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'We rely on county': Area mayors not interested in county breakup

'Those are critical things. I mean, you just don't go and grab paramedics off the shelf,' says Orillia mayor, who says he will 'ensure the city's interests are protected'
2022-05-30 Simcoe County RB
Simcoe County administration building.

The provincial government has announced that Peel Region will be dissolved within two years and six other regional governments may follow suit, including Simcoe County.

The Hazel McCallion Act, introduced Thursday, will see Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon stand on their own as of Jan. 1, 2025, in a move Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark says will help the municipalities build more homes.

For Simcoe County — as well as Durham, Halton, Niagara, Waterloo, and York regions — the provincial government will appoint “regional facilitators” in the coming weeks to examine how well the upper- and lower-tier government relationships are working. 

The government originally announced in November it would appoint regional facilitators for the five other regions, but Simcoe County was added to the list Thursday.

"These facilitators will be tasked with reviewing whether the upper-tier government continues to be relevant to the needs of its communities or whether the lower-tier municipalities are mature enough to pursue dissolution," said the provincial government’s news release.

Clark was asked on Thursday why Simcoe was added to the list.

"I think we've always had that discussion, given the high growth pressures in Simcoe County," he said. "Servicing is obviously an issue."

Simcoe County Warden Basil Clarke said county council requested a regional facilitator back in January due to the adverse impacts of Bill 23 on the region’s finances.

“What happened in Simcoe County, we’re a little bit different. We were mentioning Bill 23, of course, affecting our development charges, so we actually passed a motion and asked for a facilitator,” Clarke said. “We asked to have a facilitator so we can work with the province (to) build more homes faster.”

County council passed a motion on Jan. 31, requesting a regional facilitator to "ensure the county’s legislative and policy framework effectively supports community growth," in light of Bill 23.

“It's not being forced down on us. We reached out,” Clarke said.

In a press release Thursday, Clarke stated the county government is vital to serving Simcoe County’s 16 municipalities.

“From waste services, to paramedics and long-term care, road maintenance and social services, these programs are expensive to deliver and the consolidated expertise at the County level and overall system approach, means all municipalities and residents benefit,” he said.

Simcoe County is at a “different point in its evolution” than Peel or other regions, Clarke said.

“Our structure and governance in Simcoe County is different than larger regions across Ontario because many of our smaller municipalities already face budgetary constraints and challenges with service delivery capacity, such as water and waste water,” he said. 

“With more population coming, the benefits of economies of scale are evident. In Simcoe County, there is simply more capacity and more value for household taxes with regional services.”

Severn Township Mayor Mike Burkett agrees.

“We rely on the county, we need the county for paramedic services, for our social services, for our waste pickup,” he told OrilliaMatters. “There's only a handful of municipalities that are self-sufficient and have wastewater plants, and Severn is one of them … but I bet, out of the 16 municipalities, I want to guess about 10 are struggling.”

Burkett agreed there are pressures in the region, such as an influx of immigration, and issues related to Bill 23, which are worth looking into.

“With all the new immigrants, Premier Ford is on the money. Where are we going to house all these people?” he said. “And because Simcoe County (is) in the proximity of Toronto … they're coming to our area.”

At this point, Burkett said it is “premature” to worry about the possibility of Simcoe County dissolving, as a regional facilitator has not yet been appointed, or carried out their work.

“There's some huge hurdles that we need to jump through, and until I actually hear from the facilitator, I think it's premature to start jumping to conclusions until we actually know where they're going with this,” he said.

This is not the first time such work has been carried out Simcoe County, Burkett said, pointing to a 2019 regional governance review whose findings were never released to the public.

“We've asked many times from the province, where is that report? Because COVID hit, right, and then it went silent, like nothing happened,” he said. “We've asked what the outcome of that report was, and we've never had an answer.”

Orillia, as a single-tier city similar to Barrie's situation, provides a variety of services directly to its residents, but Mayor Don McIsaac noted the county still delivers vital services to the area.

“The county provides long-term care, social services, affordable housing, paramedics,” he said.

“We have a $70 million budget, and I think close to … $9 million is our share (to the county) this year," he explained. “Those are critical things. I mean, you just don't go and grab paramedics off the shelf and use them. That's a county-wide system.”

McIsaac said the city is eager to participate in discussions with the county and the province moving forward.

“We're reviewing this, and we'll make sure the city's interests are understood and protected," said McIsaac. "We're certainly willing to participate with the county and the province to make sure we have a fulsome discussion.”

In Peel Region, an up-to-five-person transition board will oversee its breakup. The panel will make recommendations to the Ford government about the slew of issues that will have to be sorted out — like the future of municipal taxes, finances, regional staff, conservation authorities, and the Peel Region Police — by 2025. 

The board will also have the power to ban the municipalities from doing things it deems would hurt the dissolution. If the municipalities ignore the board, the legislation gives power to Clark to step in and manage their affairs directly.

The government said it expects all local services to continue as normal during the transition.

The Ford government will appoint the panel's members sometime this year — and the municipalities will foot the bill, according to the legislation.

It's still unclear who the facilitators will be.

— With files from Jack Hauen