Update Feb. 28: Further to the original post, the hiring of a Landscape Architect to beautify the right of way between Highway 38 and south of the South Falls in Bala could be passed at the next Council meeting March 15. Here are the resolutions from the Feb. 5 meeting that will go to a Council approval vote on March 15. The wording has changed in the resolution from the Heritage Minutes, which notes a Landscape Architect should be procured for the beautification project: the resolutions speak to renaturalization of the waterside strip that can’t be seen from the highway. Will the cost of this work — that comes as a heritage recommendation — be absorbed in the heritage budget increase or will it now be covered under some other area of the budget? These are questions that could be asked tomorrow as the Township of Muskoka Lakes Council considers budget adoption.
Township of Muskoka Lakes speeds up budget schedule; MRA wants questions answered before budget approved
Posted Feb. 26, 7.12pm: The Muskoka Ratepayers’ Association (MRA) is seeking answers to its outstanding questions on the budget and is asking council to consider returning the budget approval process back to its original schedule so that remaining concerns can be clarified. Below is their letter, followed by commentary by me, your MNW Editor. I point out that from the outside looking in, this budget does not look that unusual, but if the MRA that watches so closely, and Councillors themselves have doubts, I have to wonder. My outstanding question: is Council really going to approve spending money to hire a consultant to advise on beautifying a small section of land in Bala without a clear understanding of potential return on the investment? Please note that I have just last night learned from the MRA that this next critical budget meeting has been moved up to March 1 from March 15 (in direct conflict with a District meeting).
MUSKOKA RATEPAYERS’ ASSOCIATION: Worried about budget haste
February 25, 2013 Re: Township Budget – 2013
Dear Members of Council,
One of the fundamental reasons why communities have Ratepayer Associations is to ensure that elected representatives provide good governance by analyzing budgets and expenditures of taxpayer monies carefully, appropriately and thoroughly. For that reason, the MRA wants to express our concern – indeed alarm at the haste at which the current budget as presented is moving toward Council approval – now moved up to March 1st at a Special Meeting from the targeted approval date of March 15th – before unanswered questions and inconsistencies have been resolved to the satisfaction of the public.
The following are just some of the examples that require exposure and explanation.
1) The explanation and justification of the proposed significant increase in budget allocations to Heritage matters, including over expenditures last year not approved, is at best bewildering and confusing. A complete airing is essential to ensure that all costs for Heritage initiatives, including legal, consulting, and the preparation of copious information binders and surveying, are taken into account and not allocated to budget areas elsewhere.
2) The whole matter of depletions (reductions) of and contributions to capital reserves requires further illumination. Since this Council assumed office, it appears that regard for the maintenance of traditional reserve levels and contributions has gone wanting. It is beholden on Council to operate prudently to ensure public trust.
3) The decision on the Bala Falls Power Plant is now final. Further staff and Council time allocations and consultant expenditures by the Township for 2013 cannot be countenanced or justified, and we are pleased to see that no expenditures on Bala Falls or related matters are contemplated. Indeed, the public has an absolute right to know the total cost to the taxpayer attributable to the opposition not only for this past year, but for previous years as well. Without answers, it may be necessary to seek assistance through the Freedom of Information Act to ascertain the true costs of this file.
4) Last year was a year of considerable staff turnover. Not only did the Township suffer the loss of much experience through resignations and “retirements”, there was significant cost to their departure. The result has made it necessary to budget extra consulting assistance for this year so that matters such as updating of the Comprehensive Zoning Bylaw will not fall even further behind its scheduled completion while this Council is still in office. Full disclosure of these new costs is essential.
5) Because much comment is anticipated by the MRA on the financial figures for 2012, it is to be hoped that the actual financial results of last year’s expenditures were not relied upon unduly as a guidepost for arriving at this year’s budget numbers.
We maintain that establishing the 2013 budget and setting the tax rate are important concerns for the taxpayer. Undue haste makes waste. Please, do not short change proper process and the beleaguered taxpayer. A deferral to the original date for approval would be prudent and reasonable to allow further clarification and understanding of outstanding issues, and to avoid the costs of another “special” meeting of Council.
Liz Denyar, Vice President, Muskoka Ratepayers’ Association
MNW Editor wonders about spending to beautify small side of Highway 169
Commentary by Norah Fountain posted Feb. 26: Following the Township of Muskoka Lakes meeting schedule can be like following a fast-moving bouncing ball with Township Council changing regular meeting schedules (See Bracebridge Examiner story on another meeting about meetings) and now budget meeting dates are changing from one notice to the next. Last time I looked, the budget would be considered for adoption on Friday, March 15, 2013 — that was the amended meeting notice posted February 12. Now the Muskoka Lakes Ratepayers Association always tries to have a member at the meeting to keep Muskoka taxpayers posted – and that’s how I learned the next budget meeting has been moved up a few weeks. Another Schedule Amendment notice went out last week — in fact it went out after the budget meeting on February 19 so unless you were in attendance at that meeting you might have missed the schedule change.
This is an important change as the budget will now be considered for adoption this coming Friday, March 1 — the same day as a District committee meeting that causes an immediate conflict for at least one Ward A District Councillor – Ruth Nishikawa. If the budget is considered for adoption, it would still need to be ratified at the next Council meeting. That would be the only opportunity left for any member of the public to make any presentation on the budget at the next Council meeting — and technically, the public has already had its one kick at the budget can so it’s unclear if Council would allow a delegation (NOTE: One presenter at that public input meeting was cut off by the Mayor when she uttered the words ‘Bala hydro plant’ but apparently she had run over the 5 minute time allotted). But hey, it’s just our money, right? Perhaps cutting off a presenter who was also a member of the budget committee is not inconsiderate, it’s just process. And having one less Councillor voice at the budget decision table shouldn’t matter — especially as people who have been attending tell me that Council is really only a one-woman show.
Why the sarcasm? I have had many calls about people being concerned about this budget. I’ve answered, ‘but look at the budget: it’s not that much larger than ones in the past and the levy has been brought back to close to 2011 levels, so what’s the problem?’ From an outside perspective, I understand why most people would think, ‘why the fuss?’ But from an insider perspective, Councillors themselves have told me they are perturbed about the amount of time and money being spent on Bala — just one area of our wonderful Township. I’ve been told they’re worried about what ISN’T apparent in the budget. And they want more members of Council to be asking questions. Yet the item they seem concerned about keeps getting passed! What bothers me, personally, is that no one seems to really be clear on why the heritage budget has increased another 30K or so. However, last week the entire Council except one member voted in favour of heritage spending (please, correct me if I’m wrong – I so hope I have been given wrong information).
How much is the Landscape Architect Beautification Project costing?
Here is what worries me: what I read in one report suggests the increase could be used to pay for a Landscape Architect to advise on how to ‘beautify’ the rubble section between the area known as Portage Landing (south of the area just south of the south Bala Falls) and Highway 38 and right beside the highway on the water side. If that work were to go ahead, those who might benefit from the improved view would be people visiting the Bala Falls and looking across the water and those who live directly across from the area to be improved. Yes, that includes Mayor Alice Murphy. I think this should be a cause for a few question about taxpayers dollars being used for an outcome that could potentially improve the mayor’s view and possibly increase her property value.
It prompted me to attend to hear the beautification proposal. So, on February 5, I showed up at the Committee of the Whole (COW) meeting to try and catch the report from the Director of Public Works discussing Heritage Committee recommendations. But oops, the item had moved to a different time on the agenda (this seems to happen a lot – someone should complain as members of the public do attend for certain items and they may find themselves out of luck. Like I was.). I missed that discussion but did catch some of the meeting at the end of the day that related to heritage. Councillor Ruth Nishikawa raised concerns about whether the additional heritage money would actually be used for a heritage survey (I wondered, is that survey in regard to the hiring of a landscape architect as per the Public Works report?). It was a tough question for her to ask as it suggests a lack of faith in the way heritage monies are being used — and moving forward on heritage initiatives is near and dear to Councillor Nishikawa’s heart, (she previously was Chair of that committee, then resigned. The next Chair of Heritage, Councillor Phil Harding, has also questioned the increase in the heritage budget. He’s not the Chair anymore, either). You can read about how questions regarding heritage were handled on Feb. 5 by the Mayor on MNW and in the Bracebridge Examiner. Why no Councillor stops the Chair of a COW meeting from engaging so heatedly in debate and berating councillors who ask questions is bizarre, but that’s not the point of this commentary.
What IS my point? The Council has approved this expenditure (awaiting ratification with rest of budget), but I wonder, ‘do they really know what they’ve approved?’ Quoting now from the report regarding a budget amount for heritage:
THAT Committee of the Whole recommend to Township Council that staff be directed to procure the services of a Landscape Architect to design and perform contract administration services for the beautification of the Right-of-Way of Muskoka Road #169 between Muskoka Road #38 and south of the South Bala Falls;
Furthermore, THAT Committee of the Whole recommend that Township Council seek support, in principle, from the District of Muskoka for this beautification project. (Note: Back in 2002, there was some discussion about putting docks in front of the rubble that is there now but didn’t District nix that idea as there was no access to the highway? My memory fails, but there was something about docks or a boardwalk — but were we really going to try to beautify (or ‘naturalize’ is another word I’ve heard) the rocky space between the highway and the water? Someone please tell me I’m wrong and that Council is not duplicating wasted effort).
Also from the report: Impact to the Township of Muskoka Lakes Capital Budget is outlined in the minutes of the meeting of the Muskoka Lakes Heritage Committee held on
Wednesday, January 30, 2013.
So let’s go to the minutes for that outline. Is it there? No. Here’s what those minutes said re Budget:
2013 Budget, Member Millar – Member Polewski
Whereas the Year to date Actual for 2013 amounts to $32, 129 relating to
CRB hearing expenditures, and
Whereas the Committee wishes to pursue a Part V designation under the
Ontario Heritage Act, and
Whereas certain additional expenditures relating to advertising and other
designations and other heritage related costs,
Therefore be it resolved that Committee request that Council support a total
heritage budget for 2013 of $60,200.
There is NO mention of any monies to pay for a Landscape Architect. Perhaps staff is going to try and procure one for free? Or maybe that idea has been given up and the money is only going to be spent to perform a study to designate Bala as a heritage district. It would seem this is the case.
From Jan. 30 minutes: ” Now therefore be it resolved that the Committee request that the Township commence a study to establish a Heritage District in the centre of Bala under
Part V of the Ontario Heritage Act. ”
What also transpired that day was that the Mayor was going to write a letter to the province saying the Township wishes to have Port Carling, Bala and Windermere recognized as tourism and heritage districts (the only public meeting about the potentially for ‘designating’ a community was held in Windermere and by many accounts, the public there did not welcome designation with welcome arms). It’s hard to follow the twists and turns, but know that recognizing an entire community as a heritage district may be different that designating that community or parts of it. It appears only Bala is up for designation (too bad the Public Meeting about designating in Bala that was originally set for March 2012 has yet to be rescheduled).
“Be it resolved that Council request that Bala, Port Carling and Windermere be
formally recognized by the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sports as a tourist
and cultural heritage designation.” Maybe it is just recognition, but it does take these communities closer to designation – and look, the minutes actually say the word designation. TomAYto, TomAHto, perhaps?
Since Feb. 5, those attending the meetings tell me the extra heritage money is definitely to designate Bala, and only Bala. For now. The Muskoka Ratepayers in their letter says the money is to go to pay for ‘heritage activities’.
I look forward to being corrected by someone at Township about what the money is actually going to be used for — will it be for more surveys? From what I could tell at the last meeting attended, at least one Councillor wants to know, too. While we’re at it, how much did we pay for surveys for the first set of site designations, some of which it appears from the minutes that the Committee wants to re-visit. Here’s a resolution that sounds difficult to survey:
“Be it resolved that Council initiate an Official Plan amendment with respect to
preserving important and significant views and/or vistas in the Township of
If the Councillors have doubts what is being spent and for what reasons in relation to a budget they are about to consider for adoption, doesn’t it make sense that the public might have questions, too? I know I’m confused, and I’ll be speaking with my Ward A Councillors this week about it.
Related Article: Heritage spending sees 240% increase