‘Novelty Cheque’ Presentation Was a Waste of Public’s Time
A Commentary by Niagara, Ontario resident and community activist Ed Smith
Posted March 26th, 2018 on Niagara At Large
Niagara, Ontario – Last Thursday, March 22nd, at the regularly scheduled Regional Council meeting, Councillor Tony Quirk of Grimsby introduced a motion that in effect delays the payment – potentially indefinitely -of the $1.2 million the Niagara Peninsula Conservation had committed, only a few weeks ago, to return, the Niagara Region and, ultimately, to its taxpayers.
The money was made available as the result of a decision made by the province’s Deputy Mining and Lands Commissioner in favour of the levying agreements the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) has with Hamilton.
The details are somewhat complex. However, the decision made by the Deputy Commissioner basically meant that Hamilton was being under-taxed by the NPCA and Niagara was being over-taxed. Therefore, Hamilton was forced to pay more to the NPCA, retroactively, and the NPCA was then free to return the over-payments to Niagara.
The commissioner’s decision was handed down in early January of this year, but Hamilton almost immediately made it known that it intended to appeal the decision.
On Wednesday, January 24th Hamilton city council voted to ask Ontario’s Divisional Court for a judicial review of the levy increase. That means the issue is uncertain and the fate of the money is now in the hands of the courts.
Regardless of the lack of finality in the case, the NPCA board, made up predominately of Niagara regional councillors, passed a motion on February 28th that the over-taxed funds would be returned to taxpayers “pending any final legal decision of the process”.
In effect the board recognized that the final repayment to taxpayers was not a guarantee, and indeed it is impossible to say at this point how the courts will decide on this issue.
Again, despite this lack of a final decision on the issue, the NPCA Board chairman Sandy Annunziata (a regional councillor for Fort Erie) chose to launch a public campaign in which he was handing back to taxpayers of Niagara the more than 1.2 million dollars.
A giant novelty cheque was produced and a presentation was orchestrated for a Regional Council meeting in early March. There was polite applause all around and no doubt some metaphorical backslapping took place between NPCA elected officials at what might appear to be a public relations win for the NPCA.
At this point I should say who I am, in the interest of transparency. I am the citizen that the NPCA tried (very unsuccessfully) to sue into silence for approximately 14 months – an endeavour that cost the taxpayer of Niagara and neighbouring Hamilton and Haldimand nearly $300,000, and an endeavour that a Superior Court Judge compared (by way of criticism directed at those who launched the lawsuit) to no legal action he had ever heard of in his “beloved Dominion”.
Now back to the issue at hand.
For those who watched the $1.2 million cheque presentation this March 1st at regional council, it seemed very political to say the least, although it may not have crossed a line into the absurd, it certainly stank of a poorly conceived publicity stunt.
With all the issues facing the Niagara Region, are we seriously paying them to engage in political theatre that is paper thin to the point of embarrassing?
If the NPCA overtaxed us $1.2 million then return the money and get on with attempting to fix the litany of problems that are rampant at the Conservation Authority.
However since, as I have been saying, it has not yet been resolved whether or not there will be any money to return (and given that the NPCA has been on the losing side of the judicial system of late) perhaps the most responsible action is to wait until the courts have passed a final ruling on this issue of the $1.2 million.
This brings us back to Councillor Quirk’s motion at regional council this past Thursday, March 22nd.
As I mentioned, the passing of this motion means the NPCA will not pay the money back until 2019 (at the earliest).
Why the delay? If you overtaxed us then give us back the money.
The reason for the delay in returning the money seems obvious. The issue is undecided, Hamilton has appealed to a court and Hamilton might win that appeal.
Therefore, despite all of political theatre put on by our elected officials at the NPCA, it is still possible that we won’t see a single cent returned to Niagara.
I have no idea how long the appeal process could take. But I do have some experience in courtrooms, thanks to the aforementioned lawsuit pursued against me by the NPCA, and my guess is that it might stretch out for quite a while.
It is possible that the courts will uphold the decision made by the ministry and Niagara taxpayers will receive the money eventually, but it is also possible that the courts will side with Hamilton and Niagara residents will not receive any refund.
The NPCA does not know, and that is the bottom line.
They do not know how this will turn out and yet for some reason they chose to go on a publicity sideshow that was ill-conceived and a waste of time that could have been spent addressing other pressing issue, at the very least.
The NPCA is an organization that a Superior Court Justice ruled was engaging in actions “designed to silence” a citizen and that the same judge further described as “a body which has had trouble finding its way”.
It seems they are still struggling to find their way.
It seems like all of us are left waiting for good governance, good leadership and a Conservation Authority that clearly understands its mandate, and conducts itself accordingly.
The time for accountability is coming Niagara.
The next municipal elections are now about seven months away. Prepare yourself to hold elected officials, including those regional councillors and mayors sitting on the NPCA board, to task for their actions and get ready for the horizon of A Better Niagara.
A Footnote to the above Commentary –
The following questions were asked of NCPA chair and Fort Erie regional councillor Sandy Annunziata and NPCA board member and Grimsby regional council Tony Quirk. At the time of the commentary’s posting, no response had been received from either councillor.
Here are the questions –
- The fact that the issue can only be described as unresolved at this point, how is it that the NPCA board decided to return the funds?
- The NPCA made a very public commitment to return the funds, is it the Board’s intention to return the funds regardless of the outcome of Hamilton’s challenge?
- Have you received any legal advice on how long these appeal processes can take?
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