Mayor Steele delivered these remarks before the Provincial Standing Committee on Heritage, Infrastructure and Cultural Policy on January 10, 2024.

Good morning. On behalf of Port Colborne City Council, City staff and our citizens, we appreciate the Standing Committee coming to Niagara and thank you for the opportunity to provide comments on governance reform.

Having spent 23 years in local and regional government, former Chair and current member of the Niagara Regional Police Service

Provincially I have served on the Ontario Trillium Foundation Board, the Niagara College Foundation Board, and I currently serve as the Ontario caucus chair of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, a bi-national organization.

Personally, as a life-long resident and business owner in Niagara and Port Colborne, I feel I have a broad perspective on the dynamics of the relationships, successes and frankly failures of the current government structure in Niagara.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with our City, Port Colborne is a vibrant community located along the shores of Lake Erie. The Welland Canal runs through the heart of our city.

Port Colborne is the second-fastest growing municipality in Niagara, according to the 2021 Census.

We’re governed by a Council of nine and are embarking on a full independent review of that model, including a review of electoral boundaries with an eye to reform.

There’s a lot I could tell you about our municipality, but to focus on the subject matter of this committee, we are providing good governance, finding opportunities to share municipal service delivery with our neighbours, and achieving value for our taxpayers and the challenges in a home grown, citizen focused way.

As an example, over the past year, we have been working closely with our neighbours at the Township of Wainfleet including a formal agreement to share municipal services where and when it has a shared benefit for us. Whether that is helping to improve the effectiveness or efficiency of our service delivery, or providing some kind of cost-benefit or savings to our taxpayers.

Council and staff have also been working with other municipalities and the Region to identify shared service opportunities that could have benefits if delivered to residents in a shared model.

We’re also working closely with Niagara Region on a project to service our East Side Employment Lands.

Our staff also work with other Niagara municipalities to share best practices and create working groups on municipal elections, tourism, purchasing, emergency management and training, communications, economic development; and more.

Port Colborne has also entered into an agreement with Niagara Falls for a shared enterprise resource system for human resources and software, while maintaining the core processes that work for us.

These are just a few of the initiatives and shared service arrangements that Port Colborne is already working on.

I want to be clear – I am concerned with any potential changes to the current municipal structure or any proposal to amalgamate Niagara municipalities. 

  • As Brock University political scientist David Siegel has stated, there has never been a municipal amalgamation that has saved money
  • There are many past and recent cases where it actually would cost more and disrupt successful homegrown solutions already in place.
  • If significant municipal amalgamations were to be imposed in Niagara, who would take on the debt for Regional capital projects? 
    • For example:
      • Would Niagara Falls assume the $400 million debt on the new sewage treatment plant?
      • Would St. Catharines pick up the $100 million debt on the Burgoyne bridge?  
      • Would some of this debt be allocated to other municipalities?
  • I am also concerned that consolidating programs and services may result in cost pressures and budget impacts that ultimately affect the taxpayer
    • For example, Port Colborne’s annual cost for transit, prior to transit amalgamation was $300K per year
    • Under the new transit system, the cost has increased 3 times to almost $1 million;
    • We saw first-hand during this transition, that all employee contracts were re-negotiated to the top grid of the highest existing agreement.
  • The proposed dissolution of Peel Region, which has now been reversed, has shown that bundling programs and services, reassigning priority projects, and trying to manage a mass exodus of experienced municipal staff, can have unintended and harsh consequences for residents and businesses

Michael Fenn, one of the facilitators appointed by the province in 2019 to review regional government, has been quoted as saying that local communities should decide what is best for them in terms of governance, decision-making and service delivery.

I couldn’t agree more.

Our City is run not as a business, but in a business-principled way.

We are efficient, we are innovative, we are progressive, and we are responsive to the needs of our community.    

We are also civic-minded, and we provide high-quality public programs and services, in a financially sustainable way.

The action is at the local level and Niagara municipalities, such as the City of Port Colborne, are at the forefront of generating economic activity, attracting investment, welcoming new residents, and helping to create more housing affordability.

In a recent example we partnered with Port Cares, our local social services hub, by donating surplus land to build an on-time, on-budget, 40 unit geared-to-income housing project.   

Port Colborne Council and staff will continue to work with our neighbours on shared service arrangements and innovative approaches to improve service delivery, while achieving value for the taxpayer.

We aren’t asking to keep the status quo. We know the goals and embrace the challenge.

We’re asking for the opportunity to set a new way of governing, where we continue to achieve our goals AND those of the province – like growing our community, and building affordable homes.

We know we can do it and, like Michael Fenn, we believe we should decide what works best for us. Again, thank you for the opportunity to provide comments and I look forward to the question-and-answer period.