04/25/2013

Presentation at the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA) Annual Meeting & Conference. April 25, 2013, Victoria Inn, Thunder Bay, Ontario.

(Check Against Delivery)


Thank you for the kind introduction.

Many of us have come a long way to be here – and that is normal for you.

You’re used to travelling long distances to represent your communities.

That comes with the territory – no pun intended…

I’m going to provide a quick update on AMO’s recent activities, and I hope that I can provide perspectives that are worth your effort to come here.

You have immediate needs. We understand that, and we are committed to providing whatever assistance we can as your provincial Association.

Broadly speaking, Ontario’s municipalities have many common priorities and challenges.

We also know that northern communities have their own, unique needs.

Our understanding of your priorities is shaped by the many northern municipalities within AMO – and in particular, by municipal officials and staff that contribute to our topic specific task forces, and our colleagues who sit on AMO’s Board.

The input and advice that they provide is invaluable – and I want to take this opportunity to thank a few of them personally.

I’ll start with Ron Nelson, who is leaving us as NOMA President at the end of this conference.

Ron, your immense contribution to NOMA and AMO has not gone unnoticed, and I’m glad to see you stay on as NOMA Past-President on AMO’s Board.

I also want to thank Dave Canfield, Mayor of Kenora, and incoming NOMA President.

As an AMO Board member, we have already come to value Dave’s input and commitment, and we look forward to working with him in his new role.

I also want to thank:

  • Alan Spacek, President of FONOM;
  • Mac Bain from North Bay;
  • Dennis Brown from Atikokan;
  • Michael Doody from Timmins.

The work you have been doing to represent the interests of Ontario’s northern communities is much appreciated. Please, keep it up.

AMO has always worked closely with NOMA, and we’ve enjoyed it. 

NOMA is home to the kinds of people who work tirelessly for their communities – and I can think of one person who exemplifies this more than anyone.

The work that she has done has gone a long way to support both NOMA and AMO, to advance our shared goals, and to advance municipal issues in the province of Ontario.

She is well-known for these contributions, and we value them immensely – which is why we’d like to call Charla Robinson, NOMA’s Executive Director to the stage to receive our Certificate of Appreciation.

Charla, on behalf of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario – thank you for your significant contributions. While we are sad to see you go, we also know that we’ll find plenty of opportunities to work with you in the future – and we’re looking forward to it.

AMO has always worked closely with regional municipal associations across the province – and we need to keep working together as we move forward.

NOMA and AMO complement each other to address the broad challenges, the particular priorities, and everything in between.

Over the years, and the past decade in particular, we’ve worked hard to open doors at Queen’s Park – and to earn seats at tables where policy matters are being discussed before they are decided.

Our Memorandum of Understanding Agreement with the Province forms the foundation of our extremely important relationship.

Simply put, it requires the Ontario Government to consult with municipalities before making changes that affect our responsibilities and often impact our budgets.

In some instances, good advice has not been taken. In several cases, the timing of the Cabinet process did not permit pre-consultation – at its peril.

The annual provincial budget is exempted from the MOU table, so I can’t tell you what will be in Ontario’s next Budget.

What I can tell you is that the Minister of Finance and other members of Cabinet know exactly where we stand on just about every aspect of municipal financial interests.

We, like others, are trying to build the things we need to make our communities great places to work, live and play.

The MOU is a structure that we built – and one that has been emulated in other provinces.

We built it in 2001 to foster a more mutually respectful relationship between our two orders of government.
 
From time to time, people have told me that our relationship with the government appears to be too close.

I want to emphasize that we will always strive to have a productive and strong relationship with the Provincial order of Government. It only makes sense. 

We are driven by a desire for good public policy that makes sense locally, and we work with our Provincial counterparts to achieve it.

We believe that taxpayers are best served when our two orders of government are working together.

When the doors open and the right people are listening, we need to offer strong proposals and practical solutions.

Complaints – no matter how valid – tend to fall flat.

I’m sure you can relate to that.

It is far more effective to identify:

  • What the problem is;
  • What needs to be done;
  • Why it’s in the best interest of the province, and regionally;
  • How it can be implemented; and,
  • How they can look good doing it.

NOMA understands this approach – and that is helpful to us all.

You are a good resource for ideas, and your hard work has assisted our effort to serve Ontario’s Northern communities.

I don’t need to tell you that we are working in an unpredictable political environment.

We are living in a land of private members’ bills and careful vote counts.

We can’t say for sure what the future will look like, but we do know one thing:

We all need to work together to get Ontario’s economy moving again, under difficult circumstances.

We need public policy that supports jobs, investment, growth and prosperity.

We need strong, sustainable communities, with viable futures.

We have asked the entire provincial legislature to sit down and work with us to address some of our key priorities – such as reversing the planned reductions to the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund for 2014.

We’ve asked them to work with us to re-balance interest arbitration, so that pay increases for fire service personnel in the north are not compared to those in Toronto.

And we’ve asked them to work with us to develop a permanent grant program for rural and northern roads and bridges.

The next few weeks will be an important test.

We’ll be keeping a close eye on the Provincial Budget.

It is the first Budget from Premier Wynne and Finance Minister Sousa.

Will it be a basic Budget… or a bold Budget?

The Throne Speech, delivered in mid-February, was not detailed. It reflected the fact that a new government was in the early stages of policy development.

However, it gives us a broad sense of Premier Wynne’s priorities, as did her remarks to delegates to the ROMA/OGRA conference.

The Budget is sure to deliver new insights, but I suspect that we will have to look beyond it, to other statements, policy announcements and legislative actions.

We have consistently heard that the Premier wants to work with municipal governments, and the North in particular.

We will be watching closely for progress on key priorities.

The first of these is fiscal sustainability and predictability.

Premier McGuinty was consistently firm in his commitment to the 2008 upload agreement. We expect that commitment to continue.

Property taxes should fund services that support property.

The Province’s much larger and more dynamic tax base, and income taxes specifically, should fund income redistribution programs such as social services.

Municipalities cannot afford to fund social services – particularly in the north, where the costs are exponentially high.

That’s what the uploads are all about. Social services and court security costs didn’t belong to the property tax base to begin with – and when we had to shoulder them, it diverted funding from areas that needed it most.

We know that the uploads affect different municipalities in different ways. We know that in the north, it does translate to benefits at the DSSAB level, but not always at the local level.

However, the uploads do play an important role. In 2013 alone, the value of the upload to the municipal sector is estimated to be $1.36 billion.

This is significant – particularly when you consider that its value in 2008 was $245 million.

I can’t imagine how municipalities would be able to make any capital improvements without the upload.

We need to see those gains protected – and we need to see that in this budget. The 2008 agreement must be honoured, on schedule, as planned. 

You’ve probably heard this from AMO before – and we will keep saying it. We think the government needs to ‘hit pause’ on the $25 million reduction to the OMPF in 2014.

We need to get that formula right, and it has to consider future developments in policing costs, which we know are growing fast. 

We need to make sure that we can share the burden of maintaining Ontario’s aging infrastructure.

Strong infrastructure is essential to all of our goals for growth and prosperity.

Municipalities own more than 65% of Ontario’s infrastructure – far more than our Provincial and Federal counterparts, but we are in the weakest position to pay for it.

Nowhere is that more true than in the north.

This came through clearly in the results of the 2008 Provincial Municipal Fiscal and Service Delivery Review – and this map shows the same thing.

You may not be able to see it, but one of the things this map shows is that Thunder Bay district has the same per household investment gap as Toronto – somewhere between $1,000 and $1,250 per household.

Frontenac and Greater Sudbury are in the same range – and the gap for places like Kenora, Lambton County and Renfrew County is even more stark. 

We know that northern municipalities tend to have the greatest fiscal challenges when it comes to maintaining and building infrastructure.

The Review identified that Ontario’s infrastructure deficit had grown to the point where it would require $6 billion in new investment each year for 10 years to meet the demand for investment.

Property taxes alone cannot fund that… anywhere.

Earlier this month Premier Wynne spoke about the Province’s plan for improving transit and transportation in the Greater Toronto Area – and the need for new sources of revenue, because property taxes could not support it.

If property tax bases cannot meet the demand for infrastructure in urban areas, they certainly cannot meet the demand in northern and rural Ontario.

We need permanent, predictable sources of funding for roads and bridges.

Operating costs are increasing. We have infrastructure demands that we can no longer ignore. Our tax bases are shrinking. OMPF reconciliation is coming to an end.

The numbers just aren’t adding up – and we need to have some serious conversations about how we’re going to manage and share these costs.

Part of this will have to involve sharing revenues.

We’ve made great progress in this area with the Federal Gas Tax. It’s become a permanent, predictable source of funding for infrastructure.

In the last Federal Budget, we learned that it would be indexed at two per cent per year, to protect the value of this investment over time, and to help cushion the way that the national formula benefits faster growing provinces.

The fund will also have new project categories to invest in, allowing each municipality to decide exactly where funds are needed the most.

Canada’s Gas Tax Fund is one of our success stories. We need to see more.

We need to look at other ways to share revenues – ways that make sense for communities in the north.

Ontario’s prosperity has long been supported by the resource economy, and obviously, it has been the economic engine for many of your communities.

Going forward, we need to make sure that you’re seeing your fair share of benefits from this economy, so you can support the infrastructure that it requires.

NOMA has been consistent in delivering this message – and AMO is committed to pulling our weight to continue to move these conversations forward.

We’re all facing fiscal challenges. But in the municipal sector, we’re facing these challenges armed with only 9 cents of every household tax dollar.

We know this is not enough – and we think most taxpayers would agree.

We think it’s time for Canadians and Ontarians to have a conversation about how they want their tax dollars allocated.

It’s our job to make those conversations happen, and to start laying the foundations for a financially sustainable future.

That message is directed at both the Provincial and Federal orders of government – and we deliver it in cooperation with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

The Federal Government receives more than half of all tax dollars. We believe municipalities deliver the majority of the services that Canadians use most often.

Obviously, we can’t rely on new revenue and higher taxation to fill the gaps that we’re facing – particularly in the context of a weak global economy.

Yes – we need to look at more equitable ways to share costs and share revenues. We must also empower municipalities with the means to better control costs.

Again, we keep hearing that the government and the opposition want to work with us.

Yet we have struggled through four failed attempts to balance interest arbitration over the past 12 months.

Progress will continue to slip through our fingers if the Legislature cannot work together on something that is as obvious as this.

We’ve been clear on what is needed in this area. We urged the entire Legislature to work together to adopt changes to make the system more accountable, transparent and efficient.

The government knows there is a problem and they know what we feel is needed to fix it.

Each successive attempt to amend the legislative framework has built upon lessons from the last. We have done our homework – and we have made balanced proposals.

The Conservatives incorporated much of our work into a remarkably comprehensive Private Members’ Bill this month – although they did add some ‘flavour’ of their own.

We were clear that we wanted the government and the NDP to take it seriously – yet it was defeated at Second Reading.

In other words, it didn’t even get off the ground – let alone to Committee, where it could have been developed further to address any issues or problems.
 
We could understand their dismissal if there was nothing of value in the Bill.

And we can accept that other parties had concerns about the Bill. We had some concerns of our own.

However, the Bill provided a clear foundation to achieve progress – and that baby was thrown out with the bathwater.

How much longer can Ontario afford to weather the problems that are being created by a lopsided interest arbitration system?

The next move – or fifth attempt – will probably come from the Government benches.

Whatever it is, it had better be practical and effective. It has to restore balance.

The current shortcomings of the interest arbitration system are contributing to soaring policing costs.

The OPP can expect an 8.5% wage increase for 2014.

How will that impact municipal budgets? How will it impact other municipal programs and services? And how will it impact interest arbitration awards?

Under the current system, increases will cascade like dominos, to every other police force – and beyond to other emergency services like fire and ambulance.

We know that you can’t continue to shoulder these rising costs within your budgets.

The buzz for the last year has been that it’s time to rethink how we deliver policing.

We need to get beyond talk and start putting alternatives into practice.

Technology and civilians can deliver some aspects of current police services, and we should already be moving to distribute these non-core policing functions to others.

And we know there are cheaper alternatives to delivering court security.

Police should be in their cars or on foot, patrolling and investigating crime.

They are not social workers, and they are not administrators – they are highly-trained crimestoppers.

The government can also work with us on controlling insurance costs.

Joint and several liability can create extraordinary financial burdens for municipalities involved in cases where they may share only a fraction of the blame.

This is an ongoing issue, and we have been talking about it for far too long.

Will we have to wait until insurance companies start turning municipalities away before we can move forward on this?

This is the absolute worst-case scenario. We can’t afford to let it get to that point.

We all want to make best use of the limited tax dollars we have. That’s what our communities trust us to do.

There’s no question that greater flexibility will help us achieve that.

Flexibility is a hallmark of AMO’s advocacy – and we will continue to make sure that our relationship with the Ontario Government gives us every opportunity to advance it and fight for it.

We will keep pushing decision makers to do more to understand these perspectives – to use the Northern and Rural Lens that we worked with NOMA  to create.

The Northern and Rural Lens lays out the practical questions every provincial policy maker should ask to make sure that proposed solutions will work in the unique context of northern communities.

We know that some policy makers are using the Lens. I wish they all were. We will continue to chip away at that.

When people do use it, they are more likely to recognize the need for flexibility.

People understand that Dryden’s solution may not work in Toronto. We need them to understand that Toronto’s solution isn’t going to work in Dryden.

One size does not fit all.

Northern communities do face unique challenges.

But we’ve noticed that northwestern Ontario has moved away from focusing on its economic challenges. Instead, you’re finding ways to breathe life into your economic opportunities. It’s a positive development. And it looks good on you!

We would like you to be able to run with local and regional approaches that will allow your communities to succeed. But you know – we all know – that local flexibility must be built into provincial and federal policy to achieve that. 

We need to see more flexibility in energy policy.

Our forestry industry faces high costs of doing business. Energy is a huge part of those costs.

This is a barrier that’s unique to the north’s circumstances – and the solution will have to be just as unique.

You need flexibility to ensure that when industries do thrive – your communities benefit.

You need it to seize the opportunities presented by the Ring of Fire.

We all need flexibility when we’re presented with things like the Species at Risk Act.

We understand the goal. We’d like to help achieve it. But we need to be able to do that in a way that makes sense for our communities – rather than in a way that ties our hands and stunts our growth.

We need flexibility to find home-grown strategies to our unique challenges. What if we used policy to create opportunities for northern industry, rather than taking them away?

You have been advocating that wood should be used, within existing building codes, to build low-rise, multi-residential buildings. It can be done, and it should be done more often, to strengthen markets for our lumber industry.

We need this kind of flexibility so we all have the ability to address our communities’ needs. Yes, we have many shared priorities – but our communities are unique.

We each have our own opinion of what’s at the top of the list – what needs are most pressing.
This room is evidence of that. When I look out at the people in this room:

  • I see people who need to maintain their roads and bridges; people who are competing with one another for infrastructure grants.
  • I see people who agree with the chorus of voices who want to control costs, and they need better tools to do it.
  • I see people that are worried about how to pay for their community’s emergency services -- without having to reduce them or lay any employees off.
  • I see people that want to invest in green energy – and I see people that don’t.
  • I see people that support environmentally sustainable forestry and new energy policies – to get Ontario’s lumber mills working again.
  • I see people from municipalities that are not growing. They are trying to figure out how to improve their prosperity, take care of their seniors, and inspire new generations.
  • I see people who can and do work with whoever is willing, to create local employment opportunities.
  • I see people who are doing whatever they can to build their local economies and diversify their tax base.

I see people in this room who are concerned about every one of the things I’ve just listed – and others who have more specific priorities.

Our greatest barrier to progress is stagnation. We need everyone in the Legislature to focus on the need to work together, find consensus and advance our mutual interests.

We understand that there are divisions. We get it.

Ontario’s municipal leaders are just as diverse. But we don’t let that get in our way.

When there is a problem in our communities, we fix it.

When we see that there is a problem that affects all of Ontario, we get together, roll up our sleeves and try to fix that too.

That’s what success looks like.

Success is fixing the problems that we have… today.

It does not make sense for you to be driving home from this conference, anticipating that solutions may be found ‘in time.’

The time is now. We can’t wait. Our communities can't wait. The world around us won't wait.
 
AMO's door is always wide open to everyone who is interested in working with us. And we are working with others – including business leaders, other associations and service providers that extend well beyond the municipal sector.

Taxpayers expect us all to work together cooperatively – and we owe that to them.

I appreciate the hard work that you are doing at home in your communities. You have my promise that your Association will be as bold and courageous.

AMO works for you. That’s our role.

However, we are only as strong as our members make us.

Please take an interest in our work, and help us to advance good public policy.

Help us to channel your frustration into meaningful conversations and opportunities to achieve the changes we need.

Make sure your local MPPs -- and MPs -- know that Ontario’s municipalities will work with them.
 
We need them to sit down with us… build solutions together… and make them happen.

In a minority Legislature, every MPP needs to have that mind-set.

Don’t let partisan politics restrict progress.

You can also help us by staying on top of the latest developments.

AMO shares information each week through our Breaking News emails direct to your in-box – these are specific items where we need you to help.

And read our weekly WatchFile – it gives you highlights of what is going on that week provincially and federally and what new programs and training we have to support you in your decision-making role at Council.

If you don’t get the AMO WatchFile every Thursday morning, sign up for it. It’s free.

Ontario’s municipalities all achieve more when we work together and stand together.

AMO appreciates the contribution that your municipality and NOMA make to the success of Ontario’s communities.

Thank you.