Conservation authority hopes new fee schedule will cover costs

Beginning next year, the cost for services from the Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authority (NVCA) might actually cover the cost of the service.

Under the Conservation Authorities Act, every conservation authority must provide what are deemed Category 1 services and programs to each municipality within the organization's boundaries.

That municipal funding accounts for about 30 per cent of the agency’s revenue. The remaining 70 per cent must come from user fees, which have been frozen by the provincial government until the end of 2023.

Municipalities located within the Nottawasaga watershed include Barrie, Springwater, Essa, Oro-Medonte, Innisfil, Bradford West Gwillimbury, Collingwood, Wasaga Beach, Clearview, Adjala-Tosorontio, and New Tecumseth, as well as The Blue Mountains and Grey Highlands in Grey County, and Amaranth, Melancthon, Mono, Mulmur, and Shelburne in Dufferin County.

Anticipating the freeze might be lifted, the NVCA board of directors gave conservation authority staff the task of creating a fee schedule that would result in 100 per cent cost recovery.

“We’re not-for-profit, so all we’re doing is covering our costs,” said Ben Krul, the NVCA's manager of planning services.

The NVCA hired economists Watson and Associates, which has extensive experience working with other conservation authorities across the province, to calculate the true costs of their work. Together, the two groups say they went over every facet of the conservation authority’s efforts, detailing exactly how much time it took to deliver every service and logging every resource required to deliver it.

All fee recommendations were made to recover the full costs of delivering plan review and permitting services on a program basis, applicant affordability and completeness, industry best practices and uniformity of fees.

“We worked very closely with Watson to look at what staff utilization was involved,” said Krul. “They went over every line of our operation.”

The first area of concern was staffing.

According to the consultant's report, the NVCA is short three full-time staff, including one water resource engineer, one planning staff and one regulation staff, who would process permits.

Having those positions would greatly improve NVCA’s ability to deliver services more efficiently, they say.

“Based on the feedback we’ve received from our board of directors, they are supportive of (hiring three positions) based on the feedback they’ve gotten from their constituents, the municipalities they deal with,” Krul said. “(The municipalities) see the cost benefits. If we can be adequately staffed, we can deal with inquiries faster, which saves money and improves efficiency.”

At the NVCA's board meeting in August, staff brought forward a request for an additional $200,000 in general levy. The board members recognized the staffing shortfall in the NVCA’s planning and regulations department and the delays it is causing in processing files. As a result, NVCA’s levy guideline was increased to $400,000, with the additional approximate $200,000 to be placed to planning services for acquisition of staff.

But increasing staff is just one part of the cost recovery solution.

The other part, which is far more challenging, comes from the actual work that is involved in reviewing and evaluating plans, which, according to Krul, is becoming far more complex than it was a few years ago.

“All the good land is gone,” Krul said. “The types of applications we’re seeing now are far more complex. The pieces of land we’re looking at now have a lot of natural hazards and require a lot more technical review. The level of staff involvement is much greater.”

If approved, NVCA fees will increase for site-specific official plan and zoning bylaw amendments, as well as committee of adjustment applications, development permits and legal/real estate inquiries.

There will be no changes to subdivision, condominium, golf course, or aggregate proposal fees.

There are also no changes proposed for residential site-plan applications. All other site-plan fees would be increased.

Wayne Doyle, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter,