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Over regulated, under resourced: trading local service boards for regional districts

As we look to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is worth exploring the viability of regional districts in Northern Ontario, policy analyst says
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One lacks resources while the other is overspending to provide services; municipalities and unincorporated communities are travelling two different roads leading to the same destination.

They are facing two fundamentally different issues that could be solved with one solution – allowing Northern Ontario to implement regional districts similar to British Columbia.

Regional districts would provide unincorporated communities the autonomy and resources to administer the services they desire, while giving some fiscal relief to municipalities who’s higher tax rates provide services to fringe communities that may not be accessible in their community.

Unincorporated communities can provide a range of nine services outlined by the Government of Ontario through a local services board (LSB). There are currently 46 LSBs operating in Northern Ontario that provide services that community members voted on and were later approved by the Minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines.

LSBs provide community members with the opportunity to allocate their time and resources to the efforts they prioritize in their community. The increased cost of services and an aging demographic is, however, creating more demand than they can sustain. Their administrative structure also affords LSBs less autonomy than regional governance or municipal systems.

For example, there is a LSB in Tilden Lake that is permitted to provide fire protection services, recreation, and emergency telecommunications. If Tilden Lake’s LSB voted to create their own public library they would have to provide the Minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines with a copy of the proposal approved at the meeting and a statement of the results of the vote.

The minister can still say no, without any recourse or providing any reasons. If the City of North Bay made the same decision, all they need is a by-law to pass at council.

This additional step of oversight creates a barrier between residents and their needs and leaves room for an LSB’s decision to be nullified. There has to be a way to provide services that can be more responsive to the needs of unorganized communities.

Municipalities face their own line of troubles. They do benefit from a steady tax base that they can utilize to provide quality services to their residents. But, as Anthony Noga reveals in Time to Reorganize, a paper recently published by Northern Policy Institute, tax rates are higher for municipal residents than payments that unincorporated community residents pay to the province.

Noga notes that municipalities with fringe communities also have higher expenditure rates than those without. Municipalities may have more resources than LSBs but they still face fiscal pressures. That 10-20% gap between what their residents pay and what residents just outside their service boundaries pay could go a long way to address those gaps.

So let’s say hypothetically, Tilden Lake does not receive the library they voted on. Residents begin driving to North Bay to access their public library. The City of North Bay’s infrastructure, internet, books, and library employees are all utilized by them without charge. They have access to what they want – great, right? Except this puts an added cost on residents making the longer drive to access a service. While the service is being paid for by the residents of North Bay. There is no real win here. Tilden Lake still doesn’t have the infrastructure they want, and North Bay is paying to fill the gap.

Is there room for a better compromise here? How do residents in unincorporated communities hold onto everything they love about their home while receiving quality services they want? We look to BC to see how they solved this issue, by implementing regional districts (RD).

RDs would give municipalities, unincorporated communities, and First Nations communities (if they wish), an opportunity to collaborate and provide services together that they all deem beneficial and desirable for their residents. Implementing RDs in Northern Ontario would give communities capacity and autonomy to provide the services they want, when they want them, while taxing appropriately.

As we look to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is worth exploring the viability of RDs in Northern Ontario. This governance structure would allow residents of the various regions in Northern Ontario to develop their community their way, and attract the people and skills needed to make their collective vision a reality. However, these conversations must start on the ground. Communities need to be engaged in these talks to determine what boundaries make sense to best meet their needs.

If there is anything we know of the North, it is that one size fits one. regional districts would provide communities with more autonomy and fiscal capacity, while still giving them the chance to stay true to what makes their community a unique place to live. It’s time to give our Northern communities the power to make decisions about what they know best.

Melanie Davis is a policy analyst with Northern Policy Institute. An independent social and economic think tank with permanent offices in Sudbury and Thunder Bay.