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Remarks by AMO President Graydon Smith, 2021 NOMA Conference

Remarks/Speech April 28, 2021

Good afternoon. I’m Graydon Smith, Mayor of Bracebridge, and President of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario.

It is hard to believe it has been two years since an AMO President has had the opportunity to address the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association annual conference.

Never could we have imagined then what was in store for us.

Nor could we have imagined then that the next time this group gathered that it would be virtually.

Or that this would become almost normal.

The truth is that there is nothing normal about anything these days.

We are governing through a pandemic that is ever-changing. Each new phase, stage and wave requires municipal governments to be flexible and resilient.

So before I start, I want to take a moment to recognize the incredible work of municipal leaders and especially those staff on the front line of these efforts.

More than a year on, we are all weary. But municipal leaders and staff have not flagged in the face of uncertain times.

Like always, everyone is rolling up their sleeves. We’re keeping up the services that people depend on everyday and taking on new challenges. We’re repurposing community spaces into vaccine clinics. We’re adapting services to keep people healthy. We’re looking for ways to help our local businesses.  

While the pandemic has tested us all, one thing it has revealed is that we can all work together.

That current runs through Ontario’s legislature. And I know it runs through Ontario’s 444 municipal governments.

AMO plays a key role in helping to make sure that the current flows smoothly.

AMO works collaboratively with other municipal associations – whether it’s backing the efforts of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, or collaborating with NOMA, ROMA and others.
 

We look for common ground, while also recognizing our differences and unique characteristics. One size does not fit all.

Consider that northwestern Ontario represents nearly half of Ontario’s land mass with less than two per cent of the population. Service delivery needs to look different.


AMO’s 42-member board represents all four corners of the province.

Our board is well advised on northwestern priorities by Mayor Wendy Landry. Mayor Rick Dumas of Marathon and Mayor Doug Lawrance of Sioux Lookout also contribute their perspectives and their passion for the region.

AMO needs strong voices like these from right across the province so that we can identify opportunities to address our shared needs and concerns.

A strong and unified municipal voice can be powerful and influential.

About a month ago, we were pleased to see a provincial budget that echoed some of our collective priorities.

The human toll of the pandemic cannot be ignored. The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on some of our most vulnerable residents.

We welcome investments in long-term care, mental health and addictions for rural and underserved areas, and community paramedicine.

Adequate housing and homelessness are not solely urban matters. Rural and northern homelessness is harder to see and hard to address. I know it is a top concern in many of your communities. Earlier this year, the Ontario Government announced an additional $255 million to help address homelessness during COVID-19 through the social services relief fund – in addition to the $510 million secured in 2020.

In fact, Ontario has increased municipal funding by almost a billion dollars since January. In addition to the homelessness funding, they announced $500 million to help municipalities manage COVID-19 operational costs and $150 million for COVID-related transit costs and losses.

We were especially pleased to see that the Ontario Budget added $2.8 billion dollars for broadband expansion.

That brings Ontario’s total investment to nearly $4 billion over six years.

Connectivity is not a luxury. It’s a lifeline that is critical for our economy, education and almost all aspects of our daily lives. That was true before the pandemic, and it will be true for the road to recovery.

The provincial budget includes an additional $100 million in grants to support small businesses in the tourism and hospitality sector as well as a $100-million Tourism Recovery Program.

The government is putting an additional $61 million into the Regional Opportunities Incentive Tax Credit. This tax credit encourages businesses to invest in designated regions, including northwestern Ontario.

I know many of you were also likely pleased with a continued commitment to twin Highway 17.

These local projects are so important.

To kick-start infrastructure and the economic recovery, the federal government is doubling its gas tax funding in 2021.

This fund, which will be renamed the Canada Community Building Fund, will inject an additional $800 million into Ontario this year, subject to the approval of Bill C-25.

AMO administers this fund directly to Ontario’s municipal governments, and we will get the money out the door without delay.

These investments address priorities that AMO has discussed around the board table and with our provincial and federal peers over the past year.

Infrastructure and capital projects must continue to be a priority for municipal governments.

AMO staff are also working on the transition of the Blue Box program to full producer responsibility. Last year we advocated to ensure that programs for small and northern communities were not left behind and Minister Yurek has made that commitment.

We are awaiting the final regulation. It has been a decade’s worth of advocacy to ensure that those who make product and packaging decisions have a say.

You’ll hear more about this and other policy matters from Monika Turner, our Policy Director, who will follow my remarks.

AMO’s Strategic Objectives were approved by the Board late last year. You can find them on our website.

I won’t list all of them, but I will highlight a few.

AMO will continue to support the essential role of municipalities as we respond to COVID-19.

We will help our members lead Ontario’s recovery.

That recovery must continue to include federal and provincial financial assistance, to manage impacts.

Municipal services are helping to keep whole communities safe… and they are helping to keep our economy going.

We secured substantial funding to cover 2020 costs, along with a down-payment on 2021 costs.

They will be difficult to predict. But we do know that municipalities do not have the resources needed to weather this pandemic without assistance.

Additional federal and provincial support will be needed again in 2021.

AMO will advocate for strategic investments that support greater economic participation.
 
Investment in conventional infrastructure alone will not be enough to lead a recovery.

Working together, we believe that all three orders of government can help to open the economy up to people who have often been left behind… due to factors such as race, gender, and lack of opportunity.

The more inclusive and diverse our economy is, the stronger and more dynamic our recovery will be. We can achieve prosperity faster and spread it further.

AMO will apply the same principle to our policy work.

Public policy should serve more people, more effectively, right across the province.

Economic prosperity, education and access to government services are all key to health and well-being… for individuals, communities, and Ontario as a whole.

In 2020, AMO signed a declaration of friendship and a Memorandum of Understanding with the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres. Friendship centres serve Indigenous people living off reserve in cities, towns and rural areas.

Northwestern Ontario has been a leader in signing local declarations with Friendship Centres in their own communities. Red Lake, Sioux Lookout and Fort Frances have all signed such agreements. I understand that there are more in the works.

By working more collaboratively to find shared solutions, we can ensure that our public policies help to break down barriers and create more opportunity, for more people.

In 2021, AMO will promote a more integrated approach to policy.

We know that public services are often interconnected.

That is why there is no simple way to balance public health, school closures and economic recovery.

A move in one policy area, affects the other.

When we look across the full spectrum of public services, AMO wants to make sure that its advocacy – and the Ontario government’s response – looks at the big picture.

We can improve policy making in many areas, by making sure that very different kinds of services are integrated more thoughtfully.

Better integration can improve outcomes for people… and achieve better value for taxpayers.  

AMO is in a unique position to help. However, we are only as strong as our members choose to make us.

Our success depends on municipal support and participation.

A broad-based municipal sector with a common and unified voice is powerful and influential.

All of your voices, perspectives and priorities are important.

We know that we can achieve great things when the municipal community comes together.  

AMO’s role has never been more important than it was in 2020 and will be in 2021.

We worked hard to make an incredibly difficult year a little easier for you.  

We developed and shared critically important information, facts and webinars that helped you keep your communities safe and well informed.  

We worked in collaboration with the Province to effect countless policy decisions needed for municipalities to manage in an unprecedented pandemic.

This work resulted in swift changes such as virtual council meetings – allowing you to get on with the job of governing, managing and protecting your communities.

We advocated for federal and provincial financial assistance – to help with the added
costs of human services, operations and transit. The result was more than $4 billion in financial relief for municipalities in Ontario.

Like you, AMO was responding to new challenges, creating new solutions… under difficult timelines… and with limited information.
Things moved quickly, and we all had to manage as well as we could.

Your support made all the difference.

AMO is also working to modernize the Association, and we are working to strengthen AMO’s relationships and partnerships across the municipal sector.

Your energy and advocacy are important to us.

It helps to ensure that we are serving you well.

Beyond our policy work, AMO strives to serve our members in practical ways.

Through MEPCO, we help to protect the interest of municipal employers who participate the OMERS pension plan.

MEPCO provides prudent expertise, clarity, and unity… to safeguard a $100 billion pension plan in the face of global market volatility.

It navigates complex waters to protect municipal interests.

Employee pensions need to be affordable, sustainable, and meaningful.

Your ongoing support of MEPCO is essential to our shared success.

In 2020, AMO delivered approximately $650 million of federal gas tax funding to Ontario municipalities.

Over the past 15 years, AMO has delivered nearly $9 billion in federal Gas Tax funding to municipalities in Ontario, based on a formula and terms that put you in control of local capital investment.     

AMO’s approach to the federal Gas Tax Fund is an example of how we help Ontario’s municipalities, and create new opportunities for you.

There’s no question that the pandemic accelerated the need for municipalities to embrace digital technology.

For the last five years, AMO has been committed to forging digital partnerships. These partners help municipalities transform their approach to everything from online meetings and digital signatures to customer service and occupational safety.

When the Ontario Government acted quickly on virtual municipal council meetings, AMO was fortunate to have a partnership with eScribe – a platform made specifically to manage the needs of municipal meetings.

The good news is that in some cases, the province’s modernization funding can be used towards adopting some of these platforms.

AMO provides a host of programs through LAS – or Local Authority Services, our business services arm. It serves municipalities by helping them lower costs, increase revenues, and build capacity in a rapidly changing world.

You’ll learn more about how LAS works to help communities later this afternoon – I think you’ll find it very informative.

LAS also helped create ONE Investment, in partnership with the Municipal Finance Officers’ Association of Ontario. It offers a range of financial options and advisory services tailored to the municipal sector. It helps municipalities achieve more from limited resources.

ONE was pleased to have the City of Kenora become a founding municipality of ONE’s joint investment board. As Mayor of Bracebridge, I was proud that our town also signed on. Joining this group means that Bracebridge, Kenora, and the four other founding municipalities can take advantage of broader investment powers to help earn more on our long-term investments to fund critical capital projects. I encourage you to learn more.

Finally, a word about conferences.

While we miss coming together in person, online municipal conferences remain important opportunities for us to come together.

We connect with one another.

We learn from one another.

And together, we make progress -- for our people and for our province.

The AMO Conference will be virtual again in 2021.

Our host will be the City of London, and we hope that you will join us in August – on a screen near you.  

It will be the last AMO conference before the 2022 provincial election – so it promises to be a very important venue.

In the meantime, you have my commitment that AMO will continue our hard work on your behalf in 2021.  

Thank you and enjoy the NOMA conference.

 

Contact:

AMO President