A consultant’s final report on a services delivery review for Haliburton County and its four lowertier municipalities is expected this fall – and could eventually lead to a governance review.

County of Haliburton CAO Mike Rutter said StrategyCorp is continuing to work on the evaluation of best practices going forward for the region.

He said the consultant is meeting with CAOs with regards to scheduling interviews with municipal staff, councillors and targeted interest groups.

He said the first step was to gather data, via interviews and looking at financial data and budgets.

“We’re paying almost a quarter of a million dollars for this work and we hired StrategyCorp for its expertise and it is very much them doing the work guided by background information and interviews with people who know the landscape,” Rutter said.

County Warden Liz Danielsen emphasized when it comes to the process, “we haven’t been driving it in any way, shape or form.”

While the initial report deadline was June 12, COVID has forced delay, Danielsen said.

She added, “It’s a big subject. It is service delivery by the County and all four municipalities, and how we can streamline, work better, and offer a better service to everybody. It is so complex that there is still quite a bit of work to do.”

Rutter said ratepayers may not know the volume of work going on behind-the-scenes.

“It’s really about them trying to find out how we do things now, and how much we are spending in all of those areas,” Rutter said. “Then comparing to benchmarks of comparator municipalities. They took all of that and are asking ‘where do we think there is opportunity?’ They have done deeper dives based on their experience. They have an incredible depth of people who understand how services are delivered in other jurisdictions across the province, sort of the best practices.”

Rutter said he expected the final report in October or November. He said they are now working on how that report will be presented. He said it would have been “wonderful” to have a public meeting but that is likely not possible with COVID-19. He said it may have to be done via Zoom.

With the review, Rutter said they had targeted interest groups for input, versus opening up the floor to all ratepayers.

For example, he said when it comes to economic development, Strategy Corp. had talked to the Haliburton Highlands Chamber of Commerce, the Algonquin Gateway Business Association and the Haliburton Business Improvement Association. With planning and development, they spoke to the Haliburton County Home Builders Association and key developers. He said they chose that route as, “it’s important to understand what it’s like to be a customer in Haliburton County.”

However, Rutter said that did not mean the public would not have input.

“Decisions won’t be made in one day. If a service is going to change in any significant way, there would need to be decisions at the local council, County level, and multi-levels of approval to do that. Decisions won’t be made in a back room with a bunch of people smoking cigars. They will be made in council meetings in a transparent way,” he said.

Danielsen said that process won’t be easy.

“We need to reach concurrence among the four municipalities in the County. We need to set our egos aside. We all think that we do very well in certain areas but it may very well be that the services delivery review will determine (otherwise).”

Governance

Rutter emphasized the current project does not talk about governance.

“This is a services delivery review, which is to inform a discussion the elected officials will have about governance once this report is finalized,” he said.

Speaking hypothetically, he said there is time for a governance discussion prior to the October 2022 municipal election.

“If County Council members received the final report in October or November and it said 80 per cent of services could be delivered collaboratively, some might say ‘it really just makes logical sense to go the next step. In late 2020 or early 2021, we could hire someone to look at what that governance model could look like. Lots of things could happen if that was the will of council. It’s not necessarily true we’re running out of runway.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing told The Highlander, any restructuring for the 2022 municipal election would have to be in place by January 2, 2022. He said any restructuring taking place after Nov. 30, 2022 may be applicable for the 2026 election.

He clarified it could not be a referendum issue on a ballot either.

“Only the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing may place a municipal restructuring question on an election ballot. A municipality may request the minister to propose such a question on the ballot. The results of such a vote are not binding,” the spokesperson said.

Danielsen said it might be a bit premature for such a discussion anyway.

She said step one is the services delivery review and, “we hope to see cost savings. That is what the public is looking for. And, we don’t know. It might cost us more if we deliver a better service.”

She said there is no guarantee the current review will form the foundation for a discussion on governance.

“We need to see the results of this study before we go any further. There would have to be a discussion, and another consultant brought in to look specifically at governance. It is not just a matter of us saying ‘let’s go for it’.”

She said the province isn’t necessarily looking for amalgamation, but delivering services in a better, more streamlined way.

“There are many unknowns but we all tried to go into this with our eyes wide open and with no preconceived decision being made. I do know some members of the public have decided what’s best for us to do, with absolutely no notion whatsoever of what’s involved. We’re taking a really deep dive and we hope to come up with the best outcome. Where we’ll land with governance and how that will look, I don’t know.”

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