Big City Problems
In January of 2024 City of Toronto staff recommended a nine percent increase to the residential property tax. They also recommended a 1.5 percent increase to the city building tax, which could see property owners tax rate increase by a total of 10.5 percent. Should anticipated Federal funding support for the city not materialize, a further six percent increase could be added to the bill by way of a “Federal Impacts Levy”, resulting in a staggering potential 16.5 percent rate increase to taxpayers.
When speaking of these recommendations, budget Chief Counsel Shelly Carroll stated that “it is no secret that this is going to be a challenging financial year” and that the increases were required to maintain important city services.
This budgetary turmoil comes at a time when municipalities are facing increasing levels of demand for these services. Last year Beaches-East York councillor Brad Bradford summarized the situation in Toronto by saying that “people start to lose confidence and frankly they’re frustrated at the level of service they’re receiving from the city.”
Clearly the public’s expectations are very high, particularly in those areas of service which directly impact on quality of life issues, such as by-law enforcement.
Increasing Demands on By-law Services
Since the end of the global pandemic there has been a steady increase in the demands being placed upon by-law services across the country, which has forced many municipalities to reevaluate how they provide this essential service.
According to Pamela Bentley, who manages community compliance for the city of Saint John, New Brunswick, there has been a “70 percent increase in community standards complaints in just two years.”  and having “one bylaw enforcement officer is no longer enough to efficiently and effectively handle the increasing number of cases.” As a result she has asked the city growth committee to add a second by-law officer to the community standards program.
Meanwhile, in London, Ontario, parking enforcement and responding to most noise complaints were recently added to the duties of by-law officers in an attempt by the city to save costs and improve service.
These are just two examples of how some municipalities are striving to improve their by-law service.
Smaller Municipalities Face Special Challenges
But what about smaller levels of government who do not have the monetary resources or existing staffing to allow for restructuring or the hiring of new officers to meet the growing demands of the public? How can they improve by-law services? One Township in southern Ontario is quietly leading the way forward by incorporating improved, low-cost technology into their by-law program.
Introducing Guelph/Eramosa Township
About an hour’s drive West of Toronto lies the Township of Guelph/Eramosa, which partly encircles the City of Guelph in an area covering 292 square kilometers that is home to over 14,000 people. The Township proposes to operate on a budget of 20.6 million dollars for 2024 and Mayor Chris White gave voice to the need to find a balance between providing essential services and controlling tax increases when he recently stated that “this is people’s hard-earned money. You’ve got to keep tax rates that are acceptable to the community, or you lose credibility.”
Guelph/Eramosa currently employs one by-law enforcement officer, Ivan Lunevski, who works on a full-time basis. He believes that he can effectively meet the needs of the community because “the Township is very proactive in adopting technology” to streamline services and make them more efficient.
A Digital Resource for Residents
The Township maintains an excellent website which provides easy access to complete information on by-laws and a means of submitting an online complaint form. The form includes everything needed to initiate a complaint, a detailed outline of the entire process, and a promise that any submission will be acknowledged within 3-4 business days. It also contains referrals to other agencies to ensure that complaints are being properly directed to the appropriate agency.
It also features a downloadable guide to Township by-laws which includes colour photographs of what violations actually look like. This makes information pertaining to the by-laws accessible and understandable to anyone.
By automating the educational and intake process the Township has streamlined many aspects of their by-law service and their website is an excellent example of how municipalities can embrace technology to improve services while reducing costs.
Technology in the Field to Enhance Productivity
The Township’s successful efforts to streamline their by-law process results in the generation of a significant workload. Officer Lunevski estimates that last year he received over 1,200 enquiries from the public which resulted in approximately five hundred investigations. This resulted in a substantial portion of his time being spent in the field, conducting inspections, gathering evidence, issuing orders, and in some cases assisting with prosecutions.
In the past, these duties involved a lot of duplication of effort as Lunevski would have to generate original handwritten notes of his observations and activities and then return to his office to transcribe this information into digital form. This could involve typing reports based upon his notes, creating PDF copies of the notes themselves, entering data into spreadsheets and digital form templates, and creating electronic disclosure packages to assist in court proceedings.
Lunevski believes that too much of his time was spent on administrative functions that were centered on repeated handling and processing of the same information over and over again.
“We began searching for a way to make things more efficient from a service point of view,” says Lunevski.
The best answer was to increase efficiency through adopting innovative technology.
What was required was a low cost, mobile system that could be used out in the field that would streamline information and evidence gathering and which would automatically integrate all information into one data management system.
“This was the beginning of our partnership with DMI,” says Lunevski, who is now using the eNotes solution created by Digital Mobility Inc. in his daily duties. The Intelligent Mobile Patrol app on his phone allows Lunevski to create voice-to-text digital notes in real-time while conducting an inspection. Pictures can also be taken on scene and immediately stored securely as evidence.
“This saves me a lot of time,” says Lunevski, who estimates that using digital records as opposed to handwritten notes has reduced his administrative workload by 40 percent. The benefits of digital notes are well documented: notes are time-stamped the moment they are made, cannot be altered or deleted, do not require any physical storage space, and are always legible. Digital notes can also be seamlessly inserted into other documents and prevent delays in preparation of court documents. Digital notes are so reliable, and their benefits so well understood, that they have already been adopted by major police agencies, such as York Regional Police.
Since making the transition from pen and paper investigations Lunevski has seen a noticeable increase in his productivity and ability to serve the community in a timely, professional, and transparent manner, and based upon those improvements he has gone on to request that DMI design and provide electronic solutions to the specific challenges that by-law officers face every day.
The Future of By-Law Services
“We will soon be generating full inspection reports and orders on our phones and have the ability to immediately issue paperwork directly from the scene by printing it or sending it via email,” says Lunevski. He goes on to state that producing redacted copies of this information within the app and directly transferring all data to a single Records Management System will further increase his time savings, allowing him to focus on interacting with people, not paperwork.
“What I would say to by-law agencies is to be open-minded to adopting new technologies,’ say Lunevski. He adds that “hesitation to change can have a regressive impact on service delivery” and can make it very difficult to keep up with the increasing demands on by-law services which result from factors such as increasing populations and limited municipal budgets. For Lunevski, the future is all about change.
“You have to give yourself a chance to revolutionize.”