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So many doubts, So little time

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All along we’ve been told to be patient. To wait and see. To avoid making wild speculations until all the numbers are in.

Preliminary numbers, even when prepared by people who are supposed to know what they’re doing, were brushed aside by shocked town councils, which weren’t eager to let word get out that ratepayers were in for a hefty tax increase--or a big drop in services--stemming from provincial downloading.

Such estimates were dismissed as fear-mongering.

That certainly was the case here in Fort Frances, where council admonished CAO Bill Naturkach during a regular meeting not too long ago when he outlined what some of the numbers could be.

Councillors were clearly displeased with the report, with Mayor Glenn Witherspoon perhaps the most vocal proponent of the "wait-and-see" attitude--all but promising things wouldn’t be so bad.

Well, Mayor Witherspoon has changed his tune. In fact, the two transition teams that are helping the government carry out its downloading, of which the mayor sits on one, have delivered what amounts to an ultimatum to Premier Mike Harris--put everything on hold or the teams will refuse to meet again.

The hard part is wondering who to believe. The government, for instance, is still saying residents will see a five to 10 percent cut in property taxes by the year 2000. And its promising all kinds of funds will be available to help municipalities get through the crunch.

Others, most notably NDP leader and local MPP Howard Hampton, scoff at that. Not only will municipalities have to cover $550 million in costs the province used to pay through income taxes, he argues, there’s also the loss of the annual $600-million Municipal Support Grant and the $225 million cost to maintain the 3,500 km of highways and roads the province is dumping on them.

That, he says, will translate into huge tax hikes, or cuts in services.

So who’s right?

People living out in Dawson Township, facing an estimated 500 percent tax hike to cope with all the changes, can’t be blamed if they’re doubting the government these days. And when transition team members start having second thoughts at this late stage of the game, it’s pretty clear that maybe all those early numbers weren’t fear-mongering after all.

The government must put the brakes on downloading right now. because it’s clear it doesn’t have a handle on all the impacts. To continue to rush head-long into it by next year is enough to leave us all with a sinking feeling in the pit of our stomachs.

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