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Municipal Innovation in Innisfil: Cryptocurrency and On-Demand Transit

Podcast featuring Buster Nicholsonmanager of Public Sector Outreach and
Lynn Dollin, Mayor, Innisfil, Canada

Few people think of innovation when they think of municipal government. However, in the small city of Innisfil in Ontario, Canada—about an hour north of Toronto—the city council has prioritized finding innovative solutions to help its city prosper. In this episode, American Public University’s Buster Nicholson talks to Lynn Dollin, the mayor of Innisfil, about some of the city’s newest initiatives including accepting cryptocurrency for tax payments, creating an on-demand transit system, building innovative housing options, and creating physical and financial infrastructure to support business startups. Learn more about municipal leaders’ innovative strategy to enhance the quality of life for residents in Innisfil. 

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Buster Nicholson: Well, welcome to the podcast. I’m your host, Buster Nicholson. This show is dedicated to highlighting issues facing communities from the perspective of those in local leadership positions. Today, my guest is a Lynn Dollin, mayor of Innisfil, in the great country of Canada. Lynn was elected mayor for the town of Innisfil in 2018 and has represented the town since 1994, first as councilor for 20 years and as a deputy mayor from 2014 to 2018.

She has been the town of Innisfil’s representative on many boards, including the Lake Simcoe and Nottawasaga Valley Conservation Authorities, the Royal Victoria Hospital Board, and the South Simcoe Economic Alliance. She also spent two years as a board member for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and representing Ontario at the Provincial and Territorial Associations. Lynn, welcome and thank you for joining me.

Lynn Dollin: Thank you so much, Buster. I’m quite impressed you got Nottawasaga right the first time.

Buster Nicholson: Well, I practiced it a little bit. So, I wanted to talk to you a little bit about cryptocurrency. You know, the topic of decentralized finance using cryptocurrency is getting a lot of attention these days. Your town, which if I’m not mistaken, is the only municipality in North America to have taken the bold step in allowing its residents to pay their taxes using cryptocurrency.

I tell you, Lynn, I was amazed when I read about this in the news. Could you tell me about how the town came to accept Bitcoin for tax payments and how did it all start?

Lynn Dollin: Certainly, Buster. So, Innisfil, over the last few years has developed a reputation for doing things a little differently, experimenting, and finding innovation, particularly in something that is championed in our culture. We’ve developed that.

Start a public administration degree at American Military University.

Council is allowing staff to try new things, and some of them work and some of them don’t. And our idea is, if you’re going to fail, just fail quick and move on to something else.

So, we’ve started with things like our libraries. We were the first in Canada to have purpose-built hack labs in our library systems. We are the only municipality in the world, we think, that has our transit system is a ride-sharing system. So, we have 24 hour a day, 7 day a week, door-to-door transit in a relatively rural, in some parts, municipality.

So, when you develop that type of a reputation and you’re always out looking at new and innovative ideas, people start coming to you. So, we were approached by a Toronto company named Coinberry, and they were looking for a unique way to offer crypto users the opportunity to use their funds. And so we got talking with them and the idea came up of allowing residents to use cryptocurrency or Bitcoin to pay their property taxes.

[Podcast: Town Leaders Managing in Times of Crisis]

Buster Nicholson: I just think that’s incredible. I’m a big fan of decentralized finance. And that’s why I asked you for the interview. I’ve been looking at cryptocurrencies for about a year and just thinking about how they would play a role in the way we run our networks. So to see a town so progressive with an idea like cryptocurrency is very exciting. And I think it, as an example, in my opinion from what I know about cryptocurrency to a lot of other municipalities.

Lynn Dollin: Yeah, and I have to tell you, it was a big learning curve for council. The first question out of council’s mouths, “Well, what is cryptocurrency and how does it work?” So it took a lot of faith and I have to really hand it to my council that when you’re in local government or any kind of government people are always looking for you to make a mistake. And when you do, it’s on the front page of the paper. And it’s all about wasting taxpayers’ dollars.

So you have to have a pretty resilient council and you have to have a council that has a great trust in the staff to move things like this forward. We were convinced after talking to both Coinberry and our staff that it was risk-free for the municipality and it would offer another option for residents, and it has garnered a lot of attention.

Buster Nicholson: Wow, that’s great. And just how has the public been responding to this new form of payment and have they been supportive of the idea?

Lynn Dollin: Well, I have to tell you, they’re not lining up to pay with cryptocurrency. We, we do believe that it will grow over time, but it is just another option and it’s very simple to use. It’s just a click of a website when you’re paying. And then Coinberry instantly turns that into Canadian dollars. We had one resident who moved to Innisfil simply because of this. Because they thought, “Wow. I want to live in a municipality that is willing to try new ideas.”

We also had Jack Dorsey visit Ontario at one point. A tech media person asked him about if he knew about Innisfil. And of course, he was all excited and said he wanted to come and visit Innisfil sometimes. So we’re still waiting. I guess maybe after the pandemic, but hopefully Mr. Dorsey will come and see us.

But it’s not just about the cryptocurrency, it’s about providing that opportunity for people who have different ideas to say, “Hey, I’m going to talk to Innisfil because they won’t throw me out the front door when I come up with this new idea.”

Buster Nicholson: Yes, and I believe that spirit of innovation played out in different segments in how the municipality is serving the public is really critical because we’re ever-changing with technologies, we’re always changing with the way we approach things. We have to be willing to adapt and be flexible. And I think that cryptocurrency is a good sign of that. These cryptocurrencies, they also do things.

A lot of people think, “Well, I’m just going to use this to pay someone.” And you can use them for that, but some of them actually in the background operate in ways that support supply chains, for example, or security issues. And the difference between the cryptocurrency, I guess the best way to look at it and maybe like the Canadian dollar or the U.S. dollar, is that this is actually tied to a working solution, a network solution or something out there.

Lynn Dollin: Yeah, absolutely. And anything that makes the lives of our residents easier, especially at no cost to us, why would we not do it?

Buster Nicholson: Exactly. And I did, Lynn, I did go on your site and just looked around on how you would do this with Coinberry, and it was very easy. I was very impressed. And like I said, I looked all over North America trying to find another municipality that did this, and I did not.

Lynn Dollin: Yeah. I know that there’s some a municipality not too far from us, Richmond Hill in York Region, just part of the GT, the Greater Toronto area that was also looking at it. They had one councilor who’s really championing it. But you really have to also have staff on board. And in some of these larger municipalities, when you have clear things through many different levels of bureaucracy it can get weighed down.

So when you’ve got a relatively small, we’re about 37,000 people and we’re agile, so we can turn these things around. What’s really been helpful for us in helping get our residents on board when we do try something that’s new and that people are afraid of change, so we call it a pilot project. We’ll say “This isn’t forever. We’re going to try it. It might work, it might not. If we need to tweak it, we can tweak it. If we like it, we’ll keep it. If we don’t, we’ll move on to something else.”

Buster Nicholson: Yes. And I, I think getting in early is key because I think 2021 is expected through many individuals that are in the crypto sphere to be big for crypto. And the reason I started looking at it is because I do really believe it’s a next iteration, the next generation of the internet.

Lynn Dollin: Right, absolutely. And those who believe in it really believe in it. And we’ve certainly found that we’ve gotten headlines around the world and this is a municipality that 10 years ago we had some real issues. We had a large city to the north of us who was looking to annex a bunch of our land. We were having trouble then recruiting good people because they didn’t know whether we were even going to be around or exist in the future. We had staff suggesting that maybe our name was tarnished and we should be changing our name.

And that was 10 years ago. And in 10 years now we’ve gotten not only for crypto but also for our Uber transit system and other innovative things we’re doing. We’re in headlines around the world and now people are saying, “Oh that place in Canada, it’s called Innisfil.” And we love it.

Buster Nicholson: Yes. And I, I had to look up your name because I thought it was Native American. I was like, “Okay this sounds like Inuit or,” but I didn’t realize it was Irish.

Lynn Dollin: It is Irish. Yes, we come from Irish descent.

Buster Nicholson: So let me ask you a little bit more about what you would see as a future for crypto for your town. There have been substantial gains for investors in cryptocurrencies in 2020. For example, Bitcoin has grown up to 220%, Ethereum’s risen 321%. And there’s main hedge funds investing in crypto, they’re holding cryptos, along with mainstream companies like PayPal accepting crypto for payments.

And it, and that’s really cool that a town led before PayPal got in. So where, where do you see cryto’s role in the town’s financial strategy in the future? I know you allow Coinberry to switch into the Canadian dollars. Where would you like to see something like that go with holding crypto or in long-term investing? They call it “hodling” in the crypto world. Where do you think you might be in five, ten years with that?

Lynn Dollin: Well, to be honest, everything is on the table. The easier you make it for residents to pay for things and offer multiple methods of payment, the better. With those types of returns, we could see, like, all of a sudden it makes your property taxes very, very affordable, here in Innisfil.

So I can’t say where we’ll be in the future, we are very highly regulated here in Ontario by the provincial government. Local governments are kind of a child of the province, and much of what we can do is governed under a piece of legislation called the Municipal Act. And we obviously must follow that.

Lynn Dollin: But we’ve been successful in the past with advocacy to the provincial government of allowing us to have joint investment boards, which is something we never had before.

We have fairly large reserve accounts that sit and languish because there is no opportunity for us to invest them in anything other than what they call the legal list. So now we’ve talked the province into allowing us to have this joint investment board and at least get some higher returns on these dollars that are sitting there waiting.

Most of them are reserve accounts for things that maybe won’t have to be improved or rebuilt, like if it’s an arena for instance, that we might be having that money sit in a bank for 40 years before we have to spend it, and it’s, right now, not doing what it should be doing.

And, of course, the higher return we can get on any of these dollars, just means collecting less from the residents in the future. But then there’s also risk aversion as well, and there’s certainly, from the provincial standpoint, fear that we’re going to gamble away people’s tax dollars. So we have to be able to prove to the province to allow them to change the regulation to see what we can and can’t do.

But for now this is a great start, it’s a great step in the, getting our feet wet, because the provincial government will see “Look, they did it and it worked.” And so everybody has to start somewhere.

Buster Nicholson: Exactly. And, it is, it’s toe dipping, because it’s something new. And that’s what it could be, you know? Maybe in the future a toe dip will put 2% into the crypto and hold. We’ll put 3% and just diversification will limit the risk, spreading it out over different avenues of investment.

Lynn Dollin: Exactly, yes. And so we have to start somewhere, baby steps, and we’ve done that. So we’ll go from there and see where it gets us.

Buster Nicholson: All right, I want to switch gears a little bit and just talk about projects and programs you currently have in the works for the town. So just in general, if you want to go over a couple of those things and toot your horn a little bit on some of the exciting projects that Innisfil is working on.

Lynn Dollin: Absolutely. So we’re always looking for the next big project. And one of the ones that we’re working on now is a project called The Orbit. So I have to tell you a little bit about Innisfil for you to understand this. So we’re rather large geographically, and a small urban population. Innisfil consists of many, about nine settlement areas, and then lots of rural agriculture land in between the settlement areas.

A lot of the people, actually 81%, and, of course, this is pre-COVID, 81% of the people who went to work left our town every day. So they commute, we’re about an hour north of Toronto. So we’re a big commuter town, a bedroom community. And we want to change that.

We want to have people live and work and play closer to home, we want them to have a better quality of life. We’re on the shores of a gorgeous lake, beautiful freshwater Lake Simcoe. And we want people to be able to have that quality of life, not have to do a two-hour commute or longer every day.

We are building this Orbit, which is a mobility center. It is surrounded by a regional train station that people could live within. It’s a highly dense area that we think represents a new and smarter way of building cities.

So we have so many people moving in, and lots of development, especially due to COVID, everybody wants out of the big cities. But we don’t have a lot of different types of housing stock. What we have is single-family dwellings and some townhouses. So we want to provide housing other than that young family would want.

So once the kids have moved away, and maybe people want to just have a smaller living space, a condo where they don’t need to worry about outside property maintenance, shoveling the snow. They could live in that type of an atmosphere.

We also want to make sure that we know, especially since COVID, that public open space is so important. So we want to make sure that we have that space and that we have important amenities like schools, museums, libraries, shops, businesses, all within walking distance. We want to build a healthy community, and a walkable community.

So that is a big project that we’re working on. And also, we have something called DMZ Innisfil. This is a program that we’ve created with a local university. And it is basically to create opportunities for startups and small businesses to thrive.

So we have what we call an accelerator space, and we have startup businesses, so basically anybody who has a good idea, you can join this DMZ group and it gives you access to collaboration, to startup funding, to mentors, so you can take your idea, whatever that idea is, and market it, and make it successful.

And because we’ve partnered with a company that’s already in this space, they already have, in New York, they have in Dubai, they have in Tokyo, so we’re really playing with the big boys here, and we’ve had some great success.

We had a hackathon. We presented a bunch of problems that COVID had presented to us, and had a hackathon to have these different groups and teams present to us solutions for those. And we had only place for two, we ended up getting four new ideas that we are going to be able to use.

One of them was around a reservation system. As you are probably aware, one of the biggest problems with COVID is social gatherings and people gathering too closely together. We were having issues with our boat launches and with people going ice fishing out on the lake. So now we have this reservation program, that you can do on your phone, you can book a time to go ice skating, you could book a time to go on the toboggan hill, and then it’s safe for everybody because you’ll know there’s only going to be a certain amount of people there, and there will be no overcrowding and less opportunity to spread the virus.

Buster Nicholson: Fantastic. And I love the idea of the mixed-use community, and then the business incubation program, they fit nicely together.

Lynn Dollin: Yes, now that people are working remotely so much more, we want to take advantage of this crisis and treat it as an opportunity, and take a big chunk of that 81% and have them work closer to home. Have housing that has an office in it, as built, so that people can keep their work separate from their home life, but at the same time be home when their kids get home from school, be steps from Lake Simcoe, and be able to enjoy all the amenities that a slower and more relaxing lifestyle gives families.

Buster Nicholson: Yes, yes. And with people working in their offices, I love the idea of the walkability you brought up. And just getting out, getting that exercise, the reservations for the ice fishing, or skating, and I like the aspect of thinking about that work-life balance.

Lynn Dollin: Yes, it’s so important. I think if, if COVID’s taught us anything it’s that quality of life is so important, outdoor space is important, fresh air and exercise is important, and all of those things we have here in abundance in Innisfil.

Buster Nicholson: And Lynn, just tell me, from a personal perspective, what things you love about Innisfil.

Lynn Dollin: Well, a lot. But I’m going to say people. We’ve discovered, in the last little while, just how resilient our community is, and how everyone’s helping everyone else.

And I think sometimes it takes a crisis to make you realize that you are so fortunate to live in a community like ours. Everybody has been reaching out to their neighbors, people have been shopping for each other, looking out on elderly neighbors who may be are a little bit afraid to go out in the stores.

And we’re noticing that people are just becoming more friendlier, but in a distant way. I had a resident who moved here just in November, she wrote to tell me even though she moved here in the middle of a lockdown, because we’re all under a stay at home order right now, she said she’d felt so welcome here.

And it’s that small town, we’re big enough to have the amenities, but we’re small enough so that everybody knows their neighbor, and you still have that sense where we’re one of the safest communities in Canada, you know the names of your police officers, and you just have that really great small-town feel. But at the same time, a municipality that is cutting edge.

Buster Nicholson: I’ve lived in small towns my whole life and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I just really like the aspect of community, the support, and just coming together and knowing your neighbor.

Lynn Dollin: Absolutely, absolutely. And knowing there’s somebody there you can rely on if you need to is, is really important for our community. And it’s come through, it’s just shone through. Our food bank has never seen so many donations this year, people are leaving signs for other people.

We had a snowman competition just finished, so that was quite the fierce competition. Everybody was out in their front lawns making the nicest snowmen. And then we got to drive around and see them all. So little things like that that just keep people going.

And, of course, all of the love and support we’re seeing for our front line workers, whether that’s PSWs in the long-term care homes, or our firefighters, even the people who make sure that our water is safe to drink. All of those people are so important to our community, and they’re getting a lot of love from our residents.

Buster Nicholson: That’s fantastic, and it just sounds like a lot of exciting things going on there, and that’s, again, the reason I wanted to talk with you, because you guys have been popping up in the news. I said, “It sounds like a neat place. Very innovative. And the projects are interesting, and just the vision is there.”

And I would say that you guys are definitely leaders, international leaders, in what you’re doing and how you view community. And it’s a model that I think many communities could aspire to.

Lynn Dollin: Well, that’s great. And we are happy to share. We’ve had municipalities from all over Canada reach out to us and ask us how we did our transit system, our on-demand transit system. We’ve had communities ask us about cryptocurrency, and we’re always… it’s, there’s no monopoly on a good idea, and we’re happy to share with anybody who wants to listen to us, and come and see us anytime.

Buster Nicholson: Yes, yes. And I would, I would definitely love to come up for a visit, just to see what’s going on up there. It just sounds amazing.

Lynn Dollin: You’re more than welcome Buster.

Buster Nicholson: I appreciate that Lynn, and hey, I want to thank you so much for joining me today, and for sharing your expertise and your perspective on all these issues.

Lynn Dollin: Well thank you so much for having me, I really enjoyed our conversation.

Buster Nicholson: And I want to thank our listeners for joining us for another episode of In Public Safety Matters. Be well and stay safe.

Buster Nicholson is a manager of Public Sector Outreach. He has an M.A. in Public Administration and has worked as a public school teacher, analyst for the U.S. Secret Service, a town administrator, and a director of public works. At AMU, he works with directors and staff in state and local government to facilitate leadership growth through education and professional development.

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