04/25/2014

2014 Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA) Annual Meeting and Conference.

Remarks by: 
Russ Powers, AMO President and
Councillor, City of Hamilton
 
2014 Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA) Annual Meeting and Conference
Memorial Sports Centre, Fort Frances, Ontario
Thursday, April 24, 2014, 9:00 a.m. – 9:20 a.m.
 
(Check Against Delivery)
 
Thank you for the warm welcome and introduction.
 
I appreciate the opportunity to provide an update on the work that Ontario’s municipalities are doing together, through AMO.
 
And I’m happy to be here in Fort Frances – with the winter we’ve all had, I’m glad to see that we may have turned that corner.
 
I wish I could say that we are moving into spring with a sunny outlook – but the reality is that the municipal community is facing significant challenges.
 
Eight months ago, at our Annual AMO Conference, I spoke of the progress that we have made in some areas… and I spoke of growing frustrations.
 
Since then, progress has been limited, and several problems have simply festered.
 
On the positive side of the ledger, we’ve received some welcome news on one of our most pressing needs.
 
Canada’s Gas Tax Fund has been one of our best sources of predictable, long-term revenue for infrastructure – and it will continue to be.
 
The new agreement has been negotiated and signed, and AMO will continue to administer the fund to Ontario municipalities. This funding can do more for your community than ever before, with new project categories and more flexibility to ensure that funds can go where they are needed most.
 
We are on track to make the July transfer of funds to 443 municipal governments and more details are on the way to your staff very soon.
 
As well, under the Federal Government’s 10-year Building Canada Fund, Ontario will receive $2.7 billion in infrastructure funding over 10 years of which there will be a small communities’ component.
 
The federal and provincial governments have to reach an understanding on the process for this federal funding. We hope we will see this done shortly so that we can make the most out of this year’s construction season.
 
Earlier this month, the Ontario Government announced that the upcoming provincial budget would allocate $29 billion in funding over ten years for transit and transportation infrastructure across Ontario.
 
AMO had been quick to point out the need for an equitable arrangement for all of Ontario’s communities – and what we know today is that $14 billion will be earmarked for areas outside of the GTHA.
 
AMO will be in budget lock up to get the details on how much of this funding will flow this year and over the entire 10 years and what process and eligibility criteria will be attached to it as well.
 
The Province has said it agrees with AMO that transparency is a top priority when it comes to allocating this funding. 
 
We are looking forward to seeing how this transparency takes shape. And like you, we will be monitoring the debate on the 2014 Budget Bill when it is introduced May 1st. 
 
We will be watching for any changes to the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund and the upload schedule.
 
We expect that this budget will be broad in scope as the provincial government addresses its fiscal challenges.
 
Beyond budget commitments we don’t have a lot of good news to share. In the absence of financial transfers, the big disappointment is that municipal governments aren’t being given more tools to control our costs. 
 
Without them, we’re being forced to increase taxes or cut services, to simply hang on to what we have.
 
Emergency service costs alone have grown about 10 percent per year for a decade, with no end in sight.
 
Generally, employees with CUPE and OPSEU have agreed through negotiations to 1 per cent increases… only to watch firefighters and police increases of 3 to 4 per cent a year.
 
Employees who can’t strike are getting much richer settlements than employees who can.
 
Right here in Fort Frances, fire fighters received an arbitration award in 2011 of 16 per cent over four years.
 
This was not a unique situation.
 
Emergency services salaries have been going up and up and up all throughout Ontario – part of a ripple effect created by an arbitration system that is clearly broken.  
 
This has been a problem without a solution for far too long.
 
We’ve seen five failed attempts to fix interest arbitration in the past two years.
 
We’ve urged Ontario’s legislature to work together to find common ground. This has not happened.
 
The Premier urged us to sit down with emergency service unions and find common ground.
 
We entered those discussions in good faith last fall. After three months, there was nothing we could sink our teeth into. In the end, time was wasted and nothing was achieved.  
 
The government knows this, and I hope it is as disappointed as we are with the lack of outcome.
 
Interest arbitration SHOULD be fair and balanced, transparent and accountable.
 
Wage increases for emergency services workers SHOULD look like the increases that other people get in the same community. This is the measure of capacity to pay – not what someone negotiated or an arbitrator awarded to a municipality elsewhere. 
 
Emergency services MUST be affordable for all communities.
 
The Ontario government has a responsibility to act. All other avenues have been exhausted.  
 
While policing costs climb, the OPP added a new wrinkle when it looked for new ways to bill municipal governments.
 
Some OPP-policed communities are paying in the vicinity of 100 dollars per household, while others are paying close to a thousand dollars.
 
In response to the Provincial Auditor General, the Ontario Government and the OPP have promised to make their billing ‘simpler’ and more ‘equitable’. 
 
However, the OPP consulted on only one new model -- and it is polarizing communities.
 
AMO’s Board of Directors created the OPP Billing Steering Committee to take a thorough and serious look at a fuller range of options. It seems we’ve done the work for the province that it should have done.
 
Our top priority was to provide the Province with the broad municipal perspective – informed advice that tried to balance the different interests of all of Ontario’s communities.
 
We brought leaders that reflected these different interests from all parts of Ontario together on a week’s notice.  Facilitating this group, we worked to see if there were other alternatives. The members worked hard, four meetings over 8 weeks.
 
Two weeks ago, the Committee provided its report to the Minister of Community Safety and Corrections Services, and to all 324 OPP-serviced communities.
 
Even in the face of competing interests and priorities, the Committee found some common ground.
 
There is one clear, resounding statement --- the province created a billing system in 1998, and now it wants to change it.  It holds the responsibility for dealing with any impacts.
 
The Committee agreed that no matter the billing model that province chooses, a phased-in transition and mitigation funding for communities facing increases are absolutely essential.
 
All agreed that policing for unincorporated areas must be charged to the Province in the same manner that municipalities are to be charged.
 
And all agreed that without addressing the larger issue of spiraling policing costs, we’re really just spinning our wheels.
 
Every one of us has a shared interest in controlling emergency services and policing costs. Yes – it is about the economics of the service delivery. 
 
And we know that we can achieve far more together than we can on our own.
 
Let’s not lose sight of the forest for the trees.
 
Interest arbitration and the OPP billing model are two important pieces of a larger puzzle.
 
When it comes to emergency services, as stewards of the property tax dollar, we face tremendous resistance to developing new approaches or value for tax dollars. 
 
These are normal management expectations in other service areas – including healthcare. Why should policing be exempt?
 
Ontario’s per capita policing costs are the highest in Canada.
 
Our municipalities also pay a higher portion of total policing costs.
 
In fact, our total municipal policing bill alone would fully fund both all of the policing, municipal and provincial policing in some other provinces.
 
We can and must achieve better results at lower cost.
 
We need to rethink how we deliver policing in Ontario – and that’s just what we’re going to do.
 
Coming out of the OPP Billing Steering Committee, AMO is forming a new Task Force on how to modernize policing and we’ll be working quickly.
 
After two years of talk on the future of policing in Ontario, helpful action is needed now, not years from now.
 
We need the municipal community to stand behind these efforts, so we can stop treating the symptoms, and start treating the cause. 
 
Now more than ever, it is crucial for Ontario’s municipal community to stand together.
 
We have enjoyed relatively effective provincial-municipal relations over the past several years. But progress has slowed – some of it simply due to the impasse and political posturing in the legislature.
 
A year ago, we were optimistic that we would see changes to the provincial offences fine collection – every political party was positive. Yet, it languishes in the House. I wish the House would agree to second reading and send the Bill to Standing Committee and fast. That would be the responsible thing to do.
 
On another front, we have a motion, passed unanimously in the House, to get on with changes to joint and several liability. The government consulted on how it felt it could change the law – we agreed. I want to thank each of you for your supporting resolutions too. I hope the Premier and her Cabinet ministers see the need to move forward now and that you continue to press them on this.
 
Both of these measures are not a drain on the provincial treasury. But they are some of our frontline challenges.  
 
At the end of the day, we want provincial and federal partners that respect and support municipal government, and trust us to serve our communities in accountable ways – accountable ways that make sense locally.
 
Municipal governments get the work done. And there is no better example than in the northwest. Elected officials, municipal staff – when you get complaints, you resolve them. Small town and rural municipal governments do not need new layers of provincial oversight and new administrative processes.
 
The Province’s proposed Accountability and Transparency Act would do just that we fear. And it creates a system of ‘double oversight’ no matter what local approach you set up.
 
No one knows what this Act would cost municipalities to fulfill the proposed new requirements – but additional costs are inevitable. 
 
Let us be frank – a municipal government that lacks public trust has every reason to earn it. But good government is best served when local municipalities meet that goal independently, through accountable, democratic institutions.
 
Over the past decade, the Ontario government and municipal governments have trusted and respected one another as willing, able and capable partners.
 
Our relationship has been, for the most part, productive and collaborative.
 
This has allowed us all to accomplish more – and it is in all of our interests to maintain that.
 
But this relationship is being challenged – by the fiscal challenges that limit our capabilities, by policy ideas that are not well-developed or analysed for impacts, and by the advocacy of special interest groups.
 
We are concerned with backtracking on any progress we make when we must build and rebuild relationships. Last month’s cabinet shuffle impacted many of our key relationships.
 
On top of a new Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, we are now dealing with a new Minister of Labour on the Arbitration file, and a new Attorney General on Joint and Several Liability and a new Minister on police and fire costs. We will continue to advocate and press the Ministers.
 
Given the challenges we are facing, it is more critical than ever for us to lead together.
 
It seems to many that ‘division’ has weakened Ontario’s effort to grow in a difficult global economy.
 
As municipalities, we must avoid divisions in our own ranks.
 
We know, from painful experience, that a divided municipal community is weak and vulnerable.
 
Over the past decade, by necessity, we learned to unite and to work together. Unity and clarity gave us strength.
 
In 2011, Ontario’s municipalities communicated a clear set of “12 Asks” through AMO. That campaign was very effective. It helped us all to flesh out where candidates stood on municipal issues. 
 
It set the agenda for provincial-municipal relations over the past two and half years.
 
Frankly it taught us something as well - that we accomplish more when we stand together, and speak clearly with one, strong voice. 
 
Whenever we head into the next election, AMO will support policies that:
  • Help our communities and individuals, achieve their full potential
  • Reduce the cost of government
  • Promote safe and affordable emergency services
  • Support long-term planning, and
  • Work with municipal governments as partners.
We must be equally vocal to avoid past mistakes that have caused Ontario’s communities more harm than good, such as:
  • Downloading the Ontario Government’s responsibilities and costs onto municipal governments and property taxpayers where they do not rightfully belong
  • Creating new municipal responsibilities that aren’t funded
  • Applying ‘one-size fits all’ approaches to all communities, and
  • Tying the hands of municipal governments.
These do’s and don’ts reflect long standing policies, principles and agreements that have shaped AMO’s policy positions for years.
 
For example, people seem to have forgotten that in 2008, the Ontario Government signed an agreement to upload social services and court security costs. 
 
After carrying the burden of funding provincial programs for more than a decade, municipalities generously gave the Province another decade to accept responsibility for its own costs.
 
We’ve done our part. Now, everyone in the Legislature needs to be perfectly clear on where they stand on honouring this agreement. 
 
Failing to honour it, will cost municipalities hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
 
When people start talking about how to balance Ontario’s budget, we cannot lose sight that it will never be balanced until the Ontario government pays its own bills.
 
The 43 members of the AMO Board of Directors will continue to work closely with all other municipal associations – and we are committed to representing all of you.
 
We are all one and the same. AMO is as strong as you make us – and together, we are as powerful as we can be.