While all communities within Simcoe County may be found on a map of the region, they are worlds apart in many significant ways.
The region’s school boards are failing to recognize that disparity, say Orillia’s city councillors, who voted Monday night to give trustees a lesson in geography steeped in economics.
After a lengthy discussion, council unanimously voted to call on the Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB) and the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board to back off on triple-digit increases to economic development charges they believe could stall development in Orillia and other northern parts of the county.
The school boards, following a report commissioned by Watson and Associates, are proposing to increase the economic development charge for new residential units from $1,759 to a little over $5,000 – that’s a 188% increase. Similarly, they propose to hike the fee for non-residential projects from 47 cents per square foot to $1.37 per square foot – an increase of 192%.
The increases are meant to reflect the rapid increase in the value of land in Simcoe County over the last five years – the last time the fees were raised. Money collected through the fees are to be used to buy land on which new schools can be built.
But Orillia politicians, like others in municipalities in the northern end of the region, say forcing Orillia developers to pay the same fees as someone in Innisfil does not make sense on two fronts. Firstly, growth is much lower in Orillia than southern municipalities and, secondly, as a result, there is less pressure to build new schools in this part of the county.
“The study fails to recognize the uniqueness of the real estate market in different areas of the county,” said Orillia Mayor Steve Clarke. “This council and others have put a lot of effort into moving good development forward and believe this has the ability to slow down, stall or even stop development.”
Coun. Pat Hehn agreed.
“While the school boards may not feel it’s been rushed thorough, from our perspective it certainly has been,” said Hehn, who felt there was not “proper opportunity for input.”
She said the new hikes would be detrimental to Orillia.
“If this charge is put in place, the community development we have fought so hard to cultivate may slow down drastically as developers just cannot afford these up-front charges,” she said. “I believe It would be a very great hardship for developers in our area and … could slow down development greatly.”
Coun. Ted Emond, who also spoke at a recent joint meeting of the school boards about the controversial plan, pitched a detailed, lengthy resolution – that received unanimous support – that asks the boards to defer their decision until the fall and to recognize the disparity between the southern and northern regions of the county.
While passionate in his plea, Emond was also armed with data to back up his case. To make his point, he compared Orillia to Bradford West Gwillimbury (BWG) and Innisfil.
Population grew by 25.8% in BWG between 2011-2016 and the number of those aged 0-6 (those about to enter school) jumped by 44% during that same time. In Innisfil, the population grew by 11.7% and the youngest demographic rose by 16%. Conversely, in Orillia, the population grew by just 1.9% while the number of 0 to 6-year-olds fell by 4%.
Emond noted the median total household income in BWG, in 2015, was $95,254; in Orillia it was $55,802. Similarly, it cost about $1.5 million for an acre of land in BWG, about $925,000 in Innisfil and about $500,000/per acre in Orillia.
The Ward 1 councillor also noted assessment growth for BWG is four times greater than Orillia’s from 2012-2016 while household growth during that time is more than seven times greater in BWG compared to Orillia. He also noted Orillia recently hiked its own development charges by 16%.
“These comparisons demonstrate that the level of household income, economic growth and demand for new schools in Orillia are substantially lower in comparison to Bradford West Gwillimbury and Innisfil,” said Emond.
Emond noted he received an email from a local developer who is working on a major project in Orillia. While the developer is committed to completing the project, he is putting other planned projects on hold until this matter is resolved.
Clarke said the school boards appear to be listening. He told his colleagues he had spoken to local SDCSB trustee Jodi Lloyd, who confirmed the board is putting the brakes on the process.
“She indicated the boards heard the comments that were made and at the moment anyway have taken their June 5 meeting, which was going to be a meeting to ratify this policy, and that meeting will now be for public input,” said Clarke. He said the boards will likely defer their decision on the matter until the fall.
That was one of the recommendations Orillia made Monday night. Council’s resolution also asked the boards to “consider an alternative education development charges policy in Orillia (and other North Simcoe jurisdictions) that more appropriately takes into consideration Orillia’s geographical location, growth projections, land values and economic situation.”
Emond said the city wants the board to consider a policy that varies the rates by regions or zones within the county to better reflect the disparity. The city is also asking the boards to offer developers the option of deferring payment of the new charges over the course of the development.
“I recognize it is a challenge to the school boards and a challenge to the county government to not want to pit the wealth and growth of the south against the slower growth and less economic advantaged part of the north,” said Emond. “It is not our intention to create that kind of divide. However, once in a while we do reach a point where it may be necessary to recognize the consequences of unified policies and this is one of those times.”
Also Monday night, city council endorsed resolutions from Pentanguishene and Clearwater that conveyed similar concerns about the proposed education development charges. Orillia’s resolution will now also be forwarded to municipalities throughout the county for support in a bid to add weight to those opposed to the planned fee hikes.
Coun. Ralph Cipolla suggested it might carry more weight “if we all spoke with one voice” and asked the mayor to consider “leading the charge” against the proposed hikes.