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Mayor asks for clarity on county funding ask of Barrie and Orillia

Wage freeze for staff rejected; 'This is the disconnect between us here in government and the actual working world out there,' lamented Ramara mayor
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County councillors talked numbers on Tuesday morning, and in the end voted to recommend approving the 2021 draft budget, with a few amendments.

Last week, the $572-million draft budget was presented with a zero per cent tax rate increase. However Barrie Mayor Jeff Lehman posed some questions to county staff this week about whether the separated cities of Barrie and Orillia are being overcharged for their use of some County of Simcoe services, as Barrie’s portion is increasing by 7.7 per cent, and Orillia’s by about 17.9 per cent.

“I recognize the need is great, especially in human services,” said Lehman. “This might be because of the funding formula where we fund human services and that happens to be the area of the budget where we all know substantial investment is needed... but I will need to go back to my taxpayers and explain that discrepancy.”

Barrie and Orillia residents do not pay taxes at the county level, as they are separated cities. Instead, the municipalities allocate a specific amount in their own budget to pay for the use of some county services.

For the separated City of Barrie, its contribution to use some county services will be coming with a price tag of $26.8 million for 2021, an increase of 7.7 per cent over 2020 budget numbers.

For the separated City of Orillia, its contribution to use county services will come with a price tag of $7.7 million for 2021, an increase of 17.9 per cent over 2020.

“The ask of Barrie and Orillia to fund the increasing staffing costs of long-term care, which appears to be to replace provincial funding which was forecast to end... as the budget stands, has it been built with the municipalities stepping in to replace provincial funding?” asked Lehman.

General manager of corporate performance Trevor Wilcox responded to Lehman’s concerns.

“We received funding from the province, Safe Restart funding, which we’ve applied to the county portion of those costs. The cities also received this funding,” said Wilcox, stating that the City of Barrie received $6.6 million and Orillia received $1.7 million through the same program.

“It would be appropriate (for the cities) to award some of that funding toward these types of services, as the county has had to do.”

Lehman acknowledged the city would be working with their own funding to help cover some of the increase from the county.

“When the province makes a decision and vacates the space... we are faced with a choice of, do we continue or are we forced to reduce the service? I don’t think in any circumstance we would consider the latter during the pandemic,” he said.

Councillors also got into a heated discussion about an amendment put forward by Bradford West Gwillimbury Deputy Mayor James Leduc to freeze both union and non-union wages across the corporation in 2021 to provide even more relief to the taxpayer.

“I didn’t do this lightly. I think we, as leaders of this county, (need to) look to find ways to create savings for our residents,” said Leduc.

Leduc pointed to county estimations that implementing a wage freeze across the board would result in $1.6 million in savings.

“That can amount to quite a few dollars on a tax bill. This is something where we can stand up and be leaders. Since March, there have been a lot of people being sent home without jobs,” he said. “Our taxpayers need a break. This is a tough year.”

Midland Mayor Stewart Strathearn said Midland town council had a similar conversation about freezing the wages of staff.

“We rejected it... because it’s hard, and getting harder, to get highly qualified individuals to the local (municipalities) when talking about withholding wages, when you’re really competing with all the other municipalities in the province and the private sector,” he said. “I think we’re doing ourselves and our residents a huge disservice.”

Tiny Township Deputy Mayor Steffen Walma pointed to the major increases in workload municipal staffs have had to take on during COVID.

“They’ve been working longer hours, adjusting what they do, they’ve done everything in their power to make sure the systems keep running. There’s no bonuses or the ability to give them extra time off,” he said. “I do not support (freezing wages) and I will be voting against it.”

Ramara Mayor Basil Clarke seconded Leduc’s amendment.

“This is about taxpayer-funded employees getting an increase in pay while the people paying their salaries are facing huge uncertainties,” said Clarke. “This is not business as usual, and I can’t stress that enough.”

“Many people right now are living on wage subsidies. When those subsidies run out, businesses will go under. This is the disconnect between us here in government and the actual working world out there not knowing what’s around the corner,” said Clarke.

Collingwood Mayor Brian Saunderson expressed concern about the optics of breaching union contracts during a time of economic uncertainty.

“I don’t see the value in this. We’re working extremely hard in this chamber to make sure we are responsible for our residents by coming in with a zero per cent rate increase,” he said.

Jane Parr, director of human resources for the county, provided context on what a wage freeze for county staff and council would mean.

“We have 11 different collective agreements, and they are in various places right now. To move to zero... would be significant and would have significant impact to our relationships with the unions,” said Parr. “They could go to a strike.”

While the amendment to freeze all wages was defeated, an amendment put forward by Adjala-Tosorontio Deputy Mayor Bob Meadows to freeze the wages of county councillors in 2021 was carried.

Tiny Township Deputy Mayor Steffen Walma pointed out that as most county councillors only make $22,000 per year, the savings from freezing wages would only amount to about $440.

“I will support this motion from a leadership perspective but I want to make it very clear that this is not, in any way, a money-saving (endeavour),” said Walma.

An amendment to add an economic development grant program where each member municipality would be eligible to receive a $50,000 grant from the county’s general contingency reserve to be used for COVID impacts was passed.

The County of Simcoe 2021 draft budget is up for ratification on Nov. 24.


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Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen is an experienced journalist working for Village Media since 2018, primarily covering Collingwood and education.
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