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Municipal budgets a headache for northwest

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Fort Frances council isn’t the only municipal government struggling to make things work in the face of increasing program costs, revenue loss due to reassessments, and the looming Bill 140.

While council has just found its feet with a two percent property tax increase after suffering a loss of $295,000 in property reassessments, and are waiting to find out what impact Bill 140 will have, they are not alone.

For one reason or another, most municipalities in Northwestern Ontario are shaking their heads over their budgets—and their fingers at the province.

Kenora, the largest community west of Thunder Bay, has 85 municipally-owned buildings as well as an extensive network of bridges and highways to maintain. But with the current budget crunch, Mayor Dave Canfield said he’s worried about where the money will come from.

“We can’t afford it, nobody can,” he said. “There has to be some sort of funding.

“If they’re going to put on all this extra expense on, they’re going to have to cover it through the [Community Re-investment Fund] or something,” he argued.

Kenora is losing more than $230,000 because of last year’s property tax reassessments, and stands to lose even more when Bill 140 is introduced at Queen’s Park next month.

“The big thing I think people are missing here is we can no longer raise taxes in industrial and commercial [sectors]. Any tax increase is going to have to be residential,” said Mayor Canfield.

“Bill 140 is going to hurt everybody, especially with the residential sector. It’s really going to hurt.”

In the meantime, Kenora city council has taken the same initiative as Fort Frances—it has let the province know they need more money or less restrictions. It plans to continue with the 2001 budget process as if the bill were not looming.

Back in Rainy River District, Atikokan’s likewise is frustrated with the province and struggling to pass a budget that will not include another tax increase.

“It’s a real challenge. We simply think we aren’t getting enough funds this year to do anything properly,” said Mayor Dennis Brown. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. We don’t like to raise taxes.

Mayor Brown added any tax increase would have to be significant as, under the Bill 140, a one percent increase would translate to only about $18,000 for the town.

Although Atikokan has received an increase of $850,000 in tax revenue as a result of last year’s reassessments, the municipality has lost about $440,000 a year for the past three years because of tax losses from the local hydraulic station and hydro facility.

“Our concern is that the Community Re-investment Fund is not high enough for places like Atikokan,” noted Mayor Brown.

In Dryden, council already has determined a tax hike is inevitable. After losing $429,000 in industrial taxes because of reassessments, taxes there will go up by 2.25 percent.

Dryden council also is lobbying the province to take their situation into consideration as Bill 140 looms.

“Really, for us, we can make a go of it if we could raise our taxes to what we thought was fair,” noted Mayor Sid Wintle. “But they’re putting things on like capping and Bill 140.

“When the government comes along and does all the downloading and then makes these rules . . . let us make the decisions on how to tax,” he argued. “We think we have a fair range right now.”

While the funding shortage is plaguing all of the region’s larger municipalities, so far there has been little collusion in lobbying efforts. The crunch was a topic of discussion at both the annual meetings of the Rainy River District Municipal Association and Kenora District Municipal Association but no movement has materialized yet.

“I think you’ll probably see that in NOMA [Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association],” said Mayor Canfield. “Everyone has been too busy dealing with everything.”

Smaller municipalities, with little or no industrial and commercial tax base, are facing higher costs because of slight increases in uncontrollable levies and the costs of services. But for the most part, they simply are waiting for the province’s legislation and final figures in order to complete their budgets.

“The main concern is CRF funding,” said Devlin Reeve Ken McKinnon. “Until the government really gives us some definite answers, we don’t know where we’re going.

“They’re hanging us out to dry again.

“It’s a small part of our budget but it’s frustrating to pass a budget when you don’t have any numbers,” Reeve McKinnon added.

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