Municipalities are getting squeezed and shortchanged

By MPP Toby Barrett

This year’s AMO Conference (the Association of Municipalities of Ontario) reiterated an ongoing theme – local government is getting squeezed.

Whether it is the cost of electricity, lack of access to natural gas, proposed labour laws, municipal liability or unfulfilled infrastructure promises, people in rural and small town Ontario are struggling.

And nowhere do we see a better example of municipalities paying more and getting less than the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund. Since 2010, government has slashed this fund by $145 million. This Fund is a critical revenue source for Ontario municipalities, and such cuts can leave some of them treading water; therefore putting additional pressure to raise property taxes, or reduce services.

Year after year, government has announced, and then re-announced, natural gas expansion but communities never saw a cent. Now the promised investment has been walked back by $130 million.

An independent economic analysis is showing that municipalities will be on the hook for a half billion dollars in the first two years as a result of labour amendments in Bill 148.

There is a need for some labour reform and good wages – given how life has become so unaffordable under the present government. But, it must be a measured approach. Take a look at the new 48-hour notice policy. What does it mean for volunteer firefighters, or for snow removal?

Under the current municipal liability model, damages can be recovered from any defendant, even if they are found to be only one per cent at fault. Municipalities are often targeted as “insurers of last resort,” and can be responsible for massive settlements. Facing added risk and increasing costs, insurance premiums for municipalities are forced up. Between 2007 and 2011, AMO revealed that liability premiums have increased by 22.2 per cent and are among the fastest growing of municipal costs.

To be sure, no one would deny anyone the life-long medical care they need in the event of an accident. But it is not fair for municipalities, when they took every reasonable step to ensure public safety, to pay up when a massive and unexpected award for damage is wrongly put at their feet.  We need reform that recognizes that. We need reform that is based on fairness to all concerned. If other provinces and states can make sensible reforms to their systems, what’s stopping Ontario?

Ontario has promised to spend over $190 billion in infrastructure. But there’s barely an infrastructure promise made that hasn’t been broken. What we see are cost overruns and indictment after indictment in terms of measuring performance. The Auditor General reported that we could be seeing cost overruns beyond 25 per cent.

Take a look at Highway 403 where government was repaving it every two years even though repaving is only necessary every 15 years. Or the Pickering bridge, where a truss was installed upside down. In fact, the company hired to build the bridge had never built a bridge before. And in response to a job that wasn’t done properly, the company received a bigger contract.

Whether it’s hydro, red tape or investment in transportation and infrastructure, Ontario and its municipalities are at a competitive disadvantage.

Our municipalities are getting squeezed and shortchanged by a government that has already made Ontario a “have not” province.