Bill Hulet Editor

Here's the thing. A lot of important local issues are really complex. And to understand them we need more than "sound bites" and knee-jerk ideology. The Guelph Back-Grounder is a place where people can read the background information that explains why things are the way they are, and, the complex issues that people have to negotiate if they want to make Guelph a better city. No anger, just the facts.


Saturday, September 16, 2017

Guelph's Local Boards----Part One

One aspect of municipal governance that people often don't think about are the local boards that control specific aspects of municipal life, but which are not directly under the control of Council. These came about for a variety of reasons, but I suspect the primary reason is to separate the day-to-day decisions that each of these institutions make from the messy sausage-making that is municipal politics.

Guelph is involved with the following bodies that manage important municipal services while at the same time keeping Council at arm's length :
  • Guelph Public Library Board
  • Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health Board
  • County of Wellington Social Services and Social Housing shared service
  • The Elliott
  • Downtown Guelph Business Association
  • Guelph Police Service Board
Each of these institutions has somewhat unique characteristics and has a special relationship with Council based on the nature of what it does. I'll discuss each in turn and try to explain what that relationship looks like and what the average voter should know about it. I will also refer to the proposed budget of 2017 to give you an idea of where it is at financially.

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Public Library Board

The Guelph Public Library Board is governed by the Public Libraries Act and its relationship to Council comes down to preparing a budget that Council can accept or decline, and, to manage the library as it sees fit. The great value of having an independent board is primarily that it removes Council from having to deal with the sorts of idiotic complaints that routinely come about in school boards about whether specific books should or shouldn't be available for perusal. Council appoints the board, the board hires a Chief Librarian, and, he gets to decide whether or not they are going to put A Catcher in the Rye on the shelves and loan it out to moody teenagers. This is a tremendously useful service as it protects Council from having any particular day-to-day decision of the Library staff being made into a political football.

Katie Saunders, Library Board Chair
c/o Library Board Website
As I pointed out in an earlier blog post, there are historical reasons why cities have public libraries, and, I would argue even more reasons to continue to keep them in the future. Having an independent board also allows the advocates of the public library an opportunity to advocate on behalf of the institution (e.g. lobby for a new Main Branch) without either compromising the "objectivity" of municipal employees, or, being forced to play-off that support against competing interests, like a politician would have to do.

The 2017 proposed budget for the public library is $8.8 million, or 2% of the operating expenditures (or $396,112,600) of the City in 2016. This represents a proposed increase of 3.27% or $279,560 over the year before in operating expenses. In addition, the Library board is asking for $360,000 for capital expenses in 2017. (This isn't for a new library, but other capital improvements---the proposed report talks about computer system upgrades and a new inventory control system.) That comes to 0.4% of the amount that the city paid for total capital improvements ($87,592,200) in 2016.

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Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health Board

This institution is quite different from the Library Board. For one thing, as the name implies, it is not just a creature of Guelph---it also encompasses Dufferin and Wellington County. It is governed by a 16 member board that has a very complex design structure---one that bears some effort to understand.

When human beings develop a structure to govern a complex institution, they have to take into account several completing demands. First, the people who manage the body have to have some sort of minimal expertise. This needn't be specific to the technical issues that the body deals with---it could be just a generalized ability to assimilate complex information, communicate well with other people, and, be able to negotiate workable compromises with them in order to generate a consensus. (To understand this issue, consider the sad example of Donald Trump. His failings as President of the United States do not stem from a lack of experience as chief of state or educational expertise, they come from his inability to do any of these three things.)

Beyond this basic level of competence, other issues come into play. Legitimacy flows from different sources. One is whether or not someone is elected by popular vote. Appointed board members are potentially the creatures of whomever decided to place them in that position. In the case of the Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health board, seven of the sixteen board members are provincial appointees and eight are elected politicians drawn from various municipal and county Councils.

Besides competence and who a board member is beholding to, there is the added element of geographic representation. The Health board has six appointees that represent Guelph (3 appointed by the province, 3 from Council), six from Wellington County (3 appointed, 3 from Councils), and, Dufferin County has three reps (1 appointed, 2 from Councils.)

The sixteenth member of the board is the "Medical Officer of Health" (MOH), who is appointed by the board and sits on it as an "Ex-Officio" ("by right of the office he holds".)

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The Medical Officer of Health is what the Public Health Board is all about, and the Ontario Health Protection and Promotion Act invests her with awesome powers. Here's a six minute "intro" video featuring the current MOH, Dr. Nicola Mercer, that will help explain many of the responsibilities that she has:

Just like the library board, one of the jobs of the public health board is to insulate politicians from the idiotic discourse that dominates important social issues. So, for example, when a board decides to hand out bleach kits and needles to intravenous drug users to prevent the spread of diseases like AIDS, no city Council has to listen to tedious presentations about how this was encouraging heroin abuse because the decision is beyond their control. Similarly, when a health board decides to promote vaccination in public schools, city councils were spared rants about how vaccination against mumps will cause autism. It also means that if Dr. Mercer decides that there is an epidemic disease, like SARS, rampaging in Guelph she can take action without worrying about whether the local Hotel and Restaurant Association is going to put her out of office next election because she damaged their business.

The mixture of provincial appointees and elected officials from various areas gives the Board the ability to at the same time avoid undue influence by any one specific political area, it also "spreads the blame" when it decides to do something unpopular. The province adds to this power by giving it the power to demand money from a local Council if it deems this necessary. The local Council has some influence over the board through it's elected reps, but nowhere near veto power. This means that no particular political entity has the power necessary to starve the board if a ideologically-driven political group were determined to "stop the gravy train" and cut taxes. This is an important consideration as public health units are one of the parts of government that it is easy to cut back on without anyone really noticing their absence---until all Hell breaks loose.

And in the case of the health board this independence from city council led to a battle between Guelph and the board when it decided to build it's own buildings. That's because the board has the right to decide what it's going to build and then tell the various Councils it serves that they are going to pay for it---whether they like it or not. In case of Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph, this meant that the board decided to build two buildings, one in Orangeville and another in Guelph, for a total cost of $22 million. Under the payment formula that existed in 2014, that meant that Guelph would pay $10 million for these two buildings. Under mayor Karen Farbridge, Guelph attempted to "push back" against this ability by the board to spend money and force the supporting municipal governments to pay the bill. But it lost.

Hey Guelph, we're building something new and your part of the cost is $10 million,
----you're OK with that, right?  Photo from Buttcon Website

The 2017 proposed budget for the health board is $4.213 million, which is 1% of the operating expenditures (or $396,112,600) of the City in 2016. This represents a proposed increase of 6.1% or $243,000 over the year before in operating expenses (this includes long term debt charges---which I assume is to pay off the recently built office buildings.) Still, isn't 1% of the operating budget money well spent if it identifies pandemics before the bodies start piling up on the streets?

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"County of Wellington Social Services and Social Housing" (Shared Service)

The next group to consider is the Social Services and Social Housing shared service. This group isn't a board at all. Instead, it is a standing committee of the County government. So it is not a "local board", but rather a "shared service" under the heading of "Recommended Local Boards and Shared Services Budget". Looking it up on the web can be a bit confusing because the County of Wellington doesn't call its committee by the name Guelph listed in the proposed 2017 budget (ie:  the title of this section), but rather the "Social Services Committee". This, plus a little less investment in the county websites than either the province or Guelph, means that it can be pretty hard for the average voter to understand what exactly is what with regard to social services in the city.

Minister of Community
and Social Services, Helena Jaczek
She decides who controls social services.  
Photo c/o Gov Ontario
Not only is it not a stand-alone board, it has no voting representation from Guelph council. Indeed, there is no official place for any representative from Guelph on the committee at all---although Mayor Guthrie often attends as a visitor so he can keep informed. This might seem a strange set of affairs, especially since between 75 and 85% of Wellington County's social service users are in the city of Guelph, and the fraction of the services paid for by local municipalities is based upon the need in the community. In effect, the guys who pay most of the local money aren't allowed to have any say in how it's spent.   Having said that, much of what used to be call "welfare" is strictly controlled by the Ontario Works Act, and it specifically states that the Minister of Community and Social Services gets to decide the geographic boundaries of a specific social services area and who the designated "delivery agent" will be. And in this case, Wellington county Council is who the provincial ministry wants handing out the dole.

The province pays out the lion's share of the money in our social services, which is why the actual cost of social services for the County Wellington Social Services in 2015 (most of which was Guelph) included $27.624 million in provincial grants ($13,280,000 for social services, $5,568,000 for social housing, and, $8,776,000 for child care.) Moreover, the fraction that the province pays is increasing.



As you can see from this table (taken from a provincial government website) the Ontario Works program (what used to be called "welfare") used to cost the County (mostly Guelph) a little over 17 cents on the dollar to give out. But the province has been chipping away at this cost and in 2018 is set to "upload" to the point where it will be paying 100% of the money. Moreover, in the same document you can also see that the same mathematical progression is at work with regard to the administrative costs for the same program. So by 2018 the cost of administering the program will be totally paid for by the province. In effect, Ontario Works will be a completely provincially-funded program that has been contracted-out to the County to administer.

Unfortunately, Ontario Works is not the only social service that the County (mostly Guelph) pays for. The other services do get grants, but the County (mostly Guelph) has to pay for about 50% of the cost for administering those programs. In addition, there are some local initiatives, and the County (mostly Guelph) has to pay for those in full. But having said that, the "uploading" by the province has had a beneficial impact on the bottom line, and if you look at the projected board and shared services budget, you will see that the projected cost to Guelph of shared services is $23.569 million (5% of the 2016 budget.)  This represents a decline of 3.1% or $750,000 over the previous year.

Of course, these figures are just estimates, not a hard budget.  Welfare and other provincially-mandated programs are based on following a set of guidelines that define who is or is not entitled to benefits---not in dividing up a set budget. So if, for some reason, hard times arrive unexpectedly and a lot more people need to get support, these numbers could be blown. Moreover, there is always the possibility that the province might bring in some new mandatory program that would have a cost-sharing element, which would mean that the County (mostly Guelph) would get stuck with an unexpected cost.

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This post is getting out-of-control for length, and I promised myself to start chopping up my huge posts into more bite-sized chunks that I can publish more often. So I'll do a "part two" version of this issue next time. I would like readers to remember, however, that if they want to keep reading real news about local issues that helps you understand exactly why things are the way they are in this city, that you might want to help me in my Quixotic effort to create a new business model for journalism. That means share this post on FaceBook, Twitter, and other social media. It also means, if you can afford it, to subscribe through my Patreon account or make a one-time donation using Pay Pal. (Heck, if you really like how I write, you might even buy one of my books---different subject, same great style.)