Good Evening Mayor McMullan, City Councillors, and members of city staff. My name is Steve Cook, I am Chair of the St. Catharines Business Council of the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce. In addition to serving on the Board of the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, I am also President of Credit Bureau Services Canada, which is located in downtown St. Catharines. I am joined here by Kithio Mwanzia the Chamber’s Director of Policy and Government Relations and in the gallery by Walter Sendzik, the CEO of the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce.
On behalf of the Chamber, I would first like to thank you for the opportunity to comment on this year’s Budget.
As a bit of background the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, is a member driven organization with over 1300 members representing 30,000 employees. We are the largest business organization in Niagara and one of the largest Chambers in Ontario. Within the Chamber structure, members are able to establish both geographic and sectoral business councils that facilitate targeted activities that help enhance the connectivity of those businesses and foster new opportunities. The St. Catharines Business Council is one of (5) sector and geographic Business Councils with the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber has paid close attention to the budget process this year, as Both Kithio and our Policy Analyst, Samir Husika have been participating and following the budget process and engaging our members in St. Catharines to ensure that our comments are reflective of the issues that are most important to them.
In addition, the Chamber’s Finance and Taxation Committee – comprised of accountants, finance and management experts and business owners from across Niagara – have also provided insight and advice on the Chamber’s recommendations as the Committee is tasked with reviewing municipal and regional budgets to provide a business perspective to the budget process.
Similarly, the St. Catharines Business Council provided input on the recommendations that will be brought forward tonight. Our lengthy and thorough engagement and analysis process ensures that as the voice of business, the Greater Niagara Chamber remains committed to carrying forward with the work of the St. Catharines – Thorold Chamber.
As members of the Budget Committee are aware, the Chamber has been present throughout the budget process and has also participated in budget open house sessions. We would like to acknowledge that city staff and members of the Budget Committee were forthcoming and timely with information related to the budget, as the Chamber has developed its positions.
It is important that the voice of business in Niagara is heard. After all, the revenues created by private sector businesses pay for our public services, including our public education, our social health care, public infrastructure and our social safety net. When businesses can grow, create jobs and earn a profit, communities can prosper.
Members of the Chamber’s St. Catharines Business Council have taken the approach that although government is NOT a private sector business, many principles of business can and should be incorporated into the operation of government when attempting to facilitate economic growth, manage the City’s finances and create value for money for the taxpayers. In business you have to spend money to make money. No business exits without expenditures on capital, without operating costs and without re-investment. Being successful in business means spending and investing your resources wisely. It means taking calculated risks and earning a return on investment. This is a principle of business that when incorporated into government, can produce successful results that benefit the entire community.
85% of the businesses in Niagara are Small and Medium Sized Operations. These businesses are in a competitive global market and regulatory environment. Businesses are therefore seeking out jurisdictions to do business where there is sound fiscal planning, smart, business friendly regulation, and faster, efficient and responsive government services.
Although there is more work to do, Council and Staff have taken positive steps forward in attempting to mitigate future impacts on the city’s finances and create a more responsive and ‘open for business’ environment. For example:
- The full implementation of the AMANDA planning software and changes in planning, transportation and environment services have been well received by the business community.
- Private sector contracting where greater value for money was generated.
- A commitment to complete service reviews this year. Something that we recommend be completed in time for implementation in the 2014 Budget
The Chamber has been a vocal advocate on all of these issues and we continue to raise them as a means to build a culture of being ‘open for business.’ Similarly, we mention these items because they impact future budgets and relate to our comments on the 2013 budget. With a full appreciation for the importance of managing expenditures, we are asking for the following considerations for the 2013 budget.
The City has taken positive steps forward in addressing a significant infrastructure deficit after years of under investment, inaction and neglect. Finally, after 75 years and after missing the more affordable opportunity with the construction of the 4-Pad, the City has invested in a new spectator facility. This facility will be paid for in part by the monies in the Civic Project Fund. Without question, the City will need to replenish the Civic Project Fund as a prudent planning measure for the future. Please allow us to once again caution Council, that delaying important infrastructure investments will only cost the taxpayer more money in the long run. The penny wise pound foolish approach failed us in the past and will fail us in the future.
With the building of new assets that require servicing and investing in solutions that meet our future demands, the City will need to make bold policy decisions to balance out this new expense and to prevent unnecessary tax increases. The Chamber is recommending that the City develop an Asset Disposal Strategy that focuses on using asset management software to accelerate the sale of capital infrastructure assets deemed in excess or not getting a satisfactory return on investment. The proceeds from the sale of these assets should be directed to replenish the Civic Project Fund. Potential examples of such assets to explore include the Garden City Complex, the Queenston Street Fire Hall or the Fairview Golf and mini-put, but we recommend a comprehensive review of all assets.
Ask any business owner and they will tell you how the importance of customer services cannot be understated, particularly as municipal governments try to implement ‘open for business’ agendas. The most successful jurisdictions in achieving this have invested in customer service and ‘single-window’ approaches. Those communities that have invested in ‘single-window’ approaches are better positioned to compete in a globally competitive market place.
The ‘Citizen-First’ initiative has also seen proven success in municipalities that have faced similar economic challenges, specifically, Windsor and Oshawa where the implementation of the initiative has seen a return on investment and has advanced their ‘open for business’ agenda significantly.
We recognize the cost associated with implementing this initiative, however we heard from our business members that this is a much desired program and an investment in being ‘open for business.’ We are further recommending that an evaluation of success metrics be conducted in the first two years of its implementation. Following this period, a ‘Return on Investment’ evaluation should be carried out each year. In addition, similar to a private sector business that cannot afford to be overstaffed, the Chamber recommends that City Council adopt the “Citizen-First” initiative without increasing the overall number of City employees.
More so than other municipalities in Ontario and Canada, the City of St. Catharines and Niagara have fiscal challenges that have to be solved by taking innovative approaches. Specifically, further implementing shared service agreements and alternative service delivery approaches.
A study from the Intergovernmental Committee on Urban and Regional Research indicates that there are significant savings that can be achieved through engaging in shared service agreements with neighbouring municipalities. This is further demonstrated by the practical application by the cities of Kitchener and Waterloo who have become leaders in demonstrating how shared services can maximise efficiency and balance expenditures. The Kitchener – Waterloo Joint Services Initiatives Committee has representatives from both jurisdictions and manages agreements on emergency services, fire, tourism, and transit to name a few.
Given this scenario we are recommending that Council take additional steps to manage service sustainability by working with neighbouring municipalities to deliver services.
St. Catharines has a track record of implementing shared services agreements and working with multiple neighbouring jurisdictions. We are therefore recommending that St. Catharines establish a Joint Service Initiative Committee in collaboration with neighbouring municipalities to determine which municipalities would be best to engage in further shared service initiatives and which service areas this method could be best applied. Potentially, as the City already engages in shared services with St. Catharines Transit, the City of St. Catharines should explore shared services in Economic Development, Tourism and Fire Services. In terms of Alternate Service Delivery, similar to how the City contracted out lawn cutting services to the private sector, the City should explore doing the same in other areas such as the management of the Muncipal Golf Course or the City’s advertising acquisition and production.
The Chamber made a similar recommendation during its budget presentation to the City of Thorold and it was well received. This is therefore the most opportune time to pursue this initiative.
There has been significant infrastructure renewal in St. Catharines, service changes and special initiatives. In addition, governments around Canada are planning significant changes to capital infrastructure allocations and municipal grants. This will impact municipal operations and change the way services are delivered in certain cases. It is with this in mind that the Chamber believes that the city can no longer budget year to year. The Chamber is recommending that the city develop a 5 yr financial projection that will guide the city’s finances. In addition, there is the need to implement multi-year budgeting in order to fully understand the impact of decisions that are made and how they can be fully assessed. After Chamber advocacy, both the City of Thorold and the Niagara Region have implemented these recommendations and long range projecting.
As elected officials – you are elected to make tough decisions, and strategic decisions that put our community on solid financial footing. We fully recognize the difficult decisions in front of you. However, by taking strategic measures the City of St. Catharines can maximize every dollar saved and spent, creating a better environment for business and value for money for the taxpayer.
Thank you again for providing the Chamber with the opportunity to speak this evening and I look forward to your questions.