What would $400,000 buy today? A very nice house, for a start, maybe even a waterfront home. You could buy a http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2007/04/02/8403479/index.htm probably the fastest car in the world. You could pay the salary of the President of the United States for one year. Or pay the salary of Hugh Laurie for a single episode of the TV show, House.
If you're feeling charitable, you could match the federal government's aid in September to hurricane-battered Cuba. Or you could match the Inter-American Development Bank's emergency aid to hurricane-lashed Haiti last month.
But let's look at what it could do for the community of Collingwood.
It could refurbish and upgrade Collingwood's aging Contact Centre for one thing, and give it a breath of life. It could rebuild Centennial Pool and give it another 25 years of life. It could rebuild the BMX/skateboard park and make it world class. It could pay for the Canada Day fireworks for the next decade.
It could buy 12 Smart Cars (plus applicable charges and taxes) for town bylaw and staff so we would have a really good Green fleet for municipal use instead of the inefficient, gas-guzzling SUVs we're so eager to buy (council approved buying yet another of these bloat vehicles, Monday). It could buy seven or eight Prius hybrid vehicles for the same use.
It could construct a kilometer or more of sidewalks, or rebuild most of the damaged sidewalks in town.
Four hundred thousand dollars could put the Humane Society over the top in their fundraising drive to build the new animal shelter. It could fund a much-needed subsidized spay-neuter clinic for the next 10-20 years.
Four hundred thousand dollars would be significant seed money for another desperately-needed housing project in the rent-geared-to-income category.
It could build soccer pitches, baseball diamonds, a new lawn bowling green, new trails.
It could furnish the new library and help modernize its collection. It could remake the downtown and fix the heaving brickwork.
Based on our 2008 budget, $400,000 could pay for the entire cost of council, including salaries and expenses, for a year, or pay the entire human resources budget PLUS the information technology budget for 08, or it could pay for the accessibility committee PLUS bylaw enforcement PLUS animal control PLUS property standards PLUS crossing guards for a year. It could pay for our parking PLUS the ACTS bus PLUS traffic control PLUS all the works and engineering studies budgeted for 08. It could pay the contact centre's budget PLUS all of our trails maintenance for the year PLUS the skateboard park PLUS Heritage park budgets. It could pay 80% of the bloated economic development budget or 80% of the cost to run the bus service. Or 60% of the cost to run Centennial Pool for a year. It could pay 48% of our 08 levy to the NVCA.
Or it could go into the pockets of lawyers to fight a losing battle against the boards of education over their right to levy development charges.
Guess which option Collingwood chose?
Yep. Fighting educational development charges has cost us $394,755 to date. In 2006 we spent $70,098; but in 2007 we almost tripled that to $209,564. Already in 2008, this battle has cost $72,380 and there's no end in sight for the bleeding of tax dollars into what is evidently a lost battle. Unless, of course, we simply throw in the towel and admit it's a lost cause.
And to date we've received as compensation for that expense...? Nothing that anyone in town can boast about, anyway.
The fight is about whether boards of education can add a development charge on new growth. That money would ostensibly fund the cash-strapped boards, but since boards of education seem to spend a lot more money embellishing their board headquarters and padding their ranks with highly-paid superintendents more that they spend on schools and teachers, I personally doubt the wisdom of giving them more tax money to waste in their self-enriching efforts.
When we first took on this challenge, there were eleven Simcoe County municipalities willing to share the costs. Now there's just us.
This battle was a favourite of then-councillor-now Mayor Chris Carrier. Councils of the day agreed that Collingwood should ante up and take a place in the righteous legal challenge among our peers. The thought was that an additional development charge would slow and even stymie growth. After all, development charges just get passed along to buyers, making the cost of housing even more expensive and further from the reach of the young families and workers. Not to mention that Collingwood's development charges are going up almost every year to help cover our own municipal expenses.
But over the years, everyone else has walked away from the table. Last week's letter to council from the City of Orillia said Orillia was backing out. That left us alone in the fight.
And that's when I asked for an accounting of costs to date, and an open, public discussion about why we're still in the fight when our supposed allies have all fled the battlefield. The mayor, however, seemed reluctant to have this discussion in public. I believe we should debate it openly because, after all, it's almost $400,000 of TAXPAYERS" money we've spent. Don't taxpayers have the right to know why we've spent $400,000 of their money on a lost cause and why we may continue to do so?
As noted in The Enterprise-Bulletin, the mayor's reaction to my request for a public debate wasn't favourable:
How's that for open, accountable, transparent leadership?
Chadwick said council needs to get an update "if there's any reasonable point in continuing this fight if we're the only municipality left."
He also asked that council be allowed to have that debate in public; Mayor Chris Carrier indicated the discussion had been going on behind closed doors, and any debate about continuing the challenge would likely be in camera.
What does everyone else know about this fight that Collingwood doesn't seem to know? (Other munciipalities, that is - our taxpayers know nothing because they've been kept in the dark about this expense).
Could it be that, mid-way through the fight, the other communities woke up to the fact that the Ontario Municipal Board ruled in favour of the right of the boards. School boards, the OMB ruled, are entitled to make housing more expensive and difficult to afford. Maybe everyone else realized there was no hope of winning this fight and decided not to put more money into a lost battle... money that could be used for a lot of other things we need a lot more than we need rich lawyers.
I seem to recall - and the former mayor backed me up on this - that the previous council capped the expenses in this battle at $50,000. We're EIGHT times that amount. We've spent more in each of the last two years than I recall the former council approved in total. And we could be in debt for a lot more unless we pull the plug right away. How did it get to $400,00? I don't recall council approved that additional $350,000 expense - I'll have to go back over the records and minutes to find out if and when a blank cheque was subsequently approved.
I think we should bite the bullet, admit it's a lost cause and pull out before we waste any more taxpayers' money. But we should also investigate how this escalated from $50,000 to $400,000, too.