Tag Archives: Niagara Region

Development charges remain in the news

Niagara’s development charges are among the lowest in southern Ontario — and the amount the Region collects annually covers less than a third of the cost of new infrastructure for development, said public works commissioner Ken Brothers. The Region already faces a $300-million capital budget shortfall over the next decade.

That should make the issue simple for council, Port Colborne Mayor Vance Badawey said.

“The money has to come from somewhere…. We don’t have a money tree growing behind regional headquarters,” Badawey said.

“The money is either going to come from the taxpayer, or it’s going to come from development charges.”

The consultant’s report suggests gradually increasing the fees for commercial and residential development over five years, from about $9 million annually to almost $17 million.



GO finally goes to St Catharines

A GO train trundles out of St Catharines toward Toronto.

A GO train trundles out of St Catharines toward Toronto.

It would be an uncharacteristic omission for this blog if I did not note that today the first four weekend trains between Toronto and Niagara Falls stopped in St Catharines. Apparently more than 150 people got on the first Union-bound train this morning.

I happened (by design) to be in the neighbourhood this evening when a train roared in from the east. It was ten cars long, which seemed to me like overkill, but maybe it’s more trouble than it’s worth to rearrange the cars. There didn’t appear to be 150 people getting boarding this train, though there were probably as many as usually ride the weekday morning VIA.

There were also a number of train geeks there, and I mean no offence (as a transit nerd myself), but I did not want to pull my camera out and have all the other people there think I care about the serial number on the locomotive or whatever it is train geeks obsess over. Since I was on my bike, I made it out to where the tracks sever Ridley Street before the train pulled out and I took the above photo to prove that I’m not making this up.

I am glad that GO has finally extended service to St Catharines, even if the trains are seasonal and even then only on the weekends, and the buses don’t begin until autumn. It is a solid start (although I do have some concerns about the location of our local GO bus stop).

At this point, I am required by the rules of transit advocacy to point out that now the Region has to get its act together and create an intermunicipal transit system.

Revisiting Development Charges

By a pleasant coincidence, The Urbanophile wrote about impact fees (aka development charges) today. This follows my admission that I don’t know much about the economics of development charges, and a piece in The Standard warning against raising Niagara Region’s charges.

Impact fees are fees charged to developers, typically residential developers, to help fund the capital expansion needs of public services such as sewers, parks, or roads resulting from the new housing units that will be added. This can be thousands of dollars per house in total. Also, developers are often required to construct 100% of utilities and infrastructure in the interior of their development, donate land for schools or fire stations, or even do localized road improvements. The idea is that the construction of the house creates a municipal liability that would otherwise be unfunded without the fee.

There are a couple of problems with impact fees. The first is that they are imposed on a locality by locality basis. Competition is good, but competition can also force all but the most attractive towns to limit their collection in order to entice developers. This creates economic development in the short term, but adds to the unfunded liability balance that will ultimately do in the city. The second problem is that these fees are not nearly high enough.

An externality is a cost or benefit (often a cost) that accrues to someone not party to a transaction, I think even most free marketers would suggest that externalities are a problem. In this case, the unfunded liabilities are negative externalities of development. The developer pockets the vast bulk of all of the profits and benefits flowing from his new subdivision. The residents of the whole town, both today’s and tomorrow’s, and even state and federal taxpayers, inherit the bill to make good on these costs.

He goes on to give an example of the burden a municipality has been saddled with by ‘disposable’ development. If you didn’t skim over that quote I suggest you read his entire post.

I am not entirely opposed to subsidizing development. The market can do a poor job of providing affordable housing, for example, and brownfield sites are notoriously difficult and expensive to clean up. But as with any public investment, we have to expect reasonable returns. It is unwise to subsidize a bare-bones suburban development that is going to decline and decay in a matter of years (not to mention imposing less obvious costs to health and social capital) for the short-term gain of a few jobs and property taxes.

When development charges are too low, the supposed economic benefits of development may be outweighed by the long-term costs.

Development Charges

Walter Sendzik wrote in the Standard today that it would be a bad idea to raise development charges to 50% from 19%, as staff are recommending. While this would bring the Region in line with other municipalities in the GTA, Sendzik argues we should be looking west to competitors in Brantford and London, where development charges are much lower.

I don’t know enough about the economics of development charges to make an informed comment on the proposed changes. Having said that, I am naturally inclined to trust the professionals.

Speaking generally, it seems to me that the prime selling-point of Niagara shouldn’t be rock bottom development prices. We have other assets in our favour, like our proximity to the US and our unique agricultural industries. Beggar-thy-neighbour policies leave a bad taste in my mouth.

Additionally, it might be consistent with the spirit (if not the letter) of the Places to Grow Act to throw a monkey wrench in the high-volume low-markup  development industry that gives us acres of single detached homes and big box retail. And if that’s the case, we might be looking at another north-south battle in Niagara, which means this ought to be interesting.

A hospital in every pot

At the risk of driving away everybody but the six other people in Niagara with internet access (oldest CMA in the province!), some more local bloggery follows. (Does it strike anyone else as pathetically lame to respond to a local letter to the editor in an even less-read medium? If this blogging thing doesn’t work out, I can always scratch these rantings in the paint of toilet stalls.)

Jim Katsikas, Fort Erie resident, writes:

I used to joke that as you grow older you move closer to the hospital which my wife and I did a number of years ago, minutes away from Douglas Memorial Hospital. Ironically, four years ago, my wife had a mild heart attack while we were watching my grandson’s lacrosse game in Brampton, but we were minutes away from the first class Osler Centre Hospital and had excellent fire department and paramedic service, and my wife came through just fine. Now, our brilliant health authorities are working towards closing the Douglas on us, step-by-sneaky-step.

What am I to do now, be reassured by the NHS and its transparently insincere and infantile arguments that they will provide a better solution? Fast ambulances with snowplow escorts! Heaven help us!

Without getting bogged down in the details of the planned hospital shuffling, let’s consider a hypothetical question: What is the smallest community that can support a hospital emergency department?

It takes a certain number of people to make an emergency department worthwhile. I don’t know what the smallest possible emergency department would be, but for the sake of argument let’s say it’s one doctor and one nurse. In a town like Fort Erie, would this doctor-nurse duo have much to do during the day? I doubt there are a lot of births and heart attacks every day in a small community. In addition to the medical personnel, an emergency department consumes other resources – support staff, utilities, physical space – that might be used better.

We could build hospitals with fully equipped emergency rooms at the corner of every concession road, ensuring that no resident of Niagara lives more than a kilometre or two away, but is that a reasonable way to spend our money?

Why are Ontario’s best hospitals in Toronto? Because Toronto is home to millions of potential patients and the best medical personnel. As with most things (think of shopping malls and sports teams), it takes a critical mass of people to support these massive hospitals. The same principle holds for middle-weight hospitals; even they need a moderate number of people to sustain them. Fort Erie just doesn’t have enough people, from both the patients and staff sides, to support a modern hospital.

As it turns out, the people of Fort Erie and Port Colborne, who stand to lose their hospitals and emergency departments are not actually losing much. From the Kitts Review of the NHS Health Improvement Plan:

The Douglas Memorial site and the Port Colborne General site do not function as full service hospitals today.  Residents of Fort Erie and Port Colborne incorrectly believe they have access to full service Emergency Departments, a wide range of surgical services and comprehensive acute care inpatient beds.  The sites do not have the necessary diagnostic equipment or specialist support to offer a full scope of services. The Douglas Memorial site and the Port Colborne General site do not provide inpatient surgical perioperative services.  The current surgical program consists of minor surgical procedures that can be provided in minor procedure rooms and clinics. Patient volumes are low and the buildings require significant renovation to meet modern care delivery standards.

So for all the fuss over these hospitals, they aren’t even full-service.

I think if you’re really concerned about access to emergency medical care, you should live close to the ambulances. No matter how close you live to the hospital, an ambulance takes you there, and it provides medical care on the way.

(photo credit)

Amalgamation aprehension

A letter writer from Port Colborne does not trust us Northies to govern responsibly with our population majority:

To formalize the institution as a single elected body, with a majority based in communities in the north of Niagara, whilst condemning those communities in the south to a perpetual minority and with no say as recognizable and different individual communities can only lead to those already seen to be without proper representation losing even that marginalized representation.

In all honesty, I can’t imagine what pressing issues face Port Colborne which aren’t faced by other stagnating, Southern-tier municipalities. It doesn’t seem to me like a very high-maintenance community to govern, but maybe that opinion is indictment enough in the eyes of people from Port Colborne.

The reality is that any marginally democratic arrangement of this new (and so far, hypothetical) City of Niagara would leave Port Colborne in the minority. There just aren’t enough people living in it – or Fort Erie, or Thorold, or any other smallish city – to throw much weight around at council.

To the writer’s claim that north Niagara would be able to use its dastardly majority to crush Port Colborne, it really depends where you draw the line between “north” and “south.” From my point of view in St Catharines, the escarpment is a natural place to divide Niagara, but if that is the case the north is actually slightly outnumbered, 45 to 55.

What should really worry the people of Port Colborne is if the big three – St Catharines, Niagara Falls, and Welland – are able to stop bickering over hospitals and police headquarters long enough to implement mutally beneficial big-city policies. They really do have a majority, and although cooperation seems far-fetched today, it is the only way Niagara is going to get ahead in the new economy.

The future of this region – the focus of growth, activity, and challenges – will not, for most people, be in Port Colborne or any other small centre. This should be reflected in the structure of a City of Niagara.

One Niagara

An article in The Standard about this Facebook group got me wondering about the makeup of a single-tier City of Niagara.

For the sake of argument, let’s use the same councillor-to-citizen ratio as Hamilton, about 30 thousand people. I fiddled with the exact ratio a bit to come up with a round total, but that’s not really important. Thirteen councillors may seem like a lot of politicians, but it is a considerable improvement on thirty.*

Municipality Councillors
Fort Erie 0.91
Grimsby 0.73
Lincoln 0.66
Niagara Falls 2.51
N-O-T-L 0.44
Pelham 0.49
Port Colborne 0.57
St Catharines 4.02
Thorold 0.56
Wainfleet 0.2
Welland 1.53
West Lincoln 0.4
Total 13.03

I think it would be prudent to do away with the old municipal boundaries in favour of wards (again, like Hamilton). First, Port Colborne cannot be represented by a half councillor. Second, it could help us get past the old parochialism is a councillor represents Ward 7, for example, rather than Thorold.

The reality today is that no municipality in Niagara exists in isolation of any other (except maybe Niagara-on-the-Lake; it’s more of an amusement park than a town). The beggar-thy-neighbour approach to local politics has to stop. When Niagara Falls gains at the expense of St Catharines (as in wranglings over NRP headquarters) the region is poorer for it.

Having said that, I do have misgivings about amalgamation, especially with regards to St Catharines. Being a designated urban growth centre and without green-fields to develop, the city faces challenges unique to the region. With a fairly progressive city council in place and the re-urbanization of St Catharines getting under way, I’m reluctant to give up any influence to people who are predisposed to ignore or be hostile to large cities. We get enough of that from the federal government.

(photo credit)

*2006 population statistics found here.