Island mayor optimistic province is listening after AMO conference

MANITOULIN—A Manitoulin mayor said the six ministers who were presented with a paper on the priorities the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM) during the annual Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) conference last week didn’t reject anything that was presented. In fact, it appears FONOM’s proposal to have the Northern Community Grant of $50 raised to $75 per household has received some support.

“One of the most interesting points about our meeting with the ministers is that they didn’t say no to anything we proposed,” stated Austin Hunt, mayor of Billings Township. “They said what needs to be looked at is what program it could be fit under and that they would look at how it could be worked into government programs.”

Included in this was the Northern Community Grant, said Mr. Hunt. “This would be a huge benefit to Manitoulin Island if it came about. I know it would make a big difference in our municipality of Billings where we have more households than we have people living there. When we have raised this issue previously, government representatives have said this is unrealistic. And when we raised the issue of the need to get more infrastructure funding—to get money for plans and consultants for roads, bridges and break wall work—we would like this funding to be provided throughout the province instead of basically every municipality being in a lottery for these funds, they said they will look at this seriously.”

“I have the list of things we were asking for, and basically none of the ministers said yes or no to our priorities,” said Mr. Hunt. “For the first time they looked at what we were asking for, and definitely listened.”

The FONOM delegation asked for an increase to $75 to the Northern Community Grant. In its submission, “many rural and Northern municipalities have a very small tax base that restricts the ability to raise significant revenues. Due to the often large geographical distances of rural and Northern municipalities, user fees can only cover a small portion of the real cost of programs and services. Municipalities do not have access to income or sales taxes to boost revenues.”

“Excessive reliance on property taxes to fund the ever increasing costs associated with social and health care services places an increasing tax burden on municipalities, especially in remote and rural locations where delivery costs are typically higher and the ability to pay is typically lower,” the submission continues.

“FONOM and other stakeholders request that changes be made to the funding model used by the provincial government to allocate resources to Northern and rural areas of the province. Furthermore, FONOM, supported by the Northern Mayors and the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association, again request an increase of $75 per household to the Northern Community Grant to help municipalities to provide the infrastructure and services required by local residents and local industry.”

Another issue raised by the FONOM group concerns the connecting link and infrastructure renewal. “The cancellation of the Connecting Link program and replacement with the Municipal Infrastructure Investment Initiative as a single funding program for most infrastructure projects such as connecting links is of major concern to affected municipalities. The program now forces municipalities to include Connecting Link projects as part of its regular infrastructure and this is very unfair.”

Municipalities have been forced to reprioritize projects and those municipalities with the downloaded responsibility for connecting links must now shift their capital focus while other vital municipal infrastructure projects are unfortunately put aside. FONOM request that the provincial government implement a new renewable workable program for infrastructure renewal.”

The FONOM delegation presentation looked at, “fairness in the application of land tax reform and territories without municipalities/without municipal organization (TWOMO). Organized municipal jurisdictions in Ontario provide services to its citizens such as highways, municipal busing, public utilities, culture, parks, recreation, economic development, policing, fire protection services, planning health, social housing, welfare, children’s services and waste management.”

“At its 2013 annual conference, FONOM member municipalities supported a resolution urging that the provincial government review the provincial land tax rates in order to ensure cost of services are equal for all Ontario property owners,” the FONOM presentation states. “The implementation of the Provincial Land Tax Reform in 2008 which completed the move to current value assessment (CVA) for the unincorporated territories was intended to create a fair property assessment system whereby properties in all of Ontario are assessed similarly.”

“FONOM believes there has been little value from this reform and furthermore the province has implemented policies ensuring that it does not increase tax revenue as a result of reassessment policies ensuring that it does not increase tax revenue as a result of reassessment in unincorporated territory. Property owners in territories without municipal organization benefit from access to most services at a minimal cost as opposed to organized areas.”

“The MNR and MPAC are striving for consistency when valuating parks for assessment purposes. This new valuation system may have an extremely detrimental effect on the taxation revenues which some Northern municipalities receive from the province via payments-in-lieu (PILs). The removal of other lands from local property tax bases that is converted into parkland that is exempt from municipal property taxes is a related concern. FONOM requests that the provincial government review the Provincial Land Tax rates in order to ensure cost of services are equal for all Ontario property owners.”

On the issue of transmission capacity and competitive pricing, “FONOM is gravely concerned with the difficulty Northern Ontario faces to compete for industrial processing of minerals and timber harvested here and considers it a priority that the government take measures to upgrade the North-South Energy Transmission capacity as part of the province’s integrated power system, in the context of the provincial long-term energy plan. The ability to benefit from competitive electricity prices is important for all Ontario industry.”

FONOM also recommended that the province, Northern municipalities and other key stakeholders need to implement a Northern electricity pricing regime and develop updated transmission capacity in order to make northern industries more competitive.

And on the issue of non-emergency and non-urgent ambulance-patient transfers, “FONOM supports the Northern Ontario Service Deliverers Association (NOSDA) position that non-emergent and non-urgent inter-facility transfers continue to increase primarily due to the Centres of Excellence model utilized by health care facilities and points of definitive care in larger centres. The transfers impact the ability of EMS providers to maintain a balanced emergency coverage within mandated response standards.”

“Northern hospitals are not funded for non-emergent/non-urgent transfers through their budgets, whereas in southern Ontario, a majority of transfers, provided by the private sector transfer companies, are funded 100 percent by the province by means of existing hospital operating budgets. This has resulted in an unfair advantage and represents a cost factor for Northern Ontario’s smaller hospitals. FONOM requests that the provincial government corrects the disparity between Northern and southern services by funding 100 percent of the cost of non-emergent and non-urgent transfers provided by the EMS/land ambulance providers and work collectively to arrive at long term sustainable solutions.”

The sixth issue raised by FONOM representatives had to deal with parks closure, and that the MNR work with FONOM and NOMA to find ways to save provincial parks in Northern Ontario and to increase the number of Northern Ontario provincial park openings for the 2014 season.

“It appears the ministers and their representatives were hearing what we were saying and asking for and proposing this time,” said Mr. Hunt.

 Tom Sasvari