05/08/2014

2014 Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM) Annual Conference.
Remarks by:
Russ Powers, AMO President

2014 FONOM Conference
229 Great Northern Rd., Sault Ste. Marie
Thursday, May 8
8:30 AM – 9:00 AM

(Check Against Delivery)

Thank you for the warm welcome and introduction.

It’s a pleasure to be here in Sault Ste. Marie.

I will be the first person to admit that people from Southern Ontario don’t understand the north as well as we should.

At AMO, we rely on our northern colleagues to bring this perspective.

And you can rely on them to be blunt and clear in that perspective – no matter what topic we’re discussing.

At the moment, we are discussing quite a lot.

A week ago I was at Queen’s Park for the release of the 2014 provincial budget.

Today, I’m here with you at the start of a provincial election.

It’s a pivotal time for our Province.

Which also means it is a pivotal time for Ontario’s municipal community.

Our ability to stand together and to support one another is being tested by uncertain times and philosophical differences.

AMO is a non-partisan organization. We will not endorse one political party over another.

We serve municipal leaders from every corner of Ontario – and you come in all political stripes.

AMO’s Board is as diverse as our Province – but it is not divided.  

We can’t afford to be.

Some of you may sit on councils that are deeply divided; places where debates are acrimonious and it’s difficult to achieve progress.

Some of you are luckier.  

You serve on council where colleagues set aside personal and partisan differences and work together, to achieve the changes that your community needs.

That’s what AMO is.

AMO’s not a thing… or a head office for municipalities.  

AMO is a meeting place, where people from across Ontario work together to build collaborative policy positions, shunning disharmony, wherever possible.

Sometimes it’s easy.

It’s easy to say that Ontario’s communities cannot meet their infrastructure needs without federal and provincial support.

But how should federal and provincial investments be allocated? That’s the tougher work.  It’s tougher because the needs are great, the funds not unlimited and individually, local needs are your imperative.  

Sometimes it’s hard to find a way through the competing local interests. But if we don’t try, then the Province gets to make it up all on its own. The Board’s perspective is that it is better to try than be criticized for not trying.  

AMO is dedicated to the notion that we must try to find solutions that address our core interests rather than be criticized for not tackling some of the tougher issues. AMO has provided that role for 115 years.

We have accomplished a great deal since our first meeting in 1899 – which coincidentally happened in my home community of Hamilton. It was organized by J.V Teetzel, the Mayor of the day, who went on to become a justice. He felt that there needed to be a strong, coherent voice into the Province and that is as true now as it was then.

With the benefit of experience, AMO can say that Ontario’s municipalities achieve more when they stand together and work together.

And from the benefit of experience, we can say that uncertain times have a tendency to divide us.

United we stand. Divided we fall.

Right now, there is plenty that could divide us.

There are different ideas about how to fix the OPP’s billing mess.

There are different ideas about how infrastructure funding should be allocated, and where investment is needed most.

There are different ideas about where economic development should be supported, and how.

There are different ideas about energy policy.

The Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund – or OMPF – is a high priority for 388 municipalities. Many are in this room. You know how it helps you with your operating costs. We know it is important especially to those with a limited tax base. We know that you have pressures on that tax base and that affordability is an overarching concern.

Large municipalities, even those in the north are focused on provincial funding for transit, housing and social service costs. They fear that the Ontario Government will retreat from its upload agreements.  

Together, municipal governments share the fear of new ways to download the cost of provincial programs to municipal governments or DSSABs.

There is a common thread that links our response to these frustrations: Ontario’s small, rural and northern municipalities need to have the weight of Ontario’s large municipalities behind them when they sit down with the provincial and Federal government.

And…

Ontario’s large municipalities need to have the weight of Ontario’s small, rural and northern municipalities behind them when THEY sit down with the provincial and federal government.

While we are at it, Ontario’s southern municipalities need to support northern municipalities, and vice versa.

United we stand. Divided we fall.

The last time we were divided, successive governments turned municipal government upside down – and downloaded millions and millions worth of provincial costs onto our shoulders.

It took us more than 15 years to recover.

But we did.

By necessity, we learned to set aside our differences, work together, and speak with one strong, clear and united voice.

Together we are stronger than the sum of our parts.

The Board works to ensure that AMO’s positions are well grounded.

We exist to serve you, and we need your participation in the Association to ensure that we are doing that well.

Our Board is made up of 42 members from across Ontario.

Most are directly elected by you, at our annual AMO Conferences.

A few are appointed, because you have elected them to lead our regional municipal associations.

These include FONOM, and NOMA – the Northern Ontario Municipal Association, in Northwestern Ontario.

[Slide 2]
AMO’s Northern Caucus is chaired by FONOM President Alan Spacek.

He is joined by Mayor Dave Canfield, from Kenora;

Councillor Mac Bain, from North Bay;

Councillor Michael Doody, from Timmins;

Mayor Ron Nelson, from O'Connor Township; and

Mayor Phil Vinet, from Red Lake.

[Slide 3]
Sault Ste. Marie’s favourite son, Councillor Lou Turco, serves on AMO’s Large Urban Caucus.

Jamie McGarvey, the Mayor of Parry Sound, serves on our Small Urban Caucus.

Bill Vrebosch, Mayor of East Ferris, serves on our Rural Caucus.

Andre Rivest, Deputy Mayor of Greater Sudbury, has been elected to our Regional and Single Tier Caucus.

And finally, Clermont Lapointe, Reeve of McGarry, serves as the representative from Association francaise des municipalites de l'Ontario, otherwise known as AFMO.

In total, just over one quarter of AMO’s Board is from northern Ontario.

Many of you know these municipal leaders.

I don’t need to tell you that they are effective advocates for Northern Ontario.

Less obvious is the time and energy that goes into service on AMO’s Board.

The workload, the schedule and the travel are demanding.  

[Slide 4 (logo)]
On behalf of AMO, I want to thank them for their commitment and service.

Together, we understand the wisdom of a collective position, where collaboration and sometimes compromise are needed.  

And I’m proud to say that despite our geographical and socio-economic differences, we have a history of working well together – of getting things done.

Leading up to the provincial election, in 2011, AMO communicated 12 ‘asks’ that we wanted all candidates to consider.  

They were sound, simple and clear.  

Importantly, Ontario’s municipal community rose up like a chorus to support them.

With your support, we made some progress on almost all 12 of the asks.

[Slide 5]
Last fall, we released a detailed ‘status report’ that looked at what we achieved. This is what we got:

  • The continued upload of social service and court security costs, on time and on schedule, with a completion date of 2018;
  • Separate, new, predictable and permanent funding for smaller communities’ municipal roads and bridges;
  • Permanency of $318 million for transit;
  • The rejection of caps on property assessment or taxation;
  • A review of the Development Charges Act.
We also secured broad support, across the Legislature, for several municipal priorities.

Regrettably, deadlock within the Legislature stalled efforts to translate broad support into positive results.

We’ve weathered five failed attempts to improve Ontario’s interest arbitration system over the past two years.

A Bill that would allow us to better collect Provincial Offenses Act fines stalled, and then died on the Order Paper when the election was called.

The government and the opposition were both pursuing limits on municipal liability. Nothing was introduced, but we were close.

We made great headway on waste management policy, but failure to pass a new Waste Management Act sends us back to square one.

You see the pattern.

Following the last election, AMO’s most common ‘ask’ was for everyone in Ontario’s Legislature to do what we do: rise above divisions, find consensus and move our communities forward.  

Needless to say, cooperation eluded them.

They couldn’t find common ground, so here we are, heading into an election.

This morning – through our free, weekly WatchFile – AMO is releasing our list of priorities in this election.

[Slide 6]
To simplify matters we are providing a list of good ideas and bad ideas.

We think they are pretty obvious – but sometimes it makes sense to restate the obvious.

AMO will support policies that will allow communities achieve their full potential.

If that sounds broad, it is intended to be.
 
Communities across Ontario need different things.

For example, northeastern Ontario worries about the loss of the Northland Railroad and ONTERA’s telecommunications service as part of its economic infrastructure backbone.

Eastern Ontario is worried about debt load to fix infrastructure against a backdrop of little new industrial growth.

Southwestern Ontario is worried about its agricultural competitiveness.

My community is concerned about gridlock that’s holding us back.

In all cases, we want to ensure that our communities have the tools that they need to achieve their full potential – and those tools and goals will vary.

Broadly speaking, Ontario’s municipalities need to know that each political party will honour Ontario’s 2008 agreement to upload provincial health and social service costs from the municipal property tax base by 2018.

That commitment is worth well over a billion dollars annually.  The value of this will only grow. Why?  One reason is the Ontario Disability Support Program is growing exponentially each and every year. This risk and exposure is no longer ours. It really was a raid on the property tax base.

Previous governments of all stripes transferred provincial roads and bridges to us. Today, we have 5,200 kilometres of former provincial highway infrastructure.

The results were devastating.  

It robbed municipalities of the opportunity to invest in their communities.

For nearly two decades, infrastructure investment was rare. Maintenance was deferred and capital reserves were raided to make ends meet.

In 2009, my predecessor, Doug Reycraft, lamented that, ‘at best, most Ontario’s communities have arenas and community centers that were built by a different generation – and funded under the Wintario program.’  

A decade ago, Ontario municipalities banded together to demand the obvious -- income redistribution programs that support people, such as social services and social housing, should be funded by Ontario’s income tax revenue.

The municipal property tax base is needed to fund municipal programs and services – programs and services that support property.

That truth hasn’t changed.

As all parties prepare to present their plans to balance Ontario’s books over time, we are reminding them that Ontario’s Budget will not be balanced until it can fund its own social service programs, using its own revenue.

New provincial and federal infrastructure investment is still desperately needed, right across Ontario.

We need to move people, goods and services across Ontario.

That will help individuals to achieve their full potential.

Again, that can mean different things to different people.

Some would say that the best opportunity is a job. AMO supports that.

Some would say that society must assist vulnerable people, and create opportunity for them. AMO supports that as well.

Municipal governments work hard to promote local prosperity and economic growth... and municipalities are on the front line when it comes to delivering social services and housing.

The truth is, strong job growth and economic prosperity are needed to support social services and housing programs – to reduce the need.

It’s not an either / or equation.

We are looking for tools that will help us to control municipal costs.

In particular, we are looking for changes that would help us to rein in costs related to emergency services, insurance and energy.

[Slide 7]
On average, emergency service costs grew by 6.35 per cent annually, between 2002 and 2011. That growth is three times the rate of inflation during the same period.

We are stating the obvious to our provincial peers: All Ontario communities must have access to safe and affordable emergency services.

Affordability is not a new idea. It’s a new concern.

In recent years, policing has eaten up as much as 50% of some municipal  property tax bills.

How is that sustainable? And how did it come to this in the first place?

AMO is pursuing three tracks on policing costs:

First… we are creating a Task Force to examine alternatives to the way that policing is delivered in Ontario.

[Slide 8]
Per capita municipal property taxpayers pay more for policing than Canadians in any other province – and Ontario’s municipal contribution for policing funding would be enough to cover the entire policing bill in some other provinces.

Can we do better? It’s a fair question and we want to explore the answer.

We hope that the Province and Ontario’s policing community will work with us on this.

Secondly… AMO has been clear about the need to improve the fairness of Ontario’s interest arbitration system. Wages for police and fire employees continue to grow at a greater rate than inflation. [Slide 9] They are getting increases that are out of place in the communities they serve, and they are getting much higher increases than their municipal colleagues are accepting at the negotiating table. That’s not fair. It’s not sustainable. And long-term, it’s not wise.

Finally, dare I say OPP Billing reform. … [Slide 10 (logo)]

Among other things, the Provincial Auditor General said that the billing model is not fair and needs to be reviewed. The OPP put forward one model with a resulting loud chorus of yeas and nays.  

Members asked if we could try to facilitate this. So we put 16 municipal leaders from the north and the south, from high and low paying areas, with Police Service Boards and those without, together to see if they could find some common ground.  

I am sure you have read the report and I am not going to go into it other than to say, the report has squarely put the issue of mitigation funding on the table. There is no billing model change that cannot come without mitigation.  Even if there is no billing change, those municipalities with very high bills need help. This is a provincial problem that needs a provincial solution.

Frankly, the real solution is to reduce the costs – that’s the root cause so we need to modernize our policing functions.

I think the participants will say that whenever you sit down with peers from other Ontario communities, you may be surprised to find that your views change. I think everyone who participated on that task force learned a ton about the challenge – and the unique challenges of different communities.

If you were following AMO’s Budget analysis last week, you will know that the Province proposed to reduce Ontario Municipal Partnership Funding by $35 million this year.

AMO was quick to express bewilderment.

The new reductions in OMPF, combined with increased OPP costs is a one-two-punch for many small, rural and northern communities. These municipalities would suffer tremendously, while the benefit to Ontario’s treasury would be relatively negligible.

What happens to the OMPF now that we’re into an election? Nothing.  Except a lot of advocacy.  

First – we need to work together to change this thinking.  We were looking for a reprieve while all the other elements such as OPP were unsettled.  Another hit is problematic.

Second – if the Liberal Party needs to back off this, then the other parties must make clear their intentions about OMPF.

This is part of our work.

Any Ontario government has to work with municipal governments – more gets done through local actions.

Long term funding commitments and increased planning cycles – these are part of an effective relationship.

We have worked to eliminate surprises.

That is the intent of our Memorandum of Understanding – or MOU agreement.

It requires the Province to consult – or “pre-consult” – with AMO before making changes that can adversely affect municipalities.

This concept was created by the Conservatives and enshrined into legislation by the Liberals. It has always had the support of the NDP.

To the Ontario Government’s credit, we have been consulted with extensively over the past year. But we have been broadsided on the odd occasion, such as its proposed Accountability Act.

The MOU process can work well – and traditionally it has. We need to know that all parties are committed to it.

Furthermore, we need to hear that Ontario’s municipal governments will be respected.

With apologies to those who think municipal governments are MUSH – Ontario communities cannot afford to lose the credit of being the municipal order of government.

Strong, representative and active municipal government is in the best interest of Ontario communities.

We will be looking for that partnership approach when we evaluate election platforms.

So to recap, we are proposing a list of good ideas for all candidates to consider: [Slide 11]

AMO will support policies that:
  • Help our communities achieve their full potential
  • Help our 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;
  • Creating new municipal responsibilities that aren’t funded;
  • Applying ‘one-size fits all’ approaches to all communities; and
  • Tying the hands of municipal governments.
I’m quite sure that you can provide your own local candidates with examples of why these four approaches are bad ideas.

We need your help to get our message out at this important time.

We will be distributing summaries of our election Do’s and Don’ts in the coming days.  

In addition, we provide weekly updates in our WatchFile.

Breaking News items are distributed through the same subscription list.

Visit us at www.amo,on,ca for details – and you can follow our posts on Twitter. AMO’s Twitter account is @AMOPolicy (at-AMO-Policy).

Please keep us in mind in the coming weeks as you follow the campaign.

Now more than ever, it is crucial for Ontario’s municipal community to stand together.

To that end, AMO’s 42 Board of Directors, and AMO staff, will continue to work closely with all other municipal associations.

We are committed to being as representative as possible.

And if you have reservations about what AMO is doing, then bring them forward.

We need you to pull up a chair and work with us.  

We also need to pick our battles. Our resources aren’t unlimited.

The Board works hard to establish priorities – while remaining nimble enough to deal with ‘surprises’ at Queen’s Park.

Speaking from personal experience, it is satisfying to play a role in advancing the common goals of all municipalities.