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Towns told tough times lie ahead

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The provincial government has to get its finances in order and at least for the near future, municipalities are on their own.

That’s the message delegates heard at the 2012 ROMA/OGRA combined conference in Toronto last week.

“The government has to get their debt in line and in order to do so, there’s going to be some major program cuts,” noted Mayor Roy Avis, who attended the conference with Couns. Rick Wiedenhoeft and John Albanese, and Fort Frances CAO Mark McCaig.

“There’s basically very, very little money out there, unless it’s an emergency, for infrastructure and things of that nature,” he added.

For example, local delegates try to glean information each year about provincial “Connecting Link” funding, which pays for infrastructure projects along major thoroughfares.

The town has been trying to reconstruct Scott Street—from Reid Avenue to Colonization Road East—for years but the funding isn’t there.

“We just can’t go ahead with projects unless we do get government assistance,” stressed Mayor Avis, adding Fort Frances is not alone in this regard.

He noted the town does not want to go out and borrow money to do them, as it just passes on the debt to future generations.

“I don’t think our council of the day is interested in taking on a tremendous amount of debt,” the mayor remarked.

“Our community is in a very good financial position—I would say we’re one of the best in Northwestern Ontario, and I want to keep it that way.”

Speaking at Monday’s budget meeting, McCaig agreed government grants have all but dried up.

He noted that even now, the grants the town gets only are for “niche projects,” like hiring students or getting somebody to do an energy feasibility report.

“The big ones, the ones where you do your roads, your water and sewer projects, those aren’t there. We’re on our own,” McCaig stressed.

“And the government now, what you’re hearing from Queen’s Park, is that they’re going to help municipalities with this.

“But the way they’re going to help municipalities is they’re going to help educate you on what you should be doing; what is the prudent thing to be doing in terms of asset management,” he noted.

“That doesn’t mean giving money; that means educate you. Tell you how to do asset management plans from a long-term perspective.

“And there may be that down the road, as with other things the government does, we’re going to see some kind of a regulatory obligation to have plans in place so that they can see that people are doing that.

“From what I have seen, we are truly on our own and left largely to our own devices,” McCaig reiterated.

Coun. Albanese said there’s more than 400 municipalities in Ontario and “everybody’s crying for their roadwork, sewer, and water.”

“They’ve all the got the same problem we do, so it’s not just Fort Frances,” he remarked.

OMPF funding

Mayor Avis said he also heard that some of the costs previously uploaded by the province are going to be eliminated from the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund (OMPF) funding that municipalities get each year.

At Monday’s budget meeting, Coun. Wiedenhoeft said it is anticipated to be reduced by $500 million across the province over the next few years.

OMPF includes money for uploaded services, such as Ontario Works and the Ontario Drug Benefit Plan.

Town council has pointed out in the past that these uploaded savings have not been passed on to Fort Frances and other district municipalities, but instead used by the Rainy River District Social Services Administration Board to pay for programs in its budget.

Mayor Avis said he also heard the province is going to be auditing municipalities to check and see how they spent their uploaded monies.

He wondered what the town will do given the town did not receive the uploaded funds it should have from DSSAB.

Treasurer Laurie Witherspoon said the recent Drummond Report noted municipalities are going to have to account for how they use uploaded savings to pay for infrastructure projects.

But the town has not been able to use those uploaded savings for that purpose. Instead, the savings have been used up by DSSAB in its own budget, the majority of it having gone to social housing.

“I don’t know how we’re going to answer that question other than, ‘Go to DSSAB. Ask them how they spent the uploaded money,’” said Witherspoon.

Mayor Avis said the town hasn’t had the opportunity to see the money that came from uploading, and yet the municipalities are being held accountable for it.

“Our presentations that we made in the past to the ministers, we were in very good order,” he noted.

“We should have had that money. End of story.”

As reported previously, local delegates did not get the meetings with ministers they had requested. Once in Toronto, however, they did end up speaking to Laura Albanese, parliamentary assistant to Labour minister Linda Jeffrey.

“It was a general discussion about the financial situation of the province,” said Mayor Avis. “What’s going to happen in the future?

“We hear all these rumours from Drummond Report.”

The local delegates also attended plenary sessions and a ministers’ forum at the conference.

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