Strong mayor powers and the City of Belleville: What you need to know 

Belleville City Hall – Photo via Wiki Commons

Over the last few weeks, there has been a lot of talk about Ontario’s ‘strong mayor’ policy and how it relates to the City of Belleville.

Between council opposing strong mayor powers and Mayor Neil Ellis indicating he will accept them, the situation can feel a bit confusing for average citizens. Plus, what does ‘strong mayor’ even mean?

Quinteist has broken down the situation with the help of interviews with Mayor Ellis and Councillor Paul Carr, as well as some online research into the relatively short history of Ontario’s strong mayor policy. 

What are strong mayor powers?

Strong mayor powers were introduced by the provincial government in 2022 as a way to, in the words of the province, “cut red tape and speed up the delivery of key shared municipal-provincial priorities such as housing, transit and infrastructure in their municipalities.” 

In relation to smaller municipalities like Belleville, the initiative is mostly tied to home construction, in support of the province’s goal to build 1.5 million new homes by 2031.

These powers also give the mayor the authority to appoint and dismiss the chief administrative officer as well as the heads of organizational units; determine the administrative structure of the city; and establish committees of council and appoint chairs and vice-chairs of committees of council.

A ‘strong mayor’ has the authority to propose housing-related bylaws and pass them with the support of one-third of councillors; they can also override council approval of certain bylaws and prepare their city’s budget, instead of council.

How did the strong mayor initiative come to Belleville?

While initially implemented for Toronto and Ottawa in late 2022, strong mayor powers have gradually been introduced to smaller municipalities.

In August, Premier Doug Ford announced at the Association of Municipalities Ontario conference that Belleville and other communities of about the same size were going to be offered strong mayor powers in exchange for a housing pledge. If the mayor accepts the powers, he or she takes a ‘housing pledge’ that commits to building a certain number of housing units per year. If the targets are met, the city receives money from the province from what’s known as the Building Faster Fund. 

For Belleville, the province has set a target of 3,100 new units by 2031. If the city meets 100 per cent of their target each year, the amount of money from the province works out to be about $890,000 a year, or approximately 2.4 million through to 2026.

What happens if they don’t meet the target?

If the city meets 100 per cent of its target, full funding will be awarded. If Belleville goes over its target, the city will get full funding plus a bonus (the details of this bonus are still being worked out). 

If the city falls between 80 and 100 per cent of the target, it gets a smaller percentage of the funding. 

If construction falls below 80 per cent, they get nothing.

So who decides whether this initiative is right for Belleville?

Only the mayor has the power to accept or reject strong mayor powers.

Mayor Neil Ellis has indicated that he intends to accept them, and has until Oct. 15 to notify the province in writing that he will accept the powers.

To him, it only makes sense. 

“If I didn’t take the strong mayor powers and we met our housing targets, we would not receive any funds,” Ellis told Quinteist

But didn’t council vote against accepting these powers?

Yes, at their Sept. 25 meeting, Belleville council voted 6-2 against the strong mayor powers. But, because the decision lies solely with the mayor, this vote was merely symbolic.

“Basically we don’t have a voice, and so the intent of the motion was simply to express council’s view on the strong mayor powers that the province has,” explains Councillor Paul Carr, who brought the motion forward. 

Why does council oppose the strong mayor initiative?

Carr feels that the strong mayor system is misaligned for communities like Belleville. 

“City councils are often seen by more senior levels of government as gatekeepers that slow down development,” Carr says. 

While he agrees this may sometimes be the case with larger cities like Toronto and Ottawa, Carr, who has chaired the planning advisory committee for the last five years and has been a member of council since 2014, doesn’t believe this is the case for Belleville. 

“We don’t say no to zoning applications for new development. We don’t object to any of that. We’re batting 1,000 in terms of agreeing to it.”

He also disagrees with the terms of the funding, which is based on housing starts, not council approvals, essentially relying on private developers to follow through with building.

“The problem is, we have a lot of developments here where there is no building occurring,” Carr says. So if the private sector doesn’t build, we don’t get that counted towards us in order to be eligible for the money.”

He gives the example of when council approved zoning for 130 homes in the Village of Avonlea, and even extended a sanitary sewer there in 2019 to the tune of $1.8 million. 

“Now that zoning’s been approved and the sanitary sewer is running that way and properly, the property is now up for sale for $29 million,” Carr notes.

“There are many examples across our city where there’s land speculation or there are delays on the private sector, which then impacts our score in terms of the Building Faster Fund.”

So is it unrealistic that Belleville will meet these targets?

Not according to Mayor Ellis.

“Right now, this year, we would have made our targets,” he says. 

Ellis admits that “it’s sometimes a challenge, but it depends on the economy.”

“Belleville is one of the fastest growing communities in Ontario, even in Canada,” Ellis says. “We have people that are still purchasing homes and buying new homes so as the economy turns around, I think these numbers are attainable.”

So obviously receiving money from the province is a good thing. But overall, are strong mayor policies for cities like Belleville effective in getting more housing built?

Carr doesn’t think so.

“We can’t rely on the private sector when people need housing,” he says. “There’s got to be a stronger accountability.”

He’s suggested the province implement a “use it or lose it” rule when it comes to zoning.

That way, “if a municipality approves the zoning for a particular development, and you don’t use it within a period of time, you lose that zoning,” Carr says.

“They have to be held accountable for not building, just the same way as we have to be and should be accountable for not approving.”

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