TORONTO – The Ontario government will take a “moderate” approach to balancing the provincial budget that doesn’t cut spending at the expense of municipalities, Premier Kathleen Wynne says.
“The notion that we can right now as a government step back from supporting communities and supporting investment is just not right,” Wynne told the combined Ontario Good Roads Association and Rural Ontario Municipal Association Annual Conference Wednesday. “Our plan is practical, it’s steady, it’s balanced … it’s not focused on cutting, it’s not focused on slashing because austerity has a cost.”
In the traditional “bear pit” that followed Wynne’s speech, cabinet ministers were pressed on a number of issues of concern to municipalities, including the impact of provincial decisions on property taxes.
Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Madeleine Meilleur said she’s aware that a new Ontario Provincial Police billing model will dramatically shift costs between municipalities, and said she is looking at a phasing-in process or some form of financial mitigation from the province to control the impact on property taxes.
“I’m still trying to charm the minister of finance for him to give me money to help in this mitigation process,” she said.
The issue of rising hydro rates and unpopular wind turbines dominated much of the session.
Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli said repeatedly that the provincial government was not prepared to violate any signed deals under the Feed-in Tariff (FIT) program to bring renewable energy projects to Ontario.
“We are not going to break contracts,” Chiarelli said, noting that didn’t work out so well with two gas plants.
The government’s decision to relocate gas plants planned for Mississauga and Oakville cost as much as $1.1 billion.
Kevin Eccles, mayor of West Grey in southwestern Ontario, drew laughs when he asked Attorney General John Gerretsen if he could intervene on behalf of unhappy municipalities.
“The FIT contracts that came out a little while ago forced a marriage onto unwilling host municipalities,” he said. “So I’m wondering Mr. Gerretsen, will you put into legislation where we can get a divorce?”
Gerretsen replied, “Divorce is a federal issue.”
The attorney general, describing his answer as “unscripted,” went on to say that he had been attending the conferences for about 40 years and the question from municipalities was always the same.
“When are you going to get us more money?” said Gerretsen, who has announced he will not run in the next provincial election.
The Ontario Liberals’ decision to upload social service costs from municipalities took $2 billion off the property taxes, the most significant savings in 40 years, Gerretsen said.
“Did we ever get a letter of thanks from anybody from this? Never,” Gerretsen said.
While many people in the crowd booed him, one municipal representative later stood up and thanked him for providing her community with $2 million for infrastructure – although she made a point of noting the funding arrived in a provincial election year.
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