Brock McGregor Talks Housing and Drafting the Municipal Budget
I was intrigued by a story in the local news about the Municipality of Chatham-Kent moving to a four year budget cycle. I reached out to one of our council members, Brock McGregor, who also happens to be the Chair of the Budget Committee. We talked a little about multi-year budgets and some of the other issues that are current in the community.
For those that don’t know him, Brock comes from an agricultural family. His childhood was spent between Chatham and Dresden; school and sports saw him spending considerable time in both places. After high school, he left the area to pursue further education and other opportunities in Guelph and Toronto, where he eventually found his vocation in naturopathic medicine. . He returned to the area in 2012 and established his business, McGregor Naturopathic, and has become an active participant in civic life through events and volunteering with local Not-For-Profit organizations. He developed an interest in politics at an early age and followed them closely. It was a local council decision on bike lanes which finally gave him the push to seek, and eventually win, a seat on the council in 2014. He serves as one of six councillors who represent Ward 6, which covers the city of Chatham.
“At the time I was on the younger side [29 years old], and I felt that, in some ways, some of the council’s decisions weren’t really reflective of the younger generation, and the changing values that are necessary in the community.
“That was really made apparent when, just prior to that election, there was a proposed bike lane on McNaughton Ave. There was a lot of support for it in the community. In particular, there were some circles that had some interest in outdoor activity, and, being a doctor, I was plugged into those circles. We kinda thought it was a slam dunk; it was going to go through. It sort of fell flat based on what was, really, the loss of a couple of on-street parking spots.”
The Council’s decision on this matter disappointed him. “I thought that it was not reflective of the values I had. It really didn’t seem like all of these people that I’ve been involved with and talking to about it– they didn’t feel like they were reflected in a lot of the decisions and it made us question the long term strategy of the community. I felt like that was an opportunity to provide a different perspective, which is an odd thing to say as a cis-gendered straight white male (there are plenty of us in politics), but maybe, politically, I had a little different opinion.”
Councillor Brock McGregor on the Local Housing Situation
Our conversation turned briefly to the housing situation in the municipality. “When you talk about economic opportunity, when you talk about mobility of labour forces, you really need available housing. That’s something that is one of the big challenges in our community. “
As property values climbed in larger cities across Ontario, people began to look elsewhere for housing. Property owners in urban centres like Toronto found that they could sell and move to rural communities where the same amount of dollars would allow them to purchase much more square footage and acreage. With an influx of out of town buyers, Chatham-Kent started to feel the effects of rising rents and housing prices driven by a shortage of inventory which increased demand.
Rising property values provide a real-world example of how good news for some is bad news for others. “It’s partly a good news story in that we have seen increased values and I think that homeowners are enthusiastic that they have seen the value of their assets go up, but it is now starting to present a challenge for people trying to enter the market, and from an affordability standpoint.”
It seems that the solutions for the housing crunch will be found in the market, and not by public policy. Property developers have recently launched large development projects, as demand has grown and made their projects financially viable. “I think it’s a good sign to see new builds happening,” said the councillor. Developments like those on Park Ave West in Chatham will help to ease the pressure on inventory, along with new apartments opening up.
“It’s a good sign to finally see some apartment units going up. I think that was a determining factor of housing that was in extremely short supply. To start to see [increasing inventory] happen is addressing that challenge.”
Councillor Brock McGregor on Municipal Budget Matters
The annual budget for the Municipality of Chatham-Kent is also never far from councillor McGregor’s mind. Recently, Municipal Council made the decision to transition to a multi-year budget starting in 2024. Other municipalities in Ontario have implemented this practice, and they have provided advice and insight. This is one strategy that should result in efficiency gains within the Municipality. According to McGregor, “If you look at the annual budget cycle, it really doesn’t afford, in some ways, an opportunity for long term planning. At times, it’s not ideal when you’re dealing with what our long term strategy is. Sometimes we get caught up in these year over year changes when we should be taking a longer look at what we are doing over a longer period of time.
“From a Council standpoint, it’s not a huge change in the time that council spends on budget type items. Where the real change was [for London], is in how [municipal] staff are allocated. Right now we do a yearly budget. By the time we are done with the budget, that staff is basically turned around and starting to work on next year’s budget.”
The feedback from London is that in years where the budget needs to be approved, the workload is very heavy on municipal staff. But, “In the intervening years they have that same budget team working through by department to try to find savings and efficiencies that way. They found that those off years helped them in finding slippage type savings and things that you find once you have dedicated financial people going by department.”
There are also advantages in purchasing where the municipality may be able to realize greater savings though bulk discounts, or being able to sign on to a service for a longer term. Finding a way to take the pressure off of maintaining department budgets at the same level every year should lead to savings for the taxpayer. “What this allows is a recognition that your expenses aren’t going to be the same in a lot of departments year over year. If you can plan out what that looks like over four years, that sort of stops that [mindset of] ‘We need to get the same every year so I guess we need to use up some of this money in year one, so we actually get it in year two when we need to make a big purchase.’” Yearly pressure to spend the full budget allocation is not unique to the Municipality of Chatham-Kent. Finding a way to take the pressure off of maintaining department budgets at the same level every year should lead to savings for the taxpayer.
A four year budget cycle should also allow for Council to think more strategically about longer periods of time. Often, reporting on the budget deliberations centers around the council attempting to get to the lowest percentage tax increase. This has the effect of narrowing the focus of the council as they try to hit their target number. “We really are looking at year over year changes. Sometimes we’re not reflecting more deeply on what our strategic priorities are. We’re just trying to figure out how to get to the number we want to get to– based on the change of year over year. With a four year process you have a much better opportunity to take a step back and take a wider evaluation of budget items.”
Councillor McGregor acknowledges that watching the budgeting process from the outside can be daunting. The budget “is substantial to get through. The way that it is presented right now, as Budget Chair I have been happy with it. I think it provides a lot of information, [but] it’s digestible. Never had any problems getting the detail that we need. I think that sometimes there are some people in the community…that don’t agree with the formatting. And sometimes that gets mistaken as a formatting issue vs a transparency issue. But I think there’s an important distinction there at times.”
Brock is clear, though, that better tools for the Council and public are important. “Moving towards better online accessibility for budget documents is really important.It is pretty cumbersome to go through the budget binders and go through the .pdfs the way they are posted now. That is really the next step in having that transparency and accessibility component.
“As a public entity, the books are as open as they can be. Obviously, with some budgeted items you don’t want to make public how much you have budgeted for a specific project before companies bid on that project. We do have an audit committee and have yearly audits done by a 3rd party. It’s not really an exciting process that makes much news. It does go on, on a yearly basis. It’s not just our internal auditors that do it, there is also a third party, [Deloitte LLP], for quite a while now.”
One of the things that will likely not change in the near future is the process of drafting the budget for municipal Police Services. The money allocated to the police represents close to 10% of the total municipal budget each year; over $30,000,000 in 2020. The Municipalities Act and the Police Services Act, which are provincial laws, dictate that budgets for municipal police departments are set by a local Police Services Board, an entity with no mandated municipal council involvement. Currently in Chatham-Kent, the Mayor, Darrin Canniff, and Councillor Marjory Crew are the only council members serving on that board.
“Under the Police Services Act and the Municipal Act, the Police Services Board– they do the work on the police budget. They will approve or not approve drafts. Essentially, Council’s role is to either accept that budget as is, or send that budget back to be redone in some way. There is not an opportunity or an option for a councillor to say ‘I want to change this line or that spend item’ like we do in the regular budget.
“It’s really an approve it or don’t approve it. We don’t have any other options. Certainly, we can ask questions. That’s a struggle that I think a lot of municipalities have.” While there is some discussion at various levels of government about changing this system, it is the reality that all municipalities work under. “It’s one of the areas that is poorly understood and that we get a lot of questions about. There isn’t any line by line approval, it’s just a bulk approval or disapproval of that budget. “
Heading into the later half of 2020 with the next round of budget deliberations on the horizon, Brock reaffirms the eventual transition to a four year budget cycle as one component that may be able to demonstrably move Chatham-Kent forward. He seems to see it as the key to unlocking even more of the community’s potential. “I think it’s going to make us adhere to a strategic plan. I think as part of that plan we need to look at rationalization of infrastructure and inventory and make smart investments to have usable assets over time that aren’t a drain on the community.”
“We need to figure out a way to plan our community for the next 15 years, 25 years, 50 years.” Choices will have to be made around how “we’re going to be able to afford to replace what we need to replace, fix what we need to fix. [Council can’t] be scared of some of the difficult decisions that we need to make to put infrastructure in place that’s going to make sense in the community over a longer term, rather than just keep going with thinking we need to patch up and repair everything and not really re-rationalize what our community needs.”
In the final analysis, Brock is aware that the council decisions made today will affect the reality of tomorrow. He seems determined to do his best to avoid having his own “bike lane” moment by keeping an eye on what the future may bring. He is unequivocal in his belief that council needs to be thinking long term. “I think we need to look at how we build and rebuild our community so that we continue to have the services that we do, have the services that people rely on, and have infrastructure that is equitable and usable. I think that goes right from recreational infrastructure to roads and bridges.”
Interview conducted via phone on August 25, 2020
Brock McGregor’s photo courtesy of Brock McGregor / Construction photo courtesy of Tom Slager / Budget photo courtesy of pexels.com