SVCA chairman’s focus environmental footprint

While many councillors are generally concerned about number crunching at budget time, Doug Freiburger, chairman of the Saugeen Valley Conservation Authority, focussed on the environmental footprint.
“I ask support for our meagre bare bones budget.
He and SVCA general manager Jim Coffey were at Minto council recently to discussed the increased municipal levy for 2008.
Freiburger’s initial com­ments echoed his ad­dress to the SVCA board’s general meeting in January as he spoke about the authority’s environmental “footprint” and achievements over the last 57 years.
He council that this year he has taken a different approach as he spoke to watershed council’s about the year’s activities and the budget. He talked of the realities of climate change and the environmental footprint cast by the authority’s ef­forts, and going green.
He cited the impact on the watershed.
“Saugeen Conservation has developed an extensive flood warning system, undertaken and maintained major flood control projects, completed floodplain mapping in 12 urban municipalities, planted over eight million trees on private and public lands, taught thousands of school children the importance of conservation, and owns and maintains over 21,000 acres of land, including wetlands, conservation areas and forested properties.”
Of the lands within the conservation authority, 13,000 acres are designated as Class 1 wetlands – which are highly diverse, and are headwaters of the watershed.
Among the lands owned by the authority are three profitable campgrounds and a variety of day use areas for the public.  Besides camping, the Authority’s land holdings are available for other activities such as hunting, fishing, hiking, skiing, and nature appreciation.
Freiburger stressed all those accomplishments are achieved and provided to watershed residents for approximately $15 per $100,000 of assessment.
He considers the work of the SVCA as an integral part the community, which provides intangible benefits that are extremely difficult to measure.
Freiburger used the example of providing thousands of children an appreciation of the watershed he hopes will result in a healthier watershed in future. “Education is key.”
He hopes the benefit of protecting wetlands, streams, and forests is a clean and healthy watershed that will be cherished by all who live, work or visit within its borders. Plant­ing millions of trees will re­move in excess eight million tons of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.
“Conservation is good business,” he said.
He cited the millions of dollars saved when homes are not flooded and roads and bridges not washed away.
Freiburger believes the work of the Conservation Authority will be felt for generations to come, and asked “Why would anyone want to use Conser­vation Authorities as a political pawn?”
He said Saugeen Conser­vation will keep fighting for fair funding and he urged member municipalities to support the Authority in its fight to obtain fair and equitable funding from the provincial and the federal governments for the valuable work being done.
Freiburger said the Saugeen Authority’s “footprint is not cast in stone. It is dynamic, flexible and ever ready to meet the needs of the watershed and its residents. It reaches to every acre of our watershed. It highly dependent on many players interacting to achieve the ultimate goal of a safe and healthy watershed. “We do this work not for the glory or recognition, but for our grandchildren.”
Minto Mayor David Ander­son commented that some parts of  Freiburger’s speech could apply to municipal governments as well, as it deals with downloading of costs and services from the province.
“No one is arguing with the work that you do,” he said.
SVCA General Manager Jim Coffey explained the nuts and bolts of municipal levies increasing. Even though the SVCA’s budget is going down, municipal levies are going up.
He said most of the changes are due to increased operating costs, and not capital projects.
Coffey said operational and capital cuts, as well as the use of some reserves are being im­plemented in 2008 to reduce the impact of the compensation changes on the general levy.
Roughly 36% of Minto’s assessment area lies within the SVCA levy area.
This year’s levy of $32,712 is $3,145 above last year.
Coffey explained that in­creases to the operating budget for 2008 include upgrading of equipment costs, increased mile­age rates, and salary adjustments to reflect the cost of living index.
However, another issue is the SVCA needs to address was its ability to attract and retain qualified planning staff.
In recent years, the SVCA has been akin to a training ground, as qualified staff are enticed away by consultants or other Conservation Authorities.
In reviewing pay scales, Coffey said that on average, its pay scale was 6% below that of comparable authorities.
The board decision to ad­dress that will cost about $29,000 and will be adjusted over a two-year-period.
Additionally, upgrades to computer equipment are being considered as operations not capital projects – but it is a cost to keep up with the times.
He added that with the growth and demand by outside sources for information, the SVCA has also had to hire an information technology specialist.
When asked about provincial funds, Coffey explained that the authority gets essentially the same annual funding as it did in 1995 – the only differences are in what can be applied for in capital projects.
Freiburger said Conserva­tion Authorities are still heavily involved in getting their funding increased. He cited efforts a few years ago with a presentation that outlined that the province was funding conservation authorities roughly $14-to $15-million less than what its own guidelines recommended.The response to the request for more cash at that time was no additional funding was available.
As a result, Conservation Ontario is working on a different approach.
The intent, Freiburger said, is to provide a business plan proving that Conservation Authority programs are providing a large amount of provincially significant work “and getting absolutely nothing in return.”
He pointed to the various work mandated by the pro­vince, but organizations like his receiving very little in re­turn.
“Since we’ve started kicking at the door, we’re not going to stop.”
Mayor David Anderson said that one of the strong voices for the municipalities is the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, a provincial lobby group.
Freiburger, however, said AMO has been contacted, but when it is trying to deal with a $3-billion fiscal imbalance, and Conservation Authorities looking for $4-million “… we are chaff since we are such a minuscule piece of the pie.”