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Chamber wants to meet with council for 'education' session (updated)

Mark Barsanti, Sault Ste.
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Mark Barsanti, Sault Ste. Marie Chamber of Commerce president, has sent a letter to chamber members calling for a meeting with the city’s elected leaders, designed to provide “education and information” to them on the importance of working with the chamber for the community’s economic good.

“Our Executive asked staff to work immediately on a plan to invite elected officials to meet with us,” Barsanti wrote in the letter, dated April 25, 2014.

“The board would like to provide an education and information session to our elected representatives that will outline our approach to advocacy, the importance of the Chamber as an advocate and the constructive role we can have in moving our community forward,” Barsanti wrote.

The letter was released late Friday afternoon.

Mayor Debbie Amaroso, in an email reply to SooToday.com Friday evening, said “City Council is open to interaction with all groups.”

“In the event the Chamber of Commerce wishes to meet with us they merely need to make those arrangements.”

Barsanti, on behalf of the chamber, issued a statement April 15 stating “the Sault Ste. Marie Chamber of Commerce is pleased that its voice was heard during the 2014 City budget deliberations,” one day after council approved the 2014 city budget with a zero percent residential property tax increase.

That written statement, however, also called for council to work towards less dependency on provincial government funding and strive for better tax rates for business to encourage private sector investment and job growth in Sault Ste. Marie.

That letter upset elected officials and senior city staff, who have said the April 15 chamber letter appears to take credit for the 2014 budget.

Both elected officials and senior staff have said hard work, good planning and effective number-crunching by city staff, and not the chamber’s input, determined the 2014 budget outcome.

They also say $17 million in annual Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund (OMPF) money is a vital transfer payment from the province to help the city carry out its duties, and that the Sault is already regarded by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) as the second most entrepreneurial city in Ontario.

In response to that, Barsanti’s April 25 letter writes “respectful criticism and input (from the chamber) must be genuinely encouraged and acknowledged.”

“The statements (by elected leaders and city staff after the chamber’s April 15 letter) reflect an acceptance by our municipal leaders that it is politically astute to publicly indicate business views were ignored (in the 2014 budget deliberations),” Barsanti wrote.

In the letter issued Friday, Barsanti repeated his call for better business tax rates in Sault Ste. Marie.

Acknowledging the Canadian Federation of Independent Business recently named the Sault as the second most entrepreneurial city in Ontario, Barsanti wrote in Friday’s letter “the CFIB also named us the second to worst place in Northern Ontario to do business…the main reason is the high rates of business tax in our city.”

Repeating his call for less municipal reliance on $17 million in annual provincial funding, Barsanti wrote “from 2006 to 2013 the total budgeted tax increases in our city amount to roughly $22,000,000 which is a 29 percent increase.”

Despite help from the province for court security, public health, Ontario Works, Ontario Drug Benefit Plan and many other goods and services, Barsanti wrote “our spending at the municipal level continues to grow.”

While Mayor Amaroso has informed SooToday.com elected leaders are open to meeting with the chamber, it is not known when or where such a meeting will take place.

Full text of the letter submitted by Sault Ste. Marie Chamber of Commerce President Mark Barsanti follows.

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Dear Chamber Members and to the Business Community of Sault Ste. Marie

We are writing to you to share some of our thoughts regarding the important role that the Chamber has with respect to advocacy on behalf of the business community.

Many of you have read articles and the posted comments in the local media regarding the relationship between the Chamber of Commerce and our City.

The Chamber views these matters very seriously.

Our Executive asked staff to start work immediately on a plan to invite elected officials to meet with us.

The board would like to provide an education and information session to our elected representatives that will outline our approach to advocacy, the importance of the Chamber as an advocate and the constructive role we can have in moving our community forward.

The immediate concern is the Chamber's advocacy work at the local level.

For too long the business community has been too reluctant to participate in advocacy - as such we bear some responsibility for the historic, present and ongoing challenges in our community.

Over the past several years members of the business community have been discussing the challenges our city is facing in terms of growth, demographics and outside investment.

It is clear that there is a general consensus as to the core governance issues that underpin our challenges.

We are committed to moving the Chamber toward a greater advocacy role in order that we may address those issues.

The debate in the press that occurred in relation to the 2014 municipal budget is only a small representation of the impact of those core issues:

Respectful criticism and input must be genuinely encouraged and acknowledged.

The stated philosophy four years ago was, "Your city, your say."

The Chamber developed a budget position this year.

It included long term strategies to control spending, ways to become more competitive and self-sufficient.

The Chamber decided, correctly, that the paper should be delivered to the Mayor.

The board had no media plan for the paper and no desire to "claim credit".

We had what seemed to be productive discussions during the week before the budget and the weekend before.

After our discussions, we felt, on the face put forward, that we had fair opportunity to be heard and that our position was understood.

We were so satisfied in what we believed was the beginning of a productive relationship, we sent the Mayor a thank you note and we prepared a press release to acknowledge the fact that we felt we were heard.

We acknowledged staff for doing a good job managing the budgets in the past but also indicated more work needs to be done.

The negative reaction expressed in the press is troubling but the statements made in the press are even more problematic in that they clearly stated that the Chamber's views were ignored.

Even though we doubt that to be the case, the statements reflect an acceptance by our municipal leaders that it is politically astute to publically [sic] indicate business's views were ignored.

These types of reactions are not consistent with "Your City, your say".

The elected officials need to be the voice of our municipality.

The Mayor is the CEO of a municipality.

As such, the Mayor, along with Councillors of a municipality are expected to communicate to the citizens on matters of importance to the municipality.

It should not be the administrative staff of the municipality but its elected officials that comment upon work done by staff, positions taken by council and whether or not council used or ignored certain information.

Governments have political branches and administrative branches for good reason.

Our elected officials must be the ones to engage the citizenry in debate and challenge administrative staff to meet the demands of the governed.

The best administrative branches are those whose members are seldom seen and rarely heard since it is the elected officials, and not their staff, that are politically accountable for how a municipality is governed.

If administrative staff are permitted or required to speak for or in the place of the elected, it stifles debate, creative solution making and engagement in the political process.

When was the last time a deputy minister of finance spoke publicly in regard to a federal or provincial budget?

When was the last time a deputy minister of finance spoke publicly to say a major constituent group was ignored or was disrespectful or naive?

Information the community is given by our leaders must be accurate, meaningful and relevant.

Bad news needs to be provided when the news is bad.

The community needs to know where it stands so elected officials can make the case for hard decisions to move us forward.

It is not healthy to have staff telling the community that all is well and then expect the elected officials to make a case for increased efficiencies or service reductions.

For example, staff insist that our taxes are in line or lower than other cities based on taxes levied on the average home.

We are told that an average home here is worth $156,000 and is taxed less than an average home in Sudbury where the value of the average home is higher.

There are consultants who amass this type of data; they also compare cities in other ways.

The more accurate comparison is how much tax does a taxpayer pay for every $100,000 of assessed property value.

The way staff presents it, ignores the fact that people tend to house themselves to the extent their budget will allow.

If a person can only pay for a $156,000 home in either city, they will pay less tax in Sudbury.

The City's approach ignores that perhaps the average home here is valued lower because the tax burden is so high people can't afford to pay more for their home; perhaps the average home is valued lower here because the tax burden on business is so high, the economy is not robust enough to create a more buoyant housing market.

The staff's approach may make us feel like we are doing well but it really serves to avoid the bigger issues.

Recently the city reminded us that the CFIB named us the 2nd most entrepreneurial city in Ontario.

That may be true.

But the CFIB also named us the second to worst place in Northern Ontario do business, ahead of only North Bay.

The main reason is the high rates of business tax in our city.

This type of information management, leads our elected leaders away from setting goals that will help us become more competitive.

It makes it next to impossible to make the hard decisions required to achieve even modest goals of taxation and spending controls.

The elected must seek out the right questions to ask.

They must not allow others to control the message.

A norm has developed that taxes and spending must go up every year.

From 2006 to 2013 the total budgeted tax increases in our city amount to roughly $22,000,000 which is a 29 percent increase. Inflation during the same period was 13.6 percent.

During that period, the province increased funding for, or assumed all funding for, many services for which the City previously paid.

This includes court security, public health, Ontario Works, Ontario Drug Benefit Plan and more.

The bill paid by the province for services delivered to us at the local level is more than $14,000,000.

But our spending at the municipal level continues to grow.

Budget debates focus on the amount of the levy increase.

The City claims that the 2014 budget was a product of hard work over two years but the original budget draft in the fall called for the levy to go up by 4.5 percent before the effects of using the surplus and an increase in assessment value was factored in.

Those things and other accounting shifts brought the budgeted levy increase to 2.89 percent.

On the day the budget was approved, an unexpected savings in social assistance costs was announced and there was a shift of casino revenue.

Both brought the levy increase down to 1.35 percent.

It only hit zero after council rebuffed staff and the Mayor who were in support of a 1.35 percent increase.

Where were the debates and questions that required hard work to save money?

To do things with fewer resources?

To evaluate services or re-evaluate our support to third parties?

The idea that spending must always increase can have and has had dangerous consequences.

The business community needs to help resolve these systemic issues.

We need to work with our elected officials to develop goals for growth, outside investment, and demographic rebalancing.

We need to look to the communities that have results to which we aspire.

We need to tell our community what will be required to reach those goals.

And finally, we need to support our elected officials when they take the steps to move us toward the goals.

Please feel free to contact the Chamber office at (705)949-7152 or the General Manager by emailing shelley@ssmcoc.com if you would like to lend your support or input to our efforts on your behalf.

Sincerely,

Mark S. Barsanti
President 2014-2015
Sault Ste. Marie Chamber of Commerce
on behalf of the Sault Ste. Marie Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors

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Darren Taylor

About the Author: Darren Taylor

Darren Taylor is a news reporter and photographer in Sault Ste Marie. He regularly covers community events, political announcements and numerous board meetings. With a background in TV and Radio, Darren has been a reporter for 15 years.
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