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Thursday, March 29, 2007

Keeping a clean lake - Orillia

Orillia is wise to think twice before hitching its wagon to a conservation authority, says an area mayor disturbed by rising membership fees.
“I don’t think any of us anticipated it would be that much of a demand on our budget,” says Oro-Medonte head Harry Hughes.
With the spring thaw now revealing the widely-used waters of Lake Simcoe, fingers are again wagging in Orillia’s direction.
From the region’s MPP to one of its own members, council is being urged to rethink its longstanding position, and join the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority.
Coun. Don Evans finds it “ridiculous” that Orillia remains the sole holdout of all the communities bordering the lake.
While “not pretending” to be an expert on the issue, Evans is pressing the current council to consider becoming a member. “I do understand it is not cheap, but preserving the lake is extremely important,” he said.
“Preserving Lake Simcoe means preserving Lake Couchiching as well. In this day and age, we have to be more sensitive to the environment, which almost always means there will be a financial consequence to our taking responsibility.”
Simcoe North MPP Garfield Dunlop agrees.
“It is the right thing to do. You shouldn’t let your neighbour pay the shot.”
Unlike the other communities bordering the lake, Orillia has repeatedly rejected the call to join.
Councillors fear the excessive fees, loss of autonomy, and the added bureaucracy they say membership brings.
Once a municipality enters the fold, it is locked in for the life of the authority, warns City Manager Ian Brown.
“With a membership, you can say I am going to stop being a member and get out,” he said. “You can’t under the legislation.”
The idea of “membership” is itself a misnomer, Brown adds.
“You don’t just join it: council passes a resolution inviting the authority to extend its jurisdiction into the municipality.
“The only way you can get them out is by effectively dissolving the conservation authority ... it is a very, very inflexible mechanism.”
Mayor Ron Stevens estimated Orillia’s annual share could reach $200,000 – a figure the authority disputes – or enough to fund two additional police officers.
“It is all well and good to say we should be members, but with that comes a very strong price tag,” he added.
Past councils have argued the money is better spent on local infrastructure projects that impact positively on the lake, namely upgrades to the city’s waste-treatment plant.
For rural municipalities with a small or non-existent engineering staff, joining made sense, as the annual levy was relatively reasonable when compared with the cost of hiring consultants for water-related work, Brown said.
Orillia, however, “has a relatively large engineering in-house capability,” he added.
Hughes believes the city is wise in taking a “wait-and-see” approach.
“Quite frankly, Orillia is being accused of abdicating their responsibility to their neighbours,” he said.
“I don’t see it that way. They are not sitting back and doing nothing. They are spending money that is impacting on the lake in a positive way.”
The city utilizes the conservation authority on a fee-for-service basis, paying for its expertise when needed.
Inviting the agency to expand its reach into Orillia would add another level of bureaucracy for developers building near the waterfront, Brown said.
“Whether it is a big subdivision, or you are adding a garage to your property and you are ‘x’ metres from (the lake), you need an approval,” he said.
“While we are strict enforcers of building code rules and permits, we are efficient and we do turn around applications in a timely fashion. We don’t want to jeopardize that with another level of bureaucracy.”
Said Hughes: “We have seen delays of three months.”
Barrie, a member since 2003, contributes more than $430,000 through the annual levy – money well spent, according to that city’s director of engineering.
“Do you look at environmental costs, or just funding costs?” said Richard Forward. “It is a long-term view.”
In the same breath, Forward is hoping that federal dollars recently earmarked for Lake Simcoe will lessen the financial burden on member municipalities.
“In order to plan for the long-term health and protection of the lake, it requires environmental leadership,” said Forward.
“That is provided by the collective input of the conservation authority.”

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