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Politics, Life and Journalism in Northumberland County, Ontario

Township withholds support of planning agency

All politics is local.

It is a well-used adage by most politicians. It is good advice to anyone who wants to be re-elected. It means you look after your constituents before anybody else. And no matter what the issue, make sure it plays well back home.
Many municipal politicians in Northumberland live and breathe this mantra. It is the main reason the county has not been able to restructure for more than 25 year. It can also be damaging and painfully shortsighted.

A recent case is Hamilton Township’s decision to withhold its levy to the Pine Ridge Municipal Planning Authority. This is the latest attempt by this council to get out of the eight-member agency, which looks after important planning matters. No one should be surprised by any of this, but taxpayers should be concerned.

It is refusing to pay about $18,500 toward the $116,000 total budget. It is not the first time council was critical. Only a year ago, at this very same time, Councillor Gail Latchford was blasting away with many of the same arguments. In June 1999, council reviewed its participation and asked the province to withdraw.

The difference this time is council is taking action at a critical time. Andrew McNeilly, the full-time planner at the authority left in December. A part-time consultant is filling in until the authority decides its next step. There is no better time for Hamilton to make its move than when things are up in the air.

The Pine Ridge Municipal Planning Authority is made up of the townships of Alnwick, Halidmand, Hamilton, Hope, Brighton, Crahame, the village of Colborne and the town of Brighton. It was formed in response to provincial downloading of planning responsibilities. Several municipalities in Northumberland joined with Quinte area municipalities to form the Quinte-East Northumberland Planning Agency in 1996. With restructuring, Trenton, Murray Township and others, left and the agency came apart. In 1997, county council rejected a proposal to take on this responsibility, so the authority was in January 1998, one of the first in Ontario.

Now, only two years later, the authority is coming off the tracks. At first blush, this seems like it is not a big deal. Nobody really cares about planning except developers and anyone with a bad case of NYMBY (Not In My Backyard).

Council’s arguments are pretty basic. It is not getting a good deal and the authority is unable to justify the cost. Reeve Fred Holloway was so mad about the whole thing, he swore.

“I am not going to be very G.D. (goddamn) happy in that committee,” he thundered.

And here is where the old mantra begins. Every resident in Hamilton could go to bed that night believing their politicians were hard at work defending their interest.

In fact, Hamilton Township is one of the biggest users of the authority, placing 22 plans in for review last year. Only the town of Brighton had more work done with 26. Latchford admitted in an interview, the township held back work it and had it’s own planner and outside consultants do the same job. No wonder council is upset when it has to pay twice for the same services.

The cost to each person for these services in 1999 was $2.78. The previous year it was $2.90. Since Hamilton Township has the largest population in the group, it pays more of the budget. Even so, Hamilton paid nearly $26,000 in 1999. Council is going to save nearly $8,000 this year.

Council may be right. That money could certainly go toward its own planners. Whatever the final decision, taxpayers shouldn’t be paying twice.

But why leave? If Hamilton does walk away, it will leave the authority without its largest contributor, placing financial stress on the remaining members. It weakens a centralized service and it reduced the economies of scale, which only a large co-operative like this one can provide. There is also strength in numbers when it comes to dealing with larger issues like development along the Oak Ridges Moraine or any further downloading by the province. The authority can speak with one strong voice rather than a weak one.

This is very similar to what happened when the Diamond Triangle Economic Development Commission went down the tubes in the mid-1990s. Members, including Hamilton, walked away. Everyone claimed they were not getting their money’s worth. Yet, in the past few weeks, we see talk of creating a single, large economic development initiative for Northumberland so we can be competitive when attracting industry and jobs.

Hamilton’s approach is so typical of many municipalities in Northumberland. Rather than stay and make things work, politicians keep to their narrow-minded ways, forgetting about the big picture, the long-term future. But then, all politics is local.

Maybe its time for county council to revisit the issue of planning. One strong, central planning agency would be able to handle everyone’s needs and provide a comprehensive, co-ordinated approach for all 13 municipalities. If they did it right, it would also be cheaper for taxpayers. And, hey, that would play well back home. And what is politics all about in an election year.

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