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Mayor confronts chamber over 'misleading' article

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Owen Sound’s chamber of commerce “somewhat severed” its once-positive relationship with city hall by publishing an article with inflammatory information related to police and fire costs in the community, the city’s mayor said Tuesday.

Deb Haswell stood up after a keynote address by Ontario Chamber of Commerce president Allan O’Dette to ask him to explain the purpose of local chambers in communities and to provide an example of one that has succeeded in fostering a productive relationship with its municipal government for the betterment of the community.

“The chamber here, in my view, needs a lot of help and a lot of direction from your office on both those fronts,” she said during an event put on by the Owen Sound & District Chamber of Commerce at the Days Inn in Owen Sound.

About 50 area chamber officials and members attended the event.

Haswell was referring to an article entitled “Review shows police and fire costs alarming. Is the impact on Owen Sound budget an emergency in the making?,” that was written by the local chamber’s “advocacy committee” and included in its June 4 “Make it your business” publication.

City officials, including Haswell, have criticized the article, which compares the cost of policing and fire in Owen Sound per $100,000 of assessment to the cost in similar-sized municipalities in Ontario. They say the story contains misleading information and ignores the positive steps the city has taken to reduce costs.

The Owen Sound chamber of commerce is standing behind it, saying the information was pulled from a Municipal Study 2012 report by BMA Management Consulting Inc., which looked at 86 of Ontario’s 444 municipalities.

“We can certainly understand, perhaps after revisiting the article, how one might find themselves so put off by the article if you were the City of Owen Sound or the police service or the fire service,” local chamber president Steve Coffey said in an interview.

“But we really just wanted to make sure the community was aware of some of the impacts of the costs of overall fire and police services inside the City of Owen Sound.”

He said publishing the article achieved the goal of creating dialogue in the community.

Haswell and Coffey are scheduled to meet Wednesday to discuss the issue.

“One can say it was a real catalyst to get us in the same room to see: a) do we have a problem; and b) can we find any solutions?” he said.

Haswell said the chamber did not have to print the article to secure a meeting with city officials. She said she has met routinely with the organization since she was elected mayor in 2010.

Haswell described the feud with the chamber as a “bump on the road.

“I’m looking forward to regrouping.”

O’Dette, in response to Haswell’s question, did not single out one chamber of commerce as better than another but did say the organization’s role is to “pull people together” for the advancement of the community.

“Specific to the hard feelings, because you raised it in a public place, I think it’s your collective responsibility to figure out how you get around that,” he said.

About 46% of Owen Sound’s $24.5 million operating budget covers costs related to emergency services. The budget in 2013 for police officers alone is $5.1 million, while wages and benefits for firefighters is $3.95 million.

The chamber article featured images of police cruisers and a fire truck with a large red light superimposed and the word “Alarming.”

It says the cost per $100,000 assessment of policing in Owen Sound is $400, which is higher than the $304 average for communities with 20,000 to 50,000 people and the cost in two municipalities it says most closely resemble Owen Sound: Orangeville ($256) and Quinte West ($273).

The cost per $100,000 assessment of fire services is $235 in Owen Sound, the article said, while the average for similar-sized communities is $143.

The article put some of the blame on Ontario’s “broken arbitration system,” but said the BMA report suggests there may be other reasons for concern considering similar communities “share in arbitration award misery.”

Haswell said the solution to increasing fire and policing costs lies primarily with the provincial government which can make legislative changes that force arbitrators to consider a municipality’s ability to pay when deciding on wage increases.

She said the chamber did not compare “apples to apples” in the article when it comes to policing and fire costs in Ontario communities.

She said using per assessment comparisons leads to “very skewed” results because a home’s assessment in Owen Sound is much different than if it were in a community like Orangeville.

Orangeville also has a composite fire department, with 10 full-time firefighters, a fire chief, deputy chief, two fire prevention officers and a training officer. It has 38 “volunteer” or part-time firefighters. A minimum of four full-time firefighters are on duty at a time between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Only on-call volunteer firefighters work between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Owen Sound, on the other hand, has a full-time staff with no volunteer firefighters. It has 26 firefighters, along with a fire chief, fire prevention officer, fire prevention inspector and training officer. One platoon, with 10 firefighters, is on duty at all times, Haswell said.

She said the city volunteered to be part of the BMA survey in an effort to remain as transparent as possible. She said only 19% of Ontario municipalities participated and were compared.

Both Haswell and Owen Sound Police Service Chief Bill Sornberger said the chamber article left out key information, including the police department’s success at reducing its budget over the past few years.

Owen Sound property taxpayers are paying the same amount in 2013 for policing as they did in 2008, Sornberger said.

The article also doesn’t mention that the department now brings in about $1.3 million per year in revenue thanks to added dispatch work for other emergency services and other initiatives, he said.

That revenue has allowed the department to maintain the annual cost to taxpayers while ensuring the same number of officers remain on the ground, he said.

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