Northeast Town council votes down referendum questions 7-2

LITTLE CURRENT—At last week’s administration and finance committee meeting, the Northeast Town council voted down three motions for proposed referendum questions which would have seen questions concerning changes to the tax rate, council representation and municipal ward system on the electoral ballot this fall.

Ward 4 Councillors Paul Skippen and Bruce Woods proposed the three referendum questions, the first being ‘Should there be only one residential tax rate in NEMI,’ followed by, ‘Should representation on council be by voter population per ward,’ and finally, ‘Should the ward system be changed to one ward only.’

“Before we move forward on debating these motions, we need to keep in mind that we are debating if these questions go on the ballot,” Mayor Al MacNevin said to council. “We have already discussed all of these points as a council, so the discussion should stick to if we put the questions on the ballots or not. We also need to be mindful that if 50 percent of voters agree to one or more of these questions then we would be compelled to act on the response. I am not in favour of this as we would be essentially taking these decisions, which we have already discussed and held a public meeting for, out of council’s hands.”

“My point is, and why I’m bringing this forward, we never heard from the people of the community on what they feel on these issues,” said Councillor Skippen of the motions. “I think this would encourage people to vote too.”

“This is the same as what is happening with the OPP (Ontario Provincial Police)—we are trying to make things equal,” added Councillor Wood, referring to the upcoming changes to the OPP municipal billing model, which is attempting to balance police billing among municipalities more ‘fairly.’

“We have debated these issues at great length,” said Councillor Michael Erskine, pointing out that a public meeting was held on the topic of a one ward system and tax rate last summer and that council had equally discussed council representation and makeup on several occasions. “At the public meeting I didn’t see public support for this at all—in fact, I saw the opposite. The public has had its opportunity to speak on these subjects, decisions have been made and I think it is best to just move on now.”

Councillor Erskine added that if people wanted to run in the next election with platforms based on the three referendum questions they were entitled to do so, but added that he wouldn’t be supporting adding the questions to the ballot.

“Everyone needs to understand the legal ramifications if we add any of these questions to the ballot,” said Councillor Dawn Orr, asking town CAO Dave Williamson to further explain. “We have an agreement with the Bay of Islands (Ward 1).”

Mr. Williamson explained that the municipality had a minister’s (Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MMAH)) order from the amalgamation with the Bay of Islands in 1998 that is very specific and that any change to the ward system or tax rate distribution would require approval from the minister of MMAH.

Since the amalgamation of Howland Township, Little Current and the islands, now referred to as the Northeast Town, the municipality has been divided into a four-ward system—Ward 1, the islands; Ward 2, Little Current; Ward 3, the area around Little Current on Hwy 540 and Hwy 6 including White’s Point; and Ward 4, Sheguiandah, Honora Bay and the rural area of the municipality.

All residents of all wards pay a common levy, but in addition, some wards pay for additional services that their wards receive/use.

The shared services that make up the common levy include general government (council, property assessment and administration), protection to persons and property (policing, Ministry of Natural Resources fire protection, bylaw enforcement, building inspection, animal control and emergency planning), the airport, environmental services (water quality study, landfill and recycling), health services (health unit, land ambulance and cemeteries), social and family services (Haven House, District Services Board and the Centennial Manor), parks and recreation (the parks, recreation, library and museum) and planning and development (planning, tourism, downtown enhancement and economic development).

On top of the common levy, Ward 1 pays for the roadway maintenance of Burnt Island (near Silver Water) and recycling removal. Ward 2 pays for sidewalks, street lighting, crossing guards, curbside recycling, landfill closure, financing and garbage collection, while Wards 3 and 4 pay for civic addressing, street lighting and landfill closure on top of the common levy. Wards 2, 3 and 4 also pay for basic fire services, 911 response, roadway maintenance and the docks/marina.

“I pay taxes in both Wards 1 and 4,” said Councillor Christina Jones. “I think our current system is fair so I can’t support these motions.”

“I agree,” added Councillor Orr. “We debated this last summer with the Taxpayers’ Association and Ward 1. Everyone got a chance to say their peace at the public meeting and we voted against these changes.”

Councillor Bill Koehler said that he was annoyed that the motions had even been brought to council.

“Two councillors (Councillors Skippen and Wood) went to a taxpayers’ meeting and then came back with these motions in March, when there are no representatives from Ward 1 here,” Councillor Koehler said, noting that Ward 1 was composed of mostly seasonal residents. “They are going through the back door (the NEMI Taxpayers Association) so they don’t need to look at the people in the face who this will affect.”

“I agree with everything my fellow councillors have said,” added Councillor Marcel Gauthier. “Everyone has already had a chance for their say on this and I agree—I don’t like how this is being done either.”

Last summer during the public meeting to discuss the Northeast Town ward system and tax rate distribution, the NEMI Taxpayers’ Association took a stand that there should be one ward system with one tax rate for the Northeast Town.

Ward 1 representatives were outraged at the suggestion, stating that the current system was already a compromise, with the majority of the seasonal residents that make up the ward contributing to year round services.

Councillor Paul Skippen defended his motions, explaining that if the questions were on the ballot “there would be no fooling around and it would be fair to everyone.”

“This has nothing to do with the people in the audience (the NEMI Taxpayers’ Association),” continued Councillor Skippen. “We feel this is important to Ward 1 too if they want to pay fair tax.”

“Again, you aren’t understanding the ramifications of this,” said Councillor Orr. “What’s going to happen if we go to a one ward system and tax rate and Ward 1 gets permission to leave the municipality? What is that going to mean for the rest of the municipality? In addition to the possible legal ramifications if Ward 1 left the municipality as a fallout from moving to a one ward, one tax rate system, it would mean a huge tax increase. That just won’t be fair to the people of this municipality.

“Councillor Orr is right,” said Councillor Koehler. “At the time of amalgamation everyone was talking about getting the islands as getting the golden egg—getting the increased tax revenue.”

Councillor Skippen requested a recorded vote for each of the motions. In the recorded vote for the first motion—if the question ‘Should there be only one residential tax rate in NEMI?’ be added to the ballot, Councillors Orr, Gauthier, Jones, Koehler, Erskine, Melissa Peters and Mayor MacNevin defeated the motion, while Councillors Skippen and Wood voted in favour of it.

The discussion shifted to the second motion, for the referendum question ‘Should representation on council be by voter population per ward?’

Councillor Woods justified the motion by citing the example of how the Northeast Town was currently working towards having the representation on the Manitoulin Planning Board changed to reflect municipal population.

“First of all, I don’t believe in questions on the ballot,” said Mayor MacNevin. “I think it’s a way for someone who can’t get their own way to try and run the municipality. As for the comparison to the planning board, we have been having problems with them choosing to venture into our zoning by not only refusing to accept an application from one of our residents, but also then taking us to the OMB (Ontario Municipal Board) when we made a decision on our zoning that they didn’t like. This is the only reason we are fighting them now and we wanted to leave (the planning board), but the MMAH is encouraging us to work with them which is where the suggestion came in for representation based on population instead of every municipality having one representative like it currently is.”

“The minister’s order at the time of amalgamation ensured that the agreement was fair for the islands and not just a tax grab,” continued Mayor MacNevin. “Now someone doesn’t believe council should be making these decisions, but there are historical reasons why we have a ward system and why the taxes are the way they are. I don’t think we should dredge everything up because someone wants a cheaper tax rate now.”

In another recorded vote, the motion for the second proposed referendum question was defeated again, 7-2, with only Councillors Skippen and Wood voting in favour of the motion.

During discussion of the final motion concerning the referendum question, ‘Should the ward system be changed to one ward only,’ councillors continued to express frustration.

“This just won’t work,” said Councillor Gauthier, “for a lot of reasons. One thing is, one ward could just to get together and just pick whoever they want. It’s just too wide.”

In the final recorded vote, the motion was defeated again with only Councillors Woods and Skippen voting in favour of it.

Before the meeting continued, McGregor Bay Association President Gerry Quinn stood up and thanked council for their decision, adding that he had had conversations with MMAH Minister Linda Jeffery.

“Thank you for your decision tonight to stay with the current system,” said Mr. Quinn. “If this comes up again next year I might not come and will take a different route. This is a very complex issue and if it persists—we aren’t sure if we would be able to leave (the municipality)—but we might be able to or be given a much lower rate.”

Irene Callaghan of the NEMI Taxpayers’ Association was given the opportunity to speak too, and chose to address a few of the comments made.

“On behalf of the association I would like to thank Bruce and Paul for their support,” said Ms. Callaghan. “And just to say, the reason we chose now to have these issues brought forward is that we were given this time frame by the CAO (Dave Williamson) if the questions were to appear on the ballot. This isn’t being done maliciously.”

Robin Burridge