Municipalities across the district are breathing a sigh of relief this week after the province’s latest “download” costs released Friday mean each has to come up with a 1.7 percent savings based on their 1996 budgets.
The province also outlined exactly how much each will get from the so-called community reinvestment and transitional funds.
The condition, though, is that towns cannot increase property taxes; instead, they have to find the savings within. And Fort Frances CAO Bill Naturkach felt that also meant no new or higher user fees.
“It’s based on our 1996 financial information return, which is our total gross and net budget. User fees are a part of that budget,” he explained.
Fort Frances has to cut $363,000 from its 1996 operating budget. The town’s share on the community reinvestment fund is $3.6 million, with another $477,000 for transitional assistance.
But Naturkach admitted he had concerns because the numbers were substantially different from the $4 million hit the province predicted earlier.
“I am [optimistic] but I’m also puzzled because they don’t conform to what they told us in October,” he said Monday.
For instance, the cost of social assistance has changed from $1.3 million in October to $566,000; child care dropped from $113,000 to $79,000; property assessment is down from $188,000 to $83,000; and revenue from the residential education property tax dropped from $1.1 million to $687,000.
Naturkach also pointed to the estimated $50 a year per household cost to finance both the arena and auditorium projects here—a cost the town cannot recover by hiking taxes.
To the west, Chapple Clerk Doris Dyson said they had to find $36,000 savings next year, with the Community Reinvestment Fund contributing $605,000.
“It still creates a problem but it gives us something to work toward," she said yesterday. "At least it gives us an idea of the commitment from the province.”
La Vallee Township has to crunch $17,000, with the Community Reinvestment Fund supplying $407,000 and transitional funding another $54,000.
“I really didn’t know what to expect. I feel much better about it," said Clerk Laurie Witherspoon, admitting things were still a bit "fuzzy.”
But both opposition leaders jumped on Finance minister Ernie Eves’ new numbers. Ontario NDP leader and local MPP Howard Hampton charged the Harris government changed the numbers until after the next provincial election.
And with the transitional funding set to dry up in two years, he warned another $477,000 will be added onto property taxes in Fort Frances alone after that.
He noted the town was left with a $1.5 million bill over the next three years.
“The Harris Conservatives promised the download would be revenue neutral. They lied," Hampton fumed. "The Harris download will add another $10 million in costs to the people of Northwestern Ontario to pay for a tax cut to the wealthiest people in the province.”
The Liberals predicted $15 million in costs would be added to property taxes in 1998, $265 million in ’99, and $590 million in 2000.
But Eves insisted the government had developed a plan that was revenue-neutral. “The realignment of services is a fair and equal trade,” he said Friday.
“The government recognizes that there is only one taxpayer,” he assured, noting the aim was to provide the highest-quality service at the lowest possible cost.