What do you want taxes to pay for? Everything? Can’t happen. City manager proposing big changes.

November 12, 2013.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON.  It was a report  requesting approval to explore new service delivery models and if it gets the approval the city manager is asking for – it will change drastically the way the city is run.

If we don’t change the way we run the city – what we have today is just not sustainable.

City manager Jeff Fielding: About to put his stamp on the way the city has to be run.

The report comes directly from city manager Jeff Fielding’s desk and is the first look we get of his longer term thinking.  It is a strong report, it takes the city in a direction it has not been before.

 Now Fielding has to debate his ideas with a Council that has never seen anything like this before and there are several members who will have difficulty grasping what Fielding wants to do.

 His mission is to identify and report back on opportunities that will support the sustainability and quality of directly delivered services.

 Fielding believes he can get this done in a month. He already knows what he wants to do and has the team that will get it done during the next two years already lined up.

 City Council has not seen what Fielding is putting before them.  The first step of the long term plan took place All Hallows Eve when the Executive Director of the Economic Development Corporation was given his walking papers.

 The Economic Development Corporation will hold its AGM in April – expect it to dissolved and become a city department.

 Look for the creation of what Fielding calls Enterprise Corporations – free standing organizations that will probably not report to any of the Standing Committees.

Developers have done a great job with condo creation along the Lakeshore Road. The city has not managed to find a way to get the developers to put some of the economic lands into production.

There are five of the things on the “thinking board”.

Economic Development Corporation: This corporation would oversee strategic investment and to potentially hold strategic land assets.BEDC is currently in the process of developing this concept.

Real Estate Asset Management Corporation: This corporation would control civic facility assets to increase asset value and

potentially create a revenue stream (dividend) from increased asset value.The City’s Real Estate Office and Corporate Strategic Initiatives have taken the lead in developing this concept.

Service Based Corporation: This corporation, in partnership with Burlington Electric Services Inc. (BESI) (which is managed under the Burlington Hydro Board), would serve as an in sourced business to operate a select group of services currently managed in-house by each of the parties.

The initial services considered (storm water management, street lighting, tree trimming, right of way access, etc.) and would involve minimal risk to the taxpayers while representing an opportunity to establish and/or enhance existing common or shared services.  What this translates into is: should street lighting be a tax supported service? Could the city and hydro create an organization that handles all tree trimming.  These are significant changes.

Cultural Enterprises Corporation will not be advanced at this point but you can see where the city is going. This corporation would manage culturally – focused revenue generating businesses.This concept aligns with the theme of the Cultural Master Plan.

The final Enterprise Corporation would focus on energy and would establish and manage the City’s revenue generating energy service delivery model.

For each concept, a comprehensive business case , inclusive of a legal and decision-making framework , will be developed in order to-identify and assess the benefits, costs and risks as well as determine the recommended course of action. Each concept will have a revenue generation and/or cost saving focus, and will only engage in more traditional municipal service functions when it is deemed to be advantageous by Council.

Enterprise Corporations, like other operating models, have inherent advantages and disadvantages. For example, an arm’s-length organization has the ability to act quickly and adjust to market pressures, but on its own, may not be as sensitive to social and/or political issues. Conversely, the City’s current model, inclusive of public engagement, has been successful in addressing wider community issues, but can result in slower decision making.

The lesson learned on the building of the pier was the need for a tight working relationship between the builder, the project manager and city hall.  If the public ever gets to see just how terrible the relationship was with the project managers they will demand better staffing in the Engineering department.  When a second contractor was given the job the city had some top notch people doing their jobs.

There is no perfect service delivery mechanism, so it is important to investigate these concepts in order to identify the operating model that offers the “best fit”. What will be vital, when public spending is limited, is a clear understanding of the City’s objectives within a wider social-economic context.

“The evaluation of which service delivery vehicle might best achieve the City’s identified objectives will include an analysis of whether the service is best delivered in-house only, by a combination of in-house resources and a special purpose vehicle (ex. municipal service board) or by an independent development corporation.”

This is heady stuff.  What doesn’t appear evident is this: Where is the public input in all this?  And why, politically, are ideas like this coming forward when we are less than a year out from a municipal election?

Where is the concept of Community Engagement in all this.  We do have an engagement Charter – it’s on a shelf somewhere in city hall.

Burlingtonians will show up for public meetings and take an active part in any discussion – but they have to be given background briefings and decent opportunity to study and prepare.

Fielding doesn’t talk much about public involvement – but he does explain how he will marshal the staff he has and assign them to this task.

 Each concept will be investigated in accordance with the following principles:

1.Alignment with the City’s strategic plan and objectives.

2. Preservation of services that are core to the municipality and its citizens.

3. Transparency with respect to the approach, assumptions and risk considerations.

4. Accountability to Council, citizens and identified interested parties.

5. Positive social or environmental impact, or at minimum, socially or Environmentally neutral.

6. Return on investment will be measured by several metrics, with a primary focus on enhanced service delivery and long-term sustainability.

7. Adaptable and flexible to expeditiously take advantage of emergent opportunities.

8. Risk tolerance will be viewed in the context of its position as a subsidiary of the municipality.

9. Legal authority and framework for establishing the service delivery vehicle and its relationship with the municipal council.

10. Conflict of interest considerations.

In order to provide consistency with decision-making and support,a staff resource will be reassigned.  This reassignment will be

managed by utilizing a vacant FTE.

To provide context, many private sector organizations have small strategic staff groups that focus on identifying and fostering Innovative growth opportunities; some are referred to as mergers and acquisitions while others may go under the banner of sustainable development.  Patterning a small (temporary staff) group on this model would allow the City to coordinate service delivery and corporate services in a new and innovative way.

Fielding wants 18 to 24 months to figure it all out - how many of this Council will be around to read the results?Given the depth and breadth of the analysis required, the investigation stage is estimated to take between 18-24 months; depending on staff availability and resourcing.

All this is going to cost money – however this time Fielding does not have to go to council members with hat in hand.  Burlington Hydro is a wholly owned subsidiary of the city and each year it takes its surplus – call them profits – and pays the city a dividend which gets tucked into one of the reserve accounts and used to lower the tax rate.  Last year the dividend was $750,000 but it didn’t get put into a fund that would reduce taxes – it was set aside as a sort of piggy bank for the project Fielding is taking to Council on Tuesday.

There is more to this than just some fiddling with the way services are delivered.  City hall staff are currently working through a list they call the portfolio – what does the city do for the taxpayers?

Staff and Council members went through six days of Strategic Plan development in 2011. None of the issues set out in Fielding s report came up in the Strat Plan discussions. does the city have the bench strength it needs on both Council and the staff side to pull off what Fielding says we have to do>

It is a bold, new approach to civic administration.  Fielding isn’t taking the city through this exercise because he thinks it’s a nice idea.  He has come to the conclusion that we must look at the cost of what we deliver and find less expensive ways to do what we do.

Thus those Enterprise Corporations. 

One of the ongoing problems Burlington has had is the quality of its relationships with other levels of government and agencies. Fielding maintains Burlington’s approach to service delivery and economic growth will require support from various governmental agencies and officials and local businesses. A dedicated resource in this area has the potential to drive Burlington’s priorities forward by leveraging the relationships with several levels of government and local business. The role of an Inter-Governmental Affairs Officer has the potential to secure support, thereby establishing our platform for growth, and is recommended for consideration. Many thought the Economic Development Executive Director would be doing this job.  That didn’t happen.

Staff is in the early stages of investigating opportunities through the potential formation of a targeted enterprise corporation. The intended purpose of the corporation(s) would be to undertake business opportunities that will generate new sustainable revenues and/or cost savings for the City in order to offset the municipal tax levy.

Notice the consistent use of the words “new sustainable revenues” and “cost savings”?  Fielding realizes that the tax base we have isn’t going to cover the costs.  He will do what he can to cut costs but Fielding doesn’t look like a budget slasher.  Council probably wouldn’t let him cut all that deeply anyway – they do need to get re-elected.

Fielding doesn’t look like a budget slasher.  Council probably wouldn’t let him cut all that deeply anyway – they do need to get re-elected.He has already explained to Council that the Industrial Commercial sector is not bringing in what it should be bringing in, in terms of tax revenue.  Part of the reason for that is the terrible performance of the economic Development Corporation.  Burlington has some serious catching up to do – and we are competing with every other municipality out there for those companies that set up shop and create jobs.

Add to that the difficulty the city has had with several of the developers with very large lands holdings that are zoned “economic” The property owners would much rather put housing on that land.  They’ve not been able to convince the city to let them do that – so they do nothing.  And that is a big “ouch” for all of us.

Buried in all this is a very significant change in customer service.  You saw it mentioned in the remuneration report on Council member salaries.  There is the suggestion that Council members might not really need the six admin assistants that are in place now – the thinking is that better, more focused customer service at the counters and bigger use of the internet and creating a totally different delivery of information with the e-Gov stuff the city is working on will solve all the problems.

That is pie in the sky bureaucratic thinking.  Keeping people who are in touch with constituents and their problems at the right hand of every Council member is much better public service.  Watch for the battle that takes place on this one.

Fielding has produced a fine piece of work.  Council now has to debate the merits and then it has to bring the public onside.  Nothing will happen before the end of the year and come 2014  members of Council move into election mode.

With the decisions the city manager wants Council to make and the direction he feels the city has to go and all the changes that will entail – there is a need for strong public debate.


Return to the Front page
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

12 comments to What do you want taxes to pay for? Everything? Can’t happen. City manager proposing big changes.

  • margaret lindsay holton

    Bit of a side bar, but perhaps not to some following this ‘evolution’, what is the City’s intent to create ‘open data’ with City Hall? For example, is there somewhere (a link?) that residents can review a comprehensive overview of the legal challenges & settlements happening at, and with, the City of Burlington Corporation? What does it cost City, as a continued example, to stand at OMB or NEC Hearings? ~ Anyone?

  • Veronica Rottenburger

    I always enjoy reading comments by Mr. Wonderful; he seems to know all the answers and provides a lot of intriguing information to consider.

  • A Future Non-Burlingtonian

    It is becoming abundantly clear that Burlington detaches itself from any “hometown” feel. It’s a developers’ dream – can’t build them higher or fast enough!! A concrete jungle where money slips out of the hands of the developers and into the deep pockets of the political realm. Its become a place where the influential can buy parkland for their own use, while long time residents lose their homes to an outdated and unwanted park plan. Where buses run empty because, god forbid, you may seen on a bus.

    Finding it harder and harder to call this my home, but rather a place where I lay my head while I travel out of the city to shop, find entertainment, work, and before long… live in a town where all residents are respected, not just those who think the only way to get somewhere is to grease the palms of decision makers.

    Perhaps its time for Oakville and Burlington to amalgamate. Both now have the true pleasure of being run by big business and non-compassionate councils who have forgotten about its everyday citizens. Shame on you!!

  • Mr. Wonderful

    A city asset rationalization does not necessarily mean a selling of real estate assets; its a method of measuring what you already own, assess and enhance the value of what the city currently owns. It also might mean things like not having to lease city office space from private building owners, and re-developing and relocating underutilized city owned properties; you would be surprised at the city owned inventory which sits idly by while your taxes go up. Fielding has the brains, but, does he have the ability to implement his fairly basic but fiscally responsible ideas? He cant do it alone, and he may get frustrated with the current stagnant environs permeating the tired old mentality at city hall. Do nothing, and raise taxes instead; that plan has always worked in the past.

    • David

      Who decides to sell what ? Do we keep the BPAC and sell Skyway area so it can be developed for condos ? Do we punish the poorer old neighbourhoods in the city who already have limited older facilites in favour of servicing the more well to do population of the city. Can it be said that staff acts in the best interest of the city – please see pier and that mismanagement? City taxpayers paid for the asset – detached staff who are not residents should not get a say in the future of the assets

  • mary bozelli

    Roger – whats worse is that they might use profits (or a portion) to reduce the tax burden making it more palatable.

  • Roger

    The creation of a Real Estate Asset Manangement Corporation or a off hands corporation to take an inventory and sell city real estate assets for revenue.

    A backdoor approach to selling of city assets without community or political oversight.

    Guess we not learn about the Highway 407 sell off

  • Mary Bozelli

    Welcome to the future. The new dystopia will arrive soon.
    How much will it cost to change the welcome to Burlington signs into Welcome to BurlingCorp?

  • Cynthia

    I need more time to digest Mr. Fielding’s plan but my initial reaction is that it leaves me a bit unsettled. Why is a man who wasn’t elected determining how our city will be run? Staff supports and does the political (read our) will, not the other way around. I’m sick to death of the cult of efficiency and “run it like a business” attitudes that currently prevail in all levels of government. Government cannot run like a business because it does not exist to make money, it exists to provide the services and structures on which our lives run. It may indeed be time to sell off some unused land among other things but I hope we have much more consideration of these ideas before we “get out of Mr. Fielding’s way” and let him run. Last time I checked we still live in a democracy, not a dictatorship or indeed a corporation.

  • Mr. Wonderful

    Fielding is what this City needs. Competent soldiers is what Fielding needs. Will be refreshing to watch Fielding; his 250K+ salary is a better deal for this city than the price paid for some of the other staff and council.

    Fielding could get the analysis completed in less time that 18-24 months if he wasn’t dealing with the stagnant governance entrenched in the policy development and business decision making in this sleepy village.

    And thank you finally for a voice publicly addressing the ridiculous fantasy of maintaining an excessive inventory of employment lands. That philosophy died 20 years ago; let’s get on with market driven development, and the rationalization of city owned assets!

  • James Smith

    These are all very interesting ideas. Seems to me I’ve heard of them used somewhere before, but can’t seem to put my finger on them….



  • Mike Burrows

    Where do I line up to buy shares in the new privatized businesses that use to be my city?
    Cha ching.