Municipal funding cuts on the way
By Chad Ingram
The provincial government will proceed with municipal funding cuts in 2020, Premier Doug Ford confirmed during the annual Association of Municipalities conference in Ottawa last week.
Those cuts will come in areas of public health and childcare and will be effective Jan. 1 of next year. There also seems to be an understanding among municipal politicians that more cuts are likely on the way.
“I came away from the conference with mixed feelings,” Haliburton County Warden Liz Danielsen told the Echo in an email. “There is little doubt that all of us are going to be hit with changes and, in all likelihood higher taxes. While the province is offering transitional funding in several areas to get us through next year without drastic changes, the unknowns still associated with health care, ambulance services, long-term care and housing are all cause for concern.”
Earlier this year, the government announced that municipalities would be getting one-time grants, with the County of Haliburton receiving $725,000, Dysart et al and Minden Hills each $542,255, Highlands East $534,469 and Algonquin Highlands $532,292. Danielsen said it was clear at the conference that money was to be used by municipalities for streamlining of their own operations.
“Once again it was very apparent that the government is directing all of us to look at our services and find ways to streamline and make cuts wherever possible,” she wrote. “A difficult task when it is my belief that the County of Haliburton and all the member municipalities run pretty tight ships. It was also apparent that the province is not necessarily placing an emphasis on amalgamations in rural Ontario, but rather on all of us finding better ways of conducting our business.”
On public health, the province’s plan is to switch to a framework where the province will carry 70 per cent costs, municipalities 30 per cent, with the caveat that costs for any municipality not increase by more than 10 per cent. Currently, municipalities have individual cost-sharing agreements with the province when it comes to public health, the province paying as much as 100 per cent in some cases.
However, Dysart et al Mayor Andrea Roberts, who sits on the board of the Haliburton Kawartha Pine Ridge District Health Unit, doesn’t believe the financial impact for the county will be that severe.
“The previous split was supposed to be 25:75 but in truth we were nearer 29:71 so I don’t think the impact will be that great,” Roberts wrote in an email. “Municipalities will be paying 30 per cent as of January 2020, but we heard from Minister of Health, Christine Elliott, that they are also asking health units to look for efficiencies. There will also be financial support to municipalities who receive a 10 per cent or more increase, but I doubt this will be the case for Haliburton County. The government feel many things can be done at the provincial level and that there is a lot of duplication, many of these observations came from an auditor general report in 2017. Examples given were around alcohol use, e-cigarettes etc. These are provincial issues, not local ones, and therefore the province should be dealing with these.”
The province is in the process of consolidating health units, and it was announced earlier this year the plan is to merge the HKPR District Health Unit with those in Peterborough, Hastings County, Prince Edward County and Durham Region, a plan that Roberts said at the time she found disconcerting.
Roberts told the Echo the province is now hiring a consultant to help steer that consolidation process, and that proposed boundaries are under review.
“The boundaries for the new health units are still being reviewed and the province is listening,” she wrote. “One thing I was pleased to hear is that they are hiring an independent consultant to help guide this process, and that the person they are hiring will be announced very soon. Minister Elliot said ‘the system is in need of change,’ but at least the changes will be made with input from the current local health units, mayors, wardens and others.”
Algonquin Highlands Mayor Carol Moffatt told the Echo there has been no larger, long-term plan from the province in terms of how cuts will roll out, making the process difficult for municipalities.
“We knew cuts and changes were coming but it might have been better if the government had taken the time from the start to produce a fulsome plan where they and us would have the big picture in order to plan for it,” Moffatt wrote in an email. “It feels disorganized – a bit here, a percentage there; a big announcement and then a walk-back. On the one hand you get a reprieve on ambulance funding and an infrastructure announcement, and on the other you have to absorb part of public health and child care.”
There has been repeated rhetoric from the premier about the province getting out of the way of municipalities, allowing them to do their jobs.
“It’s terrific that the premier wants to get Queen’s Park out of our way, and let us have flexibility with our budgets, but what does that actually mean?” Moffatt wrote. “If it means we’re going to be on our own to determine and provide for what we deem to be in the best interest of our respective communities, it could be a dream or it could be a disaster. Free rein or free falling?”
“The continued reference for this need to find efficiencies is somewhat insulting for fiscally-responsible organizations like both the County and Algonquin Highlands,” Moffatt continued. “It makes it sound as though we’re irresponsible and thoughtless decision-makers who need reining in. We’ve always done our best to carve out respectful, sustainable priorities for taxpayers and will continue to do so but people need to anticipate some combination of tax increases and/or changes to service levels and programming. There are myriad complex, moving parts in municipal governance and there are some very difficult decisions ahead.”
Danielsen, who sits on the Eastern Ontario Wardens’ Caucus, said the EOWC will work to try to mitigate financial impacts at a regional level.
“The EOWC is prepared to roll up its sleeves to work with the province to ensure the least amount of impact on Eastern Ontario,” she wrote. “I think we’re in for a rocky road.”