“We understand it’s a very rough year, with COVID.”
The speaker was out-going chief administrative officer of the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority, Mike Walters, who is visiting local councils to present the LSRCA’s 2021 budget.
The LSRCA, in keeping with a priority to “respect the taxpayer,” is proposing a 2021 budget increase of 1 per cent, “the smallest increase we’ve had in the last five years,” he told Bradford West Gwillimbury council last week.
The LSRCA has faced challenges in 2020, including the postponement of field work and delay of construction projects, and a reduction in permit fee revenues due to slowed development.
Since March, all conservation authority staff have been working from home, and continue to work remotely.
Even so, Walters noted, the authority has been successful in completing almost all of the projects listed in its 2016-2020 strategic plan, including a climate change mitigation strategy, “not only to mitigate but to adapt to (climate change) as well.”
Floodplain emergency mapping has been completed, leading to projects that will reduce the extent of the floodplain by introducing new infrastructure, and cut flood risk for some residents within the 3,400 square kilometres of the watershed.
A total of 84 projects have been completed, at a cost of $3.5 million, primarily to protect Lake Simcoe.
And a new land acquisition and disposal policy could see some properties transferred, in the coming months, to the municipalities that already maintain and manage the lands.
The LSRCA’s strategic plan is “95 per cent completed,” Walters noted, with only an engagement strategy and a new asset management financial strategy being pushed to 2021.
The big uncertainty in the 2021 budget is not the economy, not COVID, but new provincial legislation, Walters acknowledged.
Bill 108 (the More Homes, More Choice Act) poses challenges to conservation authorities, by limiting their “core responsibilities” – potentially deleting activities that could include restoration and monitoring of watersheds.
Walters noted that the LSRCA is in some way buffered against the changes by the Lake Simcoe Protection Act, which authorizes the authority to continue some otherwise ‘non-core’ responsibilities in to protect the lake.
Bill 108 has received royal assent, but the regulations are still in the works. Walters called 2021 “a transitional year,” as the conservation authority waits to see the full impact of the new legislation.
The LSRCA has increased its operating budget by $80,000 in 2021, with no new hires planned – continuing a three-year trend – even though the authority expects to see added costs for cleaning, sanitation and workplace alterations, as staff return to the office. Revenues also continue to be hit by the cancellation of educational programs, tree-planting, and a reduction in permits.
The authority has managed to hold the line by pulling $170,000 from its reserves, “to maintain our operations without having to come to our municipalities,” Walters said.
With the provincially mandated CVA adjustment, Bradford will see its annual bill, which includes a special levy, operating levy, and special operating levy, go from $480,426 to $485,960 – an increase of just over $5,500.
The big unknown is the change to provincial legislation, which could have huge implications for the funding available to conservation authorities, and require multiple memorandums of understanding to continue any ‘non-core’services that no longer can be funded through the annual levy.
“We are still awaiting the implications of Bill 108,” Walters said – and of new Bill 229, called the “Protect, Support and Recover from COVID-19 Act”.
An omnibus bill, Bill 229 further strips conservation authorities of power, potentially politicizing the approvals process by allowing developers to appeal directly to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, and preventing conservation authorities, even though they are also landowners, from appealing to the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal (LPAT).
Conservation authorities would also be unable to issue stop work orders, even when actions pose a risk to habitat or water quality – and CA members would be expressly required to represent not the watershed, but their own municipalities.
Walters expressed a hope that the province will think twice, and repeal some of the provisions being considered – which, he warned, would likely have the opposite effect of what was hoped, increasing both delays and costs for applicants.
“I don’t think it’s going to achieve what the province intended,” Walters said, noting that while he supports the principles of greater efficiency and transparency, the legislation as it stands will be “counterproductive,” resulting in “unintended consequences, with what is proposed.”
In addition, he said, “There are enforcement issues which are very concerning.” Stripping conservation authorities of any enforcement powers only “helps the violators and polluters,” he warned.
Walters told council, “We’re making our concerns known to the province,” and will be asking for support from its nine member municipalities.
Walters, who has been with the LSRCA for 36 years and served as Chief Administrative Officer for the past 6 years, retires at the end of December. He noted that a new CAO will be taking over the helm during the 2021 year of transition.