“We understand it’s a very rough year, with COVID.”
The speaker was the Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority's outgoing chief administrative officer, Mike Walters, who came before Bradford West Gwillimbury Council this week to present the LSRCA’s 2021 budget.
The LSRCA, in keeping with its “respect the taxpayer” mantra, is proposing a 2021 budget increase of one per cent, “the smallest increase we’ve had in the last five years.”
The LSRCA has faced challenges in 2020, including the postponement of field work and delay of construction projects, as well as a reduction in permit-fee revenues due to slowed development.
Since March, all LSRCA staff have been working from home and continue to work remotely.
Even so, Walters noted, the agency has been successful in completing almost all of the projects listed in its 2016-20 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-kilometre watershed.
Eighty-four 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 also see some properties transferred in the coming months to the municipalities that already maintain and manage the land.
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 and not COVID, but new provincial legislation, Walters said.
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 said the LSRCA is in some way buffered against the changes by the Lake Simcoe Protection Act, which authorizes the agency to continue some otherwise ‘non-core’ responsibilities in order 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 hirings planned – continuing a three-year trend – even though the agency 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 organization 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.
The big unknown is the change to provincial legislation, which could have huge implications for the funding available to conservation authorities.
“We are still awaiting the implications of Bill 108,” said Walters said, as well as the new Bill 229, or 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 Appeal Tribunal (LPAT).
Conservation authorities would also be unable to issue stop-work orders, even when actions pose a risk to habitat or water quality.
Walters hopes the province will rethink the move and repeal some of the provisions being considered.
“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.
“There are enforcement issues which are very concerning,” he added.
Stripping conservation authorities of any enforcement powers only “helps the violators and polluters,” Walters warned.
“We’re making our concerns known to the province,” he said, and will be asking for support from its nine member municipalities, including the City of Barrie, Town of Innisfil, and Township of Oro-Medonte.