By Don Pearson, General Manager, Conservation Ontario
The Owen Sound Sun Times featured an editorial on Wednesday, January 18, 2012 suggesting that Conservation Authorities “have to do more to keep their costs under control.” The article acknowledged the important work that Conservation Authorities do in protecting wetlands, forests, parks, and other natural amenities. It also observed that a 6% increase in the municipal levy to fund this work, was not going over too well – especially considering that inflationary costs are tracking closer to 2%.
Clearly, municipal politicians have a tough job to do in balancing the need for their municipalities to provide services against the willingness and ability of their residents to pay for those services. One fact the editorial overlooks, is that in 2011, resulting from a joint provincial municipal fiscal review, the Ontario government committed to upload $2.5 billion in social services costs, creating a corresponding amount of tax room at the local level. This agreement enables programs like social assistance to be funded by provincial revenues (income and sales taxes) while place-based services like roads, fire, police, and yes, Conservation Authorities, are funded from the property tax base. This ‘shift’ means a larger proportion of funding for specific programs is intended to come from the property tax base, with a corresponding reduction in provincial funding.
So, why are Conservation Authorities seeking levy increases that are greater than inflation? Don’t they get it that money is tight? Yes, Conservation Authorities understand the bottom line and because of this they leverage municipal investment on a 3 to 1 basis. For every dollar municipalities invest in a Conservation Authority, they get $3.00 in services in return. Conservation Authorities do this by running efficient operations and by partnering with other authorities, outside agencies, landowners and all levels of government to deliver programs and services.
Municipalities get a lot for their money. Ontario’s 36 Conservation Authorities collectively spend more than $300 million each year to provide a wide range is essential services:
· flood and erosion protection, saving property owners more than $100 million annually;
· clean and plentiful water supplies;
· more than 3 million trees planted;
· outdoor education for a half million kids; and
· recreation for 6 million campers, swimmers, hikers, and picnickers.
Of this total budget, about 42% or $126 million comes from municipal sources; another 22% or 66 million from provincial and federal governments; and the rest, $108 million from user fees – a pretty good return on the public investment.
Put another way, the municipal contribution to Conservation Authority programs is around $10 per year for every person in Ontario. That translates to around $33 per average household! Too high a price for a healthy environment? Not if you consider how important a healthy environment is to our own health and well-being, and to our economy.