milton Room
150 Mary Street, Milton, ON

You may also give feedback by calling: 905-878-7252, ext. 2109. or e-mailing the Town Clerk directly.  Please note that commenting here is useful for discussion, but it does not count as the official feedback. That should go to the Town Clerk directly.  

2015 salaries

Another year as the most frugal councillor

Zeeshan Hamid Blog Post, Information 15 Comments

Here is what your municipal politicians earned in 2015. As a policy I do not expense things I can afford to pay for myself, which is mostly why I ended up being the most frugal councillor. I hope to continue being the lowest paid-councillor each year.

2015 salaries(click to open the original size)

Please let me know if you have any questions.

Update: Rural and Urban Taxes

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Here’s some background first :- http://votezee.ca/uniform-rural-urban-tax-rate/. Two months ago Milton Council voted to switch to a uniform tax-rate (until now urban residents paid an ‘urban surcharge’). One major feedback we received was that many rural residents felt they did not have the opportunity to raise their concerns. To remedy the situation, we voted to re-open the issue last night. We heard from two dozen delegates, re-debated the issue in front of 150 or so residents and re-voted.

Unfortunately the final decision was still to switch to a single tax rate. I’d still like to thank everyone for reaching out and sharing their thoughts. I hope that rural residents maintain the level of involvement and enthusiasm shown over past two months because I genuinely developed a better appreciation for the rural area because of it.

Every delegate and almost every e-mail sent to me had valid arguments. That said, “this dollar of my taxes goes towards that service I cannot use” is very valid point but impossibly tricky to satisfy as every taxpayer at every level of government pays for services they do not have access to (in return they receive subsidy for some other service). The assertion that there is a single homogeneous “rural area” is entirely inaccurate. Omagh, Moffat and Campbellville have very different level of services for same tax rate. There is absolutely no possible way to avoid that as each area generates a unique demand for services based on its demographic, population density and other factors.

We are all paying for Toronto subways through our provincial taxes. But all Ontario taxpayers also paid part of our Arts Centre, Sports Centre and library. That’s how taxes work. You subsidize services others use and they subsidize services you use. We don’t get to opt out of paying for Toronto subways because we have none, but still take provincial money for our hospital and arts centre.

The question I asked myself repeatedly was whether taxpayers were receiving value for their tax dollar. To answer that question I comparison-shopped all surrounding municipalities with rural population. I found that for exact same level of services every other municipality taxes their rural residents 30-50% more. This includes places like Hamilton and Burlington that have different tiered taxes.

Even though we disagreed on this specific issue, I hope you maintain the involvement as it is clear that the council is not meeting expectations of a number of rural residents. We will need an ongoing dialog with you to ratify that. Reach out and I’ll buy you coffee so we can discuss further.

 

 

Milton_rural_area

Uniform rural + urban tax rate

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Two months ago, the Milton Town Council decided to join a vast majority of municipalities by eliminating urban surcharge for local services. The result is a uniform tax rate in urban and rural Milton for local services. As expected, this created a lot of discussion (and anger and debate). I’ve read every single comment that was sent to me or the council on this subject. I also met a dozen+ rural residents who wanted to meet. I continue to get feedback and am doing my best to learn as much as I can.

This post is not a defense or justification of the decision. I am chairing the budget committee meeting on Feb 8th where we will hear feedback from citizens. I will keep an open mind, as I have over past few weeks, so I can understand issues raised without bias.

However, there is a set of recurring misinformation that keeps getting repeated. Each of the questions below are almost direct quotes from some of the e-mails I received :-

This will cost rural residents over million / cost industries a lot of money / cost each home thousands

No. Of the $2,549,208 that is moving onto the general levy in 2016 (pending budget), $2,245,537 will continue to be paid by urban taxpayers, and $303,670 will be billed to rural properties.

Out of that only $6,333.93 will come from all rural industries combined, $7,738 from all farmland combined and $251,720.97 from rural residential homes.

In other words, an average rural home assessed at $653,163 will see their property tax go up by $8.59 / month (or $103 / yr) in 2016.

The Council broke its rules and did something inappropriate in December

Short answer: We did not. We followed our procedural bylaw properly.

Long answer: Traditionally councillors brought verbal motions and voted on them, which is also perfectly legal. That is how the hospital tax levee was introduced. Even written motions were voted on in the same night by default. In 2015 we stopped the process of voting for councillor-driven motions on the same night by default, and instead starting requiring a vote in order to debate the issue on the same night. The intention of that vote had to be published in the agenda in writing and in advance.

In fact, this motion followed a stricter process than every other motion had up until 2015. There has been only a handful of motions that followed an even stricter process of waiting for the next meeting.

HOWEVER, in hindsight I now realize that though we followed the letter of the law, in many residents’ eyes we broke the spirit of the law. I assure you no one had the intention to rush things through, which is why even Councillor Best voted for debate on the same night. I am trying my best to remedy that now.
UPDATE: In order to fix the perception, we voted to re-open the debate, heard from a lot of citizens and re-voted in presence of ~150 rural residents.

Residents have no opportunity to address the council / there was no debate

There was a lot of debate, 1-on-1 before the meeting and during the meeting.

Residents had the same opportunity that every other agenda item has. In addition, I am doing everything I can to talk to whoever wants to talk. As a chair of the budget committee, I am making sure that residents can speak on this issue at the budget meeting (Feb 8th) to address the council. We are all also receiving a lot of e-mails and phone calls, that are all opportunity to raise concerns.

The accurate statement is that residents did not have as much time as other councillor-driven motions have had in past 12 months (staff reports receive the same notice that this motion did) before the vote. That is true. But we are listening and will hear from a lot of taxpayers on Feb 8th as well.

Milton’s move is unique

On the contrary, maintaining two tax rates at the local level was unique as very few municipalities do this. Halton Hills, Oakville, Erin, Puslinch etc. all have rural and urban population and they all use a uniform tax rate at the local level. In Halton, Burlington is the only municipality with two tax rates at the local level. However, rural residents in Burlington pay significantly more than rural residents in Milton will even after this change.

Cost of living / heating / internet is high in rural areas.

That is a fact, but not relevant to this discussion. Also a fact, but not applicable, is that rural residents have much higher income and assessment than urban residents (an average rural home is worth 53% higher than an average urban home [$653,163 vs $427,279]). Neither of these are directly relevant to this topic.

This will impact farmers

Total impact on all farmland combined is $7,738.00. Total.

Rural residents receive subpar internet and cable.

Also not relevant as these are not municipal services.

Rural residents will have to pay for water, yard waste, etc.

No. Regional services that they cannot ever receive is excluded from the regional portion of rural taxes. That is because it would be highly unfair to make people pay for services they cannot benefit from even if they wanted to. The last part is the key statement here.

Municipal services cost same

Not so. Take snow clearing. Urban part of ward 8 is a 4km2 area with 6,500 homes. A similar area north of 401 has only a handful of homes paying for services. If we force each area to pay for services that area receives then taxes for snow clearing portion north of ward 8 would go up significantly.

In fact, there are 3 times as many households in the green area (4.02 km2) than there are in the red area (321 km2).  In other words, urban ward 8 has 1,625 homes per sq. km.  Rural Milton has 7.

The rural area north of 401 that urban residents never venture into is 153 kmwith 100+ km of lane roads to maintain that are used by a very small number of rural residents.

urban vs rural

Why should rural residents pay for “urban” services like sidewalks, traffic lights, transit?

[I do not want to defend or justify anything, as I am in the listening mode. However, I do want to point out that there isn’t any sinister incentive an play, the ‘other side’ also has some valid arguments].

The difference is services one cannot get even if they wanted to vs. services that are not distributed evenly due to difference in demand and usage.

No two taxpayers receive same set of services. It is difficult to allow one set of residents to opt out of services not available in their area and not extend the same courtesy to others. This is precisely the reason why very few municipalities maintain a two-tier rate at the local level.

Consider “rural area”. Residents in Omagh have to put up with us urbanite clogging up streets in front of their homes. They also have relatively easy access to so-called ‘urban services’, in some cases better access than urban areas in the west end. In fact, we plan to re-route Britannia Road so it bypasses their homes, similar to what the Region did with Tremaine Road. This area is significantly different in needs, uses and character than Campbellville. That is yet again different from the 150+ sq. km area (that is bigger than Oakville) with very low population north of 401.

A number of urban neighbourhoods have no transit services because there is not enough usage to justify the service. Town of Milton removed the bus route from Councillor Malbeauf’s street a few years ago because our minimum usage requirements were not met. Yet he and his neighbours continue to pay for the transit system because overall it benefits the community.

“Why should I pay for something I can’t use” can quickly turn into “why should ward 8 pay for a much higher cost of maintaining and clearing rural roads north of 401 that its residents will never see”. That is an unproductive and divisive line of thinking.

That is how the system works. The reason opting out gets tricky is because each taxpayer is unique. Omagh and Moffat have very different needs and costs of services. There are rural residents who shop or entertain in town, where they benefit from parking, clear sidewalks and of course, street lights. Everyone has access to these services, even though the access is not distributed evenly and might not be available in front of someone’s home. That is precisely the reason why childless households still pay for schools.

We built the Nassagewaya Tennis Club for 200 tennis players in the rural area at a million+ cost to the property tax base. Cambpellville Park redevelopment cost $600,000+ even though the use base is tiny compared to urban parks.  It would be highly unfair to ask rural residents to pay more for community services or snow clearing on exclusively rural roads in Moffat and Rockwood (and other areas north of 401).

Ultimately every taxpayer pays for things they do not receive and every taxpayer benefits from this system in some way, but the benefit obviously differs depending on the taxpayer.

You are not listening to us

On the contrary, I have read everything that was sent to me or the council, and have met a dozen+ residents who wanted to speak. I see your arguments and openly accept that they are valid. I also see valid arguments on the other side.

I assure you that I am reading everything that comes my way and meeting every taxpayer who has expressed interest in discussing this issue. I do not have a problem admitting that the council has made decisions in the past that I consider incorrect, and I have no problem voting to correct those.  Whether this is one of those decisions or not remains to be seen.

I appreciate the time residents are taking to send their feedback and would like to let them know that it’s not falling on deaf ears (even if we end up disagreeing at the end). You also have the opportunity to have your opinion heard by the Budget Committee on Feb 8th. I look forward to hearing from you.

UPDATE: We re-opened the issue, listened to a lot of citizens who presented their case to the council and re-voted all over again.  Here is the updated post: http://votezee.ca/update-rural-and-urban-taxes/