Francis sees big savings in, but no hope for, city-county sharing

Monday, December 30, 2013

The Windsor Star/Doug Schmidt

Mayor Eddie Francis sees big potential taxpayer savings — but little political hope — in pursuing shared municipal services between the city and the county.

But give it a few more years. Windsor’s mayor predicts that, whether it’s regional transit, policing or utilities, “economic realities will drive those discussions.”

Over most of the past decade, the city has held the line on annual spending, while its county neighbors have seen theirs rise steadily each year.

“The argument for regional government now is less about taxes and more about, ‘How do we reduce operational costs?’” Francis told The Star Monday in a year-end interview.

“The big, fat, bloated city of the past that sucked up tax dollars — if anything, over the past 10 years, Windsor has proved it’s anything but,” he said.

Perhaps it was the city’s big-spending, high-taxing reputation of the past that played a part in keeping the two sides apart. But with the rising cost of governing in the county, at a time when Windsor’s politicians consistently refuse to increase the city’s annual spending, Francis predicts both sides will eventually get back to the table to discuss shared services.

The mayor said Windsor has been achieving savings through consolidation and other efficiencies — with everything from arenas and swimming pools to the library system and the fire service — to show how operational improvements can be gained through transformation of the bureaucratic structures governing those municipal services.

Francis said tackling transit is next on city council’s agenda, but it’s a service begging to expand beyond Windsor’s urban borders to service everyone from seniors wanting access to city amenities to students needing to get to classes and workers who must commute.

“What modern community doesn’t have transit? Can you imagine the opportunities?” he said.

“You can get on a city bus in downtown Windsor and end up in a different country … but you can’t get on a bus and go to Colasanti’s,” Francis said.

Lakeshore mayor and county warden Tom Bain doesn’t need convincing, saying he gets accosted regularly at the grocery store and elsewhere by those demanding a bus link to the city.

“Especially our seniors and our youth, who don’t want to be driving in the dark or who don’t have their own vehicles,” said Bain. And he said there’s also been “some pressure” from employers seeking greater mobility for employees.

But a majority of his county colleagues still need convincing. The regional transit issue has been gathering dust for more than three years after county council shelved a consultant’s plan.

Bain, who said he’ll likely run again in the fall elections, said it’s an important enough issue for his town that it will be addressed in Lakeshore’s upcoming 2014 budget deliberations.

Francis said he sees a number of other areas where co-operation between the city and county could potentially reap big savings for area taxpayers, while also improving service, including policing, with municipalities which have Ontario Provincial Police contracts bracing for potentially steep labour cost hikes in the new year.

The province previously promised the OPP it would remain the top-paid police service in Ontario, and Bain admits being nervous over a potential 8.55-per-cent cost increase in 2014 to his town’s costliest single budget item. Francis predicts it won’t be long before the county starts looking for more affordable OPP alternatives.

But given that county council’s members couldn’t even agree among themselves to sharing an OPP service most of them already contract individually, Bain said talks with the city on that front are unlikely anytime soon. Despite a general unhappiness in the county with escalating police costs, “I doubt we’re going to look outside (to Windsor) … first we’ll have to look at a union of county forces,” he said.

Addressing aging utilities infrastructure and rising provincial charges is another area Francis said could benefit from service sharing among the area’s three utility providers.

While he sees “tons of benefits” in pursuing greater political and economic sharing and consolidation between the city and county, however, Francis said he won’t be actively pursuing such regionalization in the near future.

“It’s not going to happen because the political will in the county has not been there, it’s not there, and it won’t be there,” he said. “This sense of loss of identity, that’s part of it,” he added.

“But for some of these things, in a couple of years — with the costs and savings — it’s going to be so blatantly obvious they can’t be ignored,” said Francis.

As for the province moving in like it did under Premier Mike Harris in the 1990s with political amalgamations, Francis said he thinks the political landscape has changed too much to tackle such a “hot potato,” particularly with the parties’ fears of losing rural seats.