The following column originally appeared on BradfordToday.
Simcoe County is acting like a spurned lover, not a serious level of government.
For years, Bradford West Gwillimbury has been raising a series complaints, citing a lack of service and a higher tax burden compared to other municipalities.
As the second-fastest growing municipality in Ontario, Bradford has been footing the bill for the rest of the county. At the same time, the county provided services like yard waste with the needs of its more northern and rural municipalities in mind, not the needs of its suburban towns.
But, rather than listen, the county has preferred to argue.
It is simply a fact that Bradford pays more into the county than it receives back from the county. Yet, the county retorts, Bradford does receive money back — why, just look at our contribution to the new interchange.
Of course, that’s not the point: paying your fair share and paying at all are hardly the same thing. The county does itself a disservice by engaging in such simplistic non-sequiturs.
It should have been clear some time ago that Bradford West Gwillimbury had reasonable complaints that should have been listened to and discussed, but the county preferred to argue rather than listen, to insist their position is right and Bradford is just whining.
Adversarial relationships between levels of government are never a good look, especially for municipal politicians. Voters might tolerate a bit of tension and even some showboating from premiers versus prime ministers, but municipal leaders are supposed to be nonpartisan and focused on getting along.
Bradford West Gwillimbury has rightly raised its concerns. The county has no one to blame but itself for ignoring those concerns.
Now, Bradford West Gwillimbury is using the provincial governance review to argue that it should be allowed to get out, if the relationship cannot work.
As Mr. Ron Burgundy once said, “Well, that escalated quickly."
So the county is now in the position of the aggrieved spouse, citing the costs of the divorce rather than calmly sitting down to deal with the concerns about its aggravating behaviour.
For instance, former Bradford West Gwillimbury Mayor Doug White, who has long had a positive relationship with county staff, resurfaced at a town hall this week to suggest leaving the county could cost up to $100 million. It’s unclear where the figure came from, but White was right to raise the question of costs.
Still, it would appear White’s conjecture includes the cost of buying county-owned assets, such as roads, which seems like something the province would try to address first if it allowed this to happen, since it’s the province instigating the review in order to drive savings.
At the end of the day, Bradford West Gwillimbury leaving Simcoe County isn’t Québec separatism or Brexit.
Indeed, it’s not even unprecedented in Simcoe County; both Orillia and Barrie are “in the county but not of it," with side deals on shared county services even as they exist in law as “separated cities” — exactly what Bradford West Gwillimbury is requesting. Even within this provincial governance review, Mississauga is requesting something similar: separation from Peel Region.
Now, what I’m not doing here necessarily is defending the merits of becoming a separated city; my first column in Bradford Today instead advanced the need for a new region composed of South Simcoe, northern York Region and Caledon, with Bradford at the heart of it.
I still believe that new region notion is the more sensible approach, but it seems the county would be equally peeved at that idea as they are to the separated city notion.
Because here’s what it boils down to: self-interest.
Mayor Rob Keffer has done the math and believes leaving the county would save Bradford taxpayers hundreds of dollars per year each. Simcoe County has done the math and knows that losing Bradford would blow a hole in their budget; they’d lose their “cash cow."
So, what should the county do? Cool down. Take a deep breath. Admit Bradford West Gwillimbury has a point. Realize that Keffer and Deputy Mayor James Leduc are just standing up for their taxpayers and asking fair questions.
Then, once the county’s calmed down, figure out either how to make the marriage work, if it’s not too late — or, if it is, figure out how to make the divorce work best, if that’s what the provincial reviewers decide is going to happen.
Jonathan Scott is a public affairs consultant and writer. He is the former election campaign manager for BWG Mayor Rob Keffer.