On May 1st, the Government of Ontario’s special advisers, Michael Fenn and Ken Seiling, were in Niagara to hear delegations on governance reform. The GNCC was there to represent the interests of business, and you can see the presentation from CEO Mishka Balsom and Government Relations Director Hugo Chesshire above. The GNCC spoke about the need for improved service delivery for businesses, including economic development, roads, planning, and a reduction of bureaucracy and red tape. We encouraged the special advisers to consider governance models which would have the greatest positive impact on business and economic growth in Niagara, and to focus on the end result of services for citizens, businesses, and organizations in Niagara.
The text of our presentation is available below:
On behalf of our members and the business community, thank you for inviting us to be here to offer our feedback on government reform. The GNCC represents 1,500 members, employing 50,000 people, and is Niagara’s largest business organization.
The stakes of this consultation process are high. Democracy isn’t easy and progress doesn’t happen all at once, but we have an opportunity to do things better.
Setting the Stage
Niagara is a community with many strengths. Trade worth $100 billion each year flows across our borders. We benefit from being part of the Greater Golden Horseshoe megaregion. Our region’s agricultural assets allow for a timely supply to a huge market in close proximity. Niagara’s international brand attracts 14 million visitors, and our natural beauty and conservation areas pre-dispose many to hope that Niagara is a guardian of its natural heritage.
For this consultation, we asked businesses for their input, and over five hundred individuals and organizations across Niagara responded.
In broad terms, organizations are confident that Niagara’s elected leaders are committed to their communities, and that municipal services are delivered in accordance with what is likely the norm across Ontario.
Issues have arisen primarily when municipal governments in Niagara have been required to co-operate with each other or with the Region. The economic and social health across Niagara varies from community to community, and the ability to provide needed services is inconsistent. It often seems hard to build consensus, and in the past, this has created gridlock in decision making.
The services I refer to include planning and public works, public transportation, affordable housing, economic development, roads and traffic management.
Nearly 80% of our survey respondents indicated that governance reform was needed, and they may hope that it could produce an environment where solutions to the following issues could be addressed.
Population & Immigration
Niagara’s rate of population growth has consistently fallen short of that in Ontario, Canada, and comparable municipalities. Actual growth has fallen short of projections made in the last fifty years. With a population older than that of Ontario or Canada, and getting older, Niagara must broaden the base of working-age people.
With thirteen local governments, we have been unable to create a unified immigration attraction or youth retention strategy, something much needed by employers across our region.
Niagara experiences a consistently higher unemployment rate than the rest of the province. We are in need of a strong regional presence to market the entire Niagara area to prospective investors. Although we can build on our strengths in tourism, agriculture, and manufacturing, we must also strive to attract industries in which we are failing to build a presence, the industries and the firms Niagara needs to grow. To diversify, we need a single, complementary economic development strategy and department.
For more than ten years, we have been unable to create a seamless transit system that meets the needs of our citizens and recognizes that people do not live, work, study, or shop in the same places or even the same municipality. Transportation requirements are not limited to buses. We also need to maximize our connections to the wider world, including VIA rail, airports, the Welland canal and ports on both lakes. We require a unified, efficient, and effective transportation approach.
Recent increases in housing prices have resulted in decreased housing affordability and when projects are caught up in red tape and burdensome compliance with two levels of government, who are sometimes not consistent in their approaches, we can’t address our lack of housing stock effectively. We need a single tier planning department.
Moreover, with a vacancy of less than 1%, we are in an affordable housing crisis. When shelter and food bank usage are considered, it indicates that we are in need of a single, unified poverty reduction strategy. The most vulnerable in our society can’t afford a gridlock in decision making.
Revenue issues and economies of scale, or the lack thereof, have resulted in an infrastructure backlog of essential construction, repair, and maintenance. Municipal budgets in Niagara range from a few million dollars per annum to just under $200 million. On the lower end of this scale are communities where a 1% property tax increase would only yield an additional $57,000 per year. These communities are hard-pressed to deal with the infrastructure backlog, the pressures of climate change on infrastructure, and industry challenges on their own. We also have larger communities that are land-locked with little to no opportunities for new land development and new revenues. A common Niagara-wide approach is needed to address these issues. Niagara needs to attract new industries and employers, and to help those that are here grow their businesses. Without strong job growth, we cannot attract a greater population; without population growth, our aging population will make prosperity difficult to achieve.
Having attended numerous townhalls and meetings on governance reform, including those hosted by MPP Sam Oosterhoff, it has become clear that we are more than 12 municipalities. We are more than 130 neighbourhoods. At the same time, we are one. We have common interests in economic growth, social harmony, sustainability, and prosperity.
In an era where local governments are expected to do more with less, we encourage this government to commit to a governance model that allows for better methods of service delivery when it comes to planning, transportation, affordable housing, economic development, roads, and traffic management. Lastly, we urge the government to mitigate costs as much as possible and to provide funding and revenue streams to municipalities who will have to bear any expenses.
With that, I would like to thank you on behalf of Niagara’s business community for hearing us today.