York Region Taxpayers Coalition formally asks Law Society of Upper Canada to provide governance of Ontario’s municipal integrity commissioner profession

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The York Region Taxpayers Coalition is advocating for the Region of York to adopt a Council Code of Conduct, a Lobbyist Registry and hire an Integrity Commissioner.

Approximately 70 of the 440 Ontario municipalities have a Council Code of Conduct and the list is growing.  There are now 38 integrity commissioners employed in this field.  The Municipal Act doesn’t specify any qualifications for an Integrity Commissioner but most of these 38 working in the field are lawyers.

In the past 24-months, Ontario has seen plenty of controversy involving decisions made by integrity commissioners. Some of their decisions have ended up in our courts or are currently being challenged in our courts. Examples include former Toronto city Mayor Rob Ford when asked to reimburse certain charity donors despite the fact that the Municipal Act only allows for two penalties – censure or suspension of pay; and the  Deputy Mayor of the City of Vaughan, who is presently suing the City and its Integrity Commissioner for an investigation she conducted in which his lawyer claims ignored his client’s rights under the law.

We see multiple examples of Municipal Integrity Commissioners acting beyond their scope of duties. These scopes of duties are mandated by the Council they are appointed by.

The York Region Taxpayers Coalition believes that the actions of certain individuals within the Integrity Commissioner field are giving the profession a bad name and requires professional oversight.  The public needs an organization to set professional standards and governance to enforce the “Integrity” of those who call themselves Integrity Commissioners.

Recognizing the growing controversies, the 38 Integrity Commissioners have very recently formed a group called AMICO (Association of Municipal Integrity Commissioners of Ontario). This group has petitioned the provincial government to self-govern.

The York Region Taxpayers Coalition believes that a small group of people to self-govern is a recipe for disaster. The public needs an organization like the Law Society of Upper Canada to step in and fill this governance/professional standards vacuum.

The York Region Taxpayers Coalition has petitioned the Law Society of Upper Canada to assume this role for the Municipal Integrity Commissioner profession.

 

Our Q & A with York Region’s new Ombudsman

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Last year, our organization advocated strongly for York Region to adopt an Ombudsman for taxpayers. We were thrilled when they attended our event with the former Ombudsman of Toronto last summer, who also encouraged York Region to do the same.

In December of 2015, the York Region Government announced the official appointment of their new Ombudsman, April Schulze. We asked Ms. Schulze some questions about what her job entails and how she will go about representing complaints from the public.

Here’s our interview:

Q: York Region Council members and the Council Chair have been on record saying that accountability officers are not required in York Region. This Council does not have a lobbyist registry, a code of conduct, an auditor general, nor an integrity commissioner. As the very first accountability officer in York Region’s history, how do you see yourselves winning over a municipality that has been historically skeptical of the benefits of accountability officers?

A: Our objective is to provide fair and unbiased service to complainants and to the Region, and our hope is that anyone who is skeptical (either complainants or Councillors) will see that we act with integrity and do our best to produce fair outcomes. Not everyone will be happy with every recommendation we make, of course, but we hope that they’ll perceive that the process was fair, that everyone was heard and that we have acted in an unbiased manner.

Q: Do you have a process in mind for how a member of the public may contact
you and file a complaint? Do you have any service standards established to make sure a complaint is handled in a judicious yet expeditious manner?

A: There will be a variety of ways for the public to contact us and file a complaint and we will make sure that the public knows how to contact us. For example, they can call our toll-free number (1-844-235-4442). We will have specific procedures and timelines that investigators will need to follow.

Q: Will you be releasing reports (like the Ontario Ombudsman and the City of Toronto Ombudsman offices do) that recommend improvements in processes and procedures to York Region Council? If so, will you be making these reports public in the same way as your counterparts elsewhere?

A: We will be conducting investigations and making recommendations in accordance with our Terms of Reference, which will govern the scope of our mandate and define what we are able to do. The Terms of Reference will be finalized shortly in consultation with the Region.

Q: The Ontario Ombudsman has been outspoken about York Region Council’s procedures on in camera meetings and in particular about the cost for a member of the public to request a closed door meeting investigation. Do you see yourself providing Council advice on that topic any time soon as it was a topic in the news in 2015?

A: As with number 3 above, we will be conducting investigations and making recommendations in accordance with our Terms of Reference, which will govern the scope of our mandate and define what we are able to do. The Terms of Reference will be finalized shortly in consultation with the Region.

TTC/politicians mismanagement means York Taxpayers will pay $260M more this year

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Upon receiving news that costs were spiraling out of control on the Toronto York Spadina extension , TTC CEO Andy Byford made several staffing changes.

That was in March 2015. At the time, York Region taxpayers’ allocation of the extra costs was just under $100,000,000. Attending the York Council debate, the York Region Taxpayers Coalition (YRTC) was disappointed to learn that York Region Municipal government didn’t have proper controls in place to ensure taxpayer money wasn’t being wasted.

At the time, Toronto Mayor John Tory believed dollars were indeed wasted. He released a written statement to the public:

“During the election campaign and since taking office, I’ve been clear about the need for much stronger culture of accountability at City Hall specifically in the management of major public infrastructure projects. From time to time that will and should mean personnel changes, as it would with any other organization.”

It’s too bad nobody acted on his strong message. The TTC, the City of Toronto, and York Region Council did a lot of talking about fiscal accountability, but not a lot of action.

Yesterday, the TTC released a subsequent report that costs on this project continue to rise well above forecasted amounts. According to this new report, another $400,000,000 is needed urgently and $160,000,000 of that will come from taxpayers living in York Region.

The TTC report points fingers in many different directions to cast blame to anyone but its own failings. It is clear that when the TTC mismanaged this major infrastructure project, it became inevitable that money was going to be misspent. The blame for this catastrophe lies exclusively with the TTC and the politicians who are failing taxpayers by continuing to write cheques without any accountability.

The YRTC is urging members and York Region residents to consider John Tory’s advice. When our politicians repeatedly bungle major infrastructure spending that should mean changes in personnel starting with their own jobs. As voters, we don’t have the authority to fire the bureaucrats, but we can definitely fire the politicians.

York Region’s Mayors and Regional Councillors apparently had no idea about this problem in March 2015 when it became evident 40% of this project was being funded by York Region taxpayers – and we paid $100,000,000 at that time. They did nothing to implement accountability for how York taxpayer funds were being misspent. Today it’s costing us an additional $160,000,000. This is happening during a period of time when York Region public debt is at historic highs.

It’s time that York Region Mayors and Regional Councillors face the music on their incompetence. Changes at the highest levels are needed.

Give, Before they Take

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WARNING: THE FOLLOWING ARE ACTUAL NEWSPAPER HEADLINES PUBLISHED IN NOVEMBER 2015:

“Hydro fee hike may shock York Region seniors, young families”

“Land transfer tax: what you should know”

“York Region proposes 2.85% tax hike in 2016 budget”

“King Township user fee hikes on the horizon: report”

“East Gwillimbury in black today, but it won’t last: mayor”

“Proposed tax, water rate increases unchanged after budget talks”

“Water rates on the rise in King Township”

“Water rates to rise for Markham users”

“Newmarket taxes, water bills likely on the rise”

“Vaughan budget: draft document proposes three per cent tax hike”

“York Regional Police 3.7% budget hike request turned down by board”


Dear Friends,

Everywhere I look these days, I see stories about how our government wants more and more of your hard earned savings.

On November 27, 2015, Aurora Mayor, Geoff Dawe declared, “we need to find alternate sources of revenue versus the current user fees, taxes and development charges.”

Your local York Region politicians are dreaming up all sorts of schemes about how they can get their hands on your money.

But who is holding the politicians accountable for the more than $2,000,000,000 of public funds the York Region Council is spending in 2016?

And what is being done about the record amount of public debt that York Region is borrowing over the next 24 months?

Since its inception in January 2015, the York Region Taxpayers Coalition has been working hard with residents and other Ratepayers Groups to force our politicians to answer these tough questions and more.

We have been fighting to make our York Region Council adopt the same accountability and transparency measures that the City of Toronto has. These include appointing an Auditor General, a Lobbyist Registry, an Integrity Commissioner, and a Ombudsman.

In July of this year, we invited every single member of York Region Council and their lower tier municipal council colleagues to meet with us and former City of Toronto Ombudsman Fiona Crean to discuss accountability and transparency.

Not one politician accepted our invitation.

They have no problem raising your taxes, user fees, and development charges, as these November 2015 headlines show. But what happens when you ask them to be more accountable and transparent?

The politicians answer, “No bloody way.”

On December 1, 2015 many community based organizations are asking you to donate.

York Region Taxpayers Coalition is asking you to give today, too.

Give, before the politicians take.

Our organization has big plans to continue our advocacy for better York Region government. We can’t accomplish these plans without your support.

Here are a few ways you can help today:

1) Visit our website and donate on-line: www.yorktaxpayer.ca/get-involved/donate/
2) Mail a cheque payable to York Region Taxpayers Coalition to: York Region Taxpayers Coalition, P.O. Box 27502 Yorkdale Mall R.P.O. Toronto, ON M6A 3B8
4) Join our President’s Council by visiting www.yorktaxpayer.ca/get-involved/presidents-council/
5) Join as a premium member of the York Region Taxpayers Coalition. Visit our website www.yorktaxpayer.ca/get-involved/join/

There are also opportunities to support the York Region Taxpayers Coalition in a non-monetary way.

1) We are in need of volunteers in the following positions:

• Help organize events
• Attending council meetings or committee meetings and reporting back results of key votes
• Writing letters to the editor or promote the Coalition’s message via social media
• Writing articles for our website or newsletter

2) Or sign up as a supporter of the York Region Taxpayers coalition. Visit our website www.yorktaxpayer.ca/get-involved/join/

Please be generous in your support. The prosperity and well being of our communities within York Region depends on it.
Sincerely,

Maddie Di Muccio
President
York Region Taxpayers Coalition

As York Region sees continued tax increases, the need for an Auditor General has never been greater

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As we reported in the past, last year York Region Council changed the method concerning the budget process. Budgets are now being reviewed on a 4-year cycle; and this cycle will see York property taxes increase by approximately 8%.

It was with very little fanfare that the 2016 York Region property tax rate was announced. It will be rising by 2.85% – or an average of $50 to $76, depending on which of nine York municipalities you reside in.

The average York Region homeowner with a house assessed at $547,000 will pay approximately $2,290 in property taxes to the Regional government for services including policing, water treatment, public health, public transit and so on.

The Operating Budget for the Region exceeds last year’s by approximately $100,000,000, while the Capital Budget decreased by approximately $41,000,000.

Members are reminded that York Region is approaching historically high debt levels and that trend is expected to continue through to 2017.

While the Capital Budget decreased this year, the Regional Government expects to spend $6,100,000,000 in new infrastructure over the next decade. $2,700,000,000 of this is earmarked for public transit related projects. such as expanding VIVA Next rapid bus service and funding TTC subway expansion into York Region. Another $2,225,000,000 is slated for upgrades to water and waste water infrastructure.

The York Regional Police force received a boost in funding again this year despite crime rates dropping to their lowest levels in more than 50 years. The Region sees traffic fines as a potential source of increased revenues, and enforcement of over speeding and traffic signal infractions leads the way to augmenting the Regional coffers.

The Region is investing in more paramedic services. It will be hiring and building more paramedic stations across York Region.

The question York Region Taxpayers Coalition gets time and again from members is, “Are my property taxes fair?”

Our members understand the need for taxes and see value in the services the public receives. However, nobody appreciates waste or overspending. Many are concerned about the levels of public debt that the Region is taking on too.

Recently, York Region’s Treasurer acknowledged that rising debt but assured residents that York Region is considered “middle of the pack” in terms of its ability to pay off this debt.

Despite appearances to the contrary, we are told that VIVA Next spending on current bus lanes projects are on time and on budget. The Toronto Star reporter who covers this story expressed surprise at that pronouncement.

We did too.

And we see the Region adding more police officers at a period of time when York Region has never been safer. The York Regional Police are seeing a new training facility in East Gwillimbury, enjoying resources that not even the Toronto Police force have, such as a helicopter and drones.

As we told York Region Council in April, nobody, not even the Council members, can be sure if public money is being spent appropriately.

Our recommendation back then – and it remains the same today – is for York Council to take the same accountability measures that the City of Toronto has undertaken. For the protection of public funds, we are asking York Regional Council to hire an Auditor General following Toronto’s model.

Toronto’s Auditor General is independent of City of Toronto bureaucracy. This office reports directly to Council and is accountable to the public. As the name suggests, this office is accountable for auditing spending and identifying risks for Council.

Currently, Council relies exclusively on the advice of the bureaucrats when it comes to spending, making it highly unlikely that management would ever admit to being responsible for wasteful spending. Yet an independent review of projects, like the VIVA Next bus lanes, could truly determine if targets are being met.

The York Region Taxpayers Coalition would like to see an independent audit of the police resource levels. Are taxpayers seeing value for the money spent on the helicopter program for example?

An Auditor General’s office doesn’t come cheap. There are 24 people employed in the City of Toronto’s Auditor General office, mostly CGAs and CPAs but also fraud examiners, forensic auditors and even a private investigator. Their job is a very serious responsibility.

Yet with a combined budget of approximately $2.7 billion annually, historically high public debt, and plans to spend $6.1 billion on infrastructure over the next decade, the York Region Taxpayers Coalition believes that we can all rest a bit easier at night knowing that there is a team in place making sure that public funds are not being wasted or no fraud exists.

For the amount of money that is going through York Region government, it’s simply irresponsible if Council does not adopt a policy of accountability today.

In the meantime, York Region property taxes are scheduled to increase in 2016 by 2.85%. 2.69% in 2017, and 2.35% in the 2018 election year – without any measure of accountability.

Our submission to York Region Council on electing their Chair

This Thursday, York Region Council will be voting on a motion tabled by Markham regional councillor Joe Li.  Li is asking the council to endorse Newmarket-Aurora MP Chris Ballard’s private members bill calling for the chair of York Region Council to be elected by the public. Currently, only the mayors and regional councillors decide and vote on this appointment.

Arguably, the Chair is the most powerful political position in York Region government.

York Region Taxpayers Coalition supports MP Chris Ballard’s bill but we felt it didn’t go far enough in addressing genuine taxpayer issues. We’ve written our views on this bill in previous posts. See: http://www.yorktaxpayer.ca/issues/toronto-voted-on-it-why-electoral-reform-is-important-in-york-region-too/ and http://www.yorktaxpayer.ca/issues/resistance-to-democratic-reform-in-york-region/

Below is a submission we’ve made for Thursday’s council meeting on behalf of you, our members, on Regional Councillor Li’s motion:

 

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November 17, 2015

Regional Clerk

The Regional Municipality of York

17250 Yonge Street
Newmarket, Ontario
L3Y 6Z1

To the Council of The Regional Municipality of York:

In consultation with our members, the York Region Taxpayers Coalition endorses the motion to elect a Regional Chair provided that the following conditions are included:

  1. That the election be conducted with a ranked balloting voting method (pending permission from the Province of Ontario).
  2. That the motion include recommendations for the Province of Ontario to include the same accountability offices as mandated to the City of Toronto via the Toronto Act. These accountability offices include:
    1. Auditor General
    2. Ombudsman
    3. Integrity Commissioner (Including a Council Code of Conduct and a Lobbyist Registry)

The York Region Taxpayers Coalition has advised MPP Chris Ballard (Newmarket-Aurora) of our position and have asked to provide this feedback to the Ontario Legislature committee reviewing Mr. Ballard’s private member bill.

Should you have any questions or require any clarification please contact the undersigned at info@yorktaxpayer.ca.

Sincerely,

Maddie Di Muccio

President