Let’s improve municipal – provincial relationship

By MPP Toby Barrett

Municipal governments have a difficult job to do, balancing demand for services and the tax base. Given the challenges of recent years, local governments have had to make some tough decisions.

Of course, budget management is even more difficult when many of the costs are outside of direct local control. Take public sector wage increases, for example.

For nearly eight years, the Ontario government has handed out unsustainable collective agreements that set the benchmark for arbitration with public sector unions. Even while Ontario is saddled with record deficits and a struggling economy, arbitrators are still awarding public sector unions contracts that far exceed what municipalities can afford.

Government should be paying public servants what is fair. But, also government should not be taxing Ontario families more than what is fair and what they can afford. The arbitration system is unsustainable. It needs to be fixed. We need more transparency and accountability. Arbitrators must justify their decisions to those who fund the decisions. Clear and tight timeframes are necessary. Long, drawn out negotiations are not fair to the workers, they’re not fair to municipalities, and they’re not fair to Ontario families.

A second change that would be appreciated by municipalities is consistency. A reliable partner at Queen’s Park is crucial for Haldimand County and Norfolk County to set budgets and properly plan for the future. But for the past eight years, time and time again, we’ve seen backtracks, and Uturns from the present Ontario government.

One such commitment is to change the inconsistent way the province allocates the gas tax revenue back to municipalities.

In Haldimand and Norfolk, like many small communities, we pay the same provincial gas tax as everyone else, but we don’t get a dime of it back because we don’t have a transit system. In fact, for all that families pay at the pumps, four out of five Ontario municipalities don’t see a cent of gas tax revenue. This is wrong. We must fix the broken provincial gas tax program and give every municipality access to provincial gas tax funds. We must ensure that no municipality receives less funding, but more importantly that no municipality gets left out or left behind.

While instilling fairness in gas tax funding, we must also ensure that all municipalities continue to benefit from $1 billion in the uploading of costs to the provincial level.

A third change – end the constant interference in local decision making. From overriding Official Plans, to freezing prime land, to forcing massive industrial wind farms where they’re not wanted – local councils have been robbed of a say over what happens in their communities.

In the face of strenuous local objections, and more than 70 municipalities passing resolutions, the province continues to plough ahead with giant industrial wind farms without consultation with local councils or residents. It makes no sense that you have the power to say where a local hamburger stand or Daisy Mart goes but not industrial wind turbines – the height of 40-storey buildings – that are built over hundreds of acres of prime agricultural land. It’s unfair. It’s undemocratic. It must end.

The secret to good government comes from respecting your partners, keeping your word, sticking to a budget, and staying true to your principles… transparency, consistency and respect for local decision-making power.