Aug 19, 2015
With Barrie and Guelph, maybe we should compare Apples to Oranges
Guelph Mercury
By Bob Moore

An Aug. 14 guest column by Guelph Coun. Phil Allt (“Barrie to Guelph comparisons are an apples to oranges thing”) suggests that comparisons between Guelph and Barrie are “virtually without foundation.”

Since I am on record for making these comparisons, with all due respect to Allt, I would like to defend the comparisons that I have made based on the data found in the municipal study conducted by BMA Management Consulting Inc.

The BMA Municipal Study has been the project of Jim Bruzzese, who according to the company’s website, “is a former city manager, treasurer and general manager of corporate services with 30-plus years experience in the municipal sector, including 14 years as a consultant.”

As a testimony to his credibility, Guelph council hired Bruzzese to address a recent meeting on how to deal with the infrastructure deficit in Guelph (see the July 28 Mercury story “Guelph council tries to get a handle on the infrastructure gap”).

The BMA Municipal Study was first published in 2001 as the “Municipal Competitiveness Study,” which suggests that the purpose has always been for comparison and contrast.

It was supported by 44 municipalities in its first year. It served such a useful purpose that in 2002, the number of participating municipalities had grown to 60.

In the 2014 study, 95 municipalities paid to participate, and the number continues to grow. One can only wonder that if a comparison with other municipalities is “without foundation,” why the number of municipalities, including Guelph, that pay for the comparative data is growing.

To remove all doubt about the purpose of the BMA Municipal Study, let’s refer to the company website: “Given that municipalities range in size, geographical location and composition, this online database allows users to customize their comparisons by selecting only those municipalities that they wish to compare themselves with.” The purpose of the BMA study is to compare one city’s performance with another.

The credibility of the study’s author, and the growing number of municipalities that participate, establish that there is foundation for comparing one city with another.

Coun. Allt acknowledges that there are similarities between Barrie and Guelph but that the similarities are insubstantial grounds for comparisons when it comes to budgeting.

Let’s review the similarities: They are both single-tier governments, i.e. not part of regions. Their average household incomes are both in the low $80,000s. Their average housing prices are both in the $300,000 range. Their growth rate are both close to the national average. Their employment rates are both in the five per cent range. They are both about an hour’s drive from Toronto. They both cover around 80 square hectares of land. The both have AA credit ratings. I can’t imagine any two more similar municipalities, even granting Allt’s points that Guelph is older and has a university.

Let’s look at a marked difference: Barrie has 20,000 more people than Guelph but runs its operating budget on $6 million less, and with almost 800 fewer employees. It is true that Barrie contracts out some of its services while Guelph does not, but those services don’t account for 800 positions and they still have to be paid for out of the operating budget.

Allt correctly points out that Barrie does not have the aging infrastructure problem that Guelph has, but that doesn’t explain very much because Guelph has not been servicing that infrastructure anyway. A recent audit of the city’s stormwater management system gave it an “F” because of the neglect.

So a purpose of the BMA Municipal Study is to compare one municipality to another. If we cannot compare ourselves to Barrie, which municipality would Allt suggest? If none is found, will he move that we drop out, and save the cost, of the BMA study?

I think civic leaders have to make room for reasonable people to pose reasonable questions when they are presented with data as well supported as the BMA Municipal Study. When a politician brushes aside the reasonable questions of reasonable people, they are saying that municipal governance is a dark art that only the initiated can understand.

The purpose of the BMA Municipal Study is to help municipalities deliver on their obligation to operate transparently. When a politician tells us to ignore comparative data, he or she is taking a step backward from transparency.

Yes there are differences between Guelph and Barrie, but when reasonable people look at the similarities, they see some questions that deserve to be answered not brushed aside.

Bob Moore is a member of the Guelph Mercury’s community editorial board.