Former regional CAO calls for sweeping governance changes
Change isn’t strange for Harry Schlange.
The former Niagara Region chief administrative officer has been the driving force behind a lot of change in his career and now he wants to see some sweeping changes to Niagara’s government.
He brought a plan to regional council Sept. 21 to highlight what he thinks is a natural step to better governance by merging Niagara into one city.
But before he could speak, regional Coun. Robert Foster and regional chair Jim Bradley asked to have his presentation cut from the agenda, calling him a lobbyist and saying it didn’t relate to the 2023 financial results being discussed during that meeting.
Schlange disagrees and says what they did is “insulting” and unfair.
The former CAO of Fort Erie, Grimsby, Brampton and Norfolk County, Schlange had a long career specializing in consolidating enterprises.
His presentation didn’t contain any specific asks, but merely explained how he thinks Niagara could save $250 million over 10 years, while improving services, through consolidation of government.
“It’s a model and this is the same model I brought from the private sector. It’s that you look at how you can improve things and make it more efficient, more effective and more accountable.”
Now he says he plans to send his plans to the province instead, targeting the premier’s office and others.
“I’m not a lobbyist,” he said, in an interview with The Lake Report.
“That was totally false. I’m not being paid by anyone.”
He said he wants to get people thinking about how Niagara can streamline its operations, leading to what he sees as smarter growth and management.
“If you look at the way the region and the 12 municipalities operate today, they do their own purchasing, they have their own their own finance, they have their own IT — why don’t we look at those things and join them together?”
Schlange believes his experience working as Niagara’s top bureaucrat has given him a unique perspective on the region and its municipalities.
“When I was the Niagara regional CAO, I really buried myself in understanding each and every hamlet that we reside in,” he said.
“I went everywhere. I understood the local villages and their local neighbourhoods, what their economic-social status is worth. And so there’s probably no one in Niagara that has had this type of experience.”
He thinks the way things are going, taxes will just continue to increase, but without truly addressing the emerging needs of communities, such as the housing crisis, homelessness, poverty, mental health and opioids.
He believes the savings from amalgamation could be used to address those problems.
Those savings would come from a variety of areas, including cutting overlap and sharing procurement.
Recent tax increases have been focused mainly on traditional services, he noted — “And you could check everyone’s budget, Niagara-on-the-Lake’s, St. Catharines’, everybody — their headcount increases were all in things like parks and rec, special events, public works, clerks departments, administration areas.”
He said the goal of the presentation was to find some regional councillors who would champion his ideas.
Schlange looked at spending from all 13 of Niagara’s governments and found about $2 billion in spending annually, he said.
One requirement would be to “harmonize labour,” which would mean unionizing operation positions.
While that would necessarily mean an increase in pay, it could mean increased benefits.
He said the initial cost would be about $20 million to $25 million, but could lead to a net savings of $25 million annually.
Over 10 years, that could total $250 million, he said.
“Just think about this: a quarter of a billion dollars that you could start to address and target (emerging needs), instead of always just crying to the province and feds for more money.”
He said when he helped amalgamate services in the health care industry during a brief stint with the Champlain LHIN in Ottawa (now called Home and Community Care Support Services), there was money available from the province to help.
As far as not being able to speak at the region, he thinks they looked at it “from a glass half-empty” perspective.
“I felt that when they presented their 2023 financial results, that this would be a solution to help them. They were already running a deficit in some areas. They said the reserves were lower than targeted.”
He said one concern he hears about amalgamation is that communities might lose their local identities, but he doesn’t think that will ever happen.
“Drive into Glenridge (in St. Catharines). There’s a sign that says, you’re entering Glenridge. Look at Merriton, look at how proud they are. They have their own parade and they were amalgamated in 1961.”
He thinks a “city of Niagara” would need about 17 councillors — one for every 25,000 to 30,000 people.
“The reason why is Hamilton has 16 with 100,000 more population. Ottawa has 25 councillors for a million population,” he said.
Those politicians would have staff and local offices, he added, and would work 24/7 to ensure local needs are met.
When it comes to the different needs of communities, such as Old Town vs. Glendale in NOTL, he said it isn’t hard for one councillor to understand the different areas, and that all of the city’s councillors would be invested in making sure NOTL succeeds.
“Everybody knows how important the economic engine of that Glendale development could be along the transit corridor, not just the Niagara-on-the-Lake ward councillors.”
Likewise, tourism and chambers of commerce could work together.
“No one would not support how important the heritage and the wineries and historic component of Niagara-on-the-Lake would be — in fact that brand would be enhanced, instead of everybody working in their silos, like Twenty Valley tourism, the Niagara Falls tourism, the Niagara-on-the-Lake Chamber and tourism.”
He thinks tourism could actually increase if there was a shared Niagara marketing plan, rather than individual plans competing for visitors.
But people would need to have a mindset change about working together.
“You almost have to unlearn this current behaviour that, ‘I’m just gonna look after my little independent area.’ “
Municipalities also wouldn’t need to compete for government funding to support projects, as it would be tackled as one city.
Another benefit to amalgamation is that councillors and the mayor would end up being paid a reasonable salary, Schlange said.
Right now politicians in Niagara’s lower-tier municipalities make far below a living wage, and he said that’s a problem when you’re trying to attract skilled people.
Asked if he thinks municipalities would lose the ability to critically assess things like development plans, making controversial developments easier to get approved, he said development would be defined by identified growth areas.
“Yes, if it’s deemed a growth area, it’s gonna be a lot faster,” he said.
Many of the people complaining about development are those who have “established themselves here,” he said.
“They’re not really caring about young families moving here and making this more of a community to live in than Disney World. It’s way lopsided now.”
By identifying growth areas and pushing development to those places, it’s still possible to preserve the character of neighbourhoods, he said.
In NOTL, that could mean preserving areas like Old Town and pushing growth to transit corridors like Glendale.
If there’s an area that needs to be protected and preserved, it’s easier to do so when a whole city is on board and there would be more options of where development could go, he said.
“St. Catharines still has a lot of empty parking lots that you could build highrises on.”
What about concerns about councillors who don’t know NOTL having a say on NOTL issues and areas of development?
“When you become one city, those other councillors care about Niagara-on-the-Lake just as much as they care about Merriton. I know some Ottawa councillors, you know, they worry about the Glebe as much as they care about Kanata.”
He said well-paid, full-time councillors also have more time to spend on understanding the different boroughs.
“And plus they have staff,” he added.
He said councillors in Ottawa earn about $108,000 annually, which he calls “reasonable” and sufficient to attract people with expertise.
“And to be fair to current councillors, it’s tough. I mean, you get agenda packages, you’ve gotta read it all. You’ve got a full-time job.”
As one city, “you’d be able to attract the best talent in the entire region. You’d have the best of the best,” Schlange said, noting municipalities now have a hard time recruiting and retaining staff.
“Look at Niagara-on-the-Lake. They’ve had like five, six clerks in the last few years. It’s hard to attract and retain the best if there’s different compensation ranges,” he said.
He added that with changing concerns, like the environment, policy and growth issues, asset management, transportation, etc., “it’s much more complex to manage a municipality now than ever.”
“So why not be the best you possibly can be?”