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In the run up to this years municipal elections, the costs of delivering services and who should pay for their provision, is getting some welcome attention. At the same time, the relationship of Owen Sound and its municipal neighbors is being examined by voters.

Owen Sound, like many other communities, has seen expanded development outside its municipal boundaries. This has occurred for a variety of reasons related to lifestyle, being a property tax refugee; or in the case of business, more operating room.

This has led to significant numbers of people and businesses locating just outside Owen Sound's boundaries; particularly along the eastern and western shores of the Sound, and south of the city. At least three municipal governments have responsibility for this immediately adjacent urban area.

When visitors to the area ask people where they they live, more often then not, they will respond "the Owen Sound area".

Residents and businesses in the areas surrounding Owen Sound rely on the infrastructure and services provided by the city and paid for by Owen Sound taxpayers. The businesses are here because the provided infrastructure and services are critical to their operations. The real estate values in Cobble Beach and Leith are being partially supported by the presence of Owen Sound. Their taxes, however, go elsewhere. In most cases they are not penalized as non-residents when accessing services available in Owen Sound. They are active participants in the commercial and cultural life of Owen Sound and may participate in serving on various city committees.

While the area municipalities have developed various cost sharing arrangements, they rarely result in full sharing of all costs. An example is the regional recreation center where surrounding municipalities have been asked for support, but they have been slow to respond and only after construction is complete. In other words, the risk of financing and construction is being largely born by Owen Sound ratepayers.

The present situation is unfair to the taxpayers of Owen Sound. More importantly, it is also unfair to residents of the broader Owen Sound area where regional infrastructure, economic development, and cultural and tourism opportunities have been missed. Further there is some duplication and overlap of facilities and services because of competition rather then partnership amongst local municipalities. We are missing out relative to other Ontario communities who are more cohesive in seeking funding support from more senior levels of government.

The public gets it and is asking for more cooperation and is encouraging municipal leaders to look hard at new ways of maintaining essential services in a cost effective way.

A fair and effective solution would be for Owen Sound to formally pursue an expansion of its boundaries. This would include formal notice of an interest to start the process to the provincial government and surrounding municipalities. This would be a lengthy and arduous process and will require an understanding that the status quo is unsustainable but that the rewards of an expanded, more sustainable, and vibrant community are worth the effort.

Preparatory to an eventual boundary expansion, Owen Sound will need to change the process of electing its councilors from an at large system to a ward system. This will provide more effective representation for Owen Sound residents while boundary expansion is being advanced and it will pave the way for residents of outlying areas who are brought into expanded boundaries a way of electing their own council representative.

In order to change the way in which Owen Sound municipal elections are held, the next Owen Sound Council will need to secure the approval of the provincial government to organize a petition for Owen Sound residents to voice their opinion regarding a move to a ward system of electing councilors.

In the lead up to the actual referendum there will be an opportunity for all participants in the debate to make their case. The city and province will need to inform the public's decision by providing a balanced analysis of the impact on regional infrastructure, taxes before and after the expansion, and new regional economic development and tourism opportunities. There will be a change to property taxes, however, that can be mitigated by employing a 5-year phase in period where transition costs may be funded by more senior levels of government.

It's obvious that it would be a noisy and time-consuming process, but that's how we become a more vibrant community who has the self-confidence to pursue a larger vision. It will be necessary to start soon, because the status quo will get harder and harder to justify and pay for.

Ted Renner


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