Mayor Doug Struthers attended the annual Rural Ontario Municipal Association Conference (ROMA) in Toronto at the beginning of last week. He believes that the true value of the conference is networking with other heads of council and meeting with ministers, both in a formal and informal setting.
After hearing both Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Steve Clark speak, he noted a significant change in the Province’s approach to managing debt and supporting small municipalities.
Budget cuts have become synonymous with the current provincial government. More of the funding for services provided by the Lanark Leeds and Grenville Health Unit has been downloaded onto the local taxpayer. Cuts at the county level have also put licensed child care in the area in jeopardy. “Changes to the funding formula will require the Counties, the City of Brockville, and the Towns of Prescott and Gananoque to pass those costs on to the taxpayers and/or significantly reduce services and/or be unable to meet the standards and expectations set by the Ministry,” says a report presented to Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, at the 2020 ROMA Conference by the United Counties of Leeds and Grenville.
At the Conference, the Premier talked about job creation and how his government is focused on putting more money into people’s pockets. He also mentioned the provincial debt, and how he is going to address this by investing in municipalities. Mayor Struthers says this is great, but he is unsure how the two coincide. He acknowledges that addressing the provincial debt is a priority for the provincial government, but he is still concerned about what this might mean for small, rural municipalities like Merrickville-Wolford. “I don’t know the end game,” he says.
So far, the provincial government has started putting its money where its mouth is. Merrickville-Wolford has benefited from the Municipal Modernization Program and, more recently, the Ontario Community Infrastructure Fund announced earlier this month. The municipality will also receive the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund (OMPF) dollars for 2020, and the province has committed the funding into 2021 to promote “stability” as they review the program. “It’s not unreasonable to review the OMPF,” Mayor Struthers says. “We just don’t know what the outcome will be.”
Mayor Struthers says that, at the municipal level, they need to take advantage of the funding they are receiving from the province and engage in long-term financial planning to ensure the stability of the Municipality, should the funding change in the future. “We need to keep in mind that some of the funding may not be there long term,” he says.
The Mayor is focused on sending the message to the province that rural Ontario is an important engine that supports the province, and making sure that the financial burden of potential future budget cuts is not downloaded on to the local taxpayer. “[The government] needs to balance the responsibility of the provincial debt with the sustainability of municipalities,” he says.
The funding that the Village has received from the province will be included as revenue in this year’s budget. The focus right now is on building up the municipality’s infrastructure reserve, so that they can continue to look after the Municipality’s assets into the future, no matter what happens with funding from the Province. For now at least, Mayor Struthers reports that the Premier assured municipal leaders at the ROMA conference that things should remain status quo for this year. “He said there would not be any surprises for municipalities in the 2020 budget.”