Cities set budgets while waiting for upload report
TORONTO - A long-awaited report detailing the Ontario government's plan to upload an array of services from Ontario municipalities is months overdue, even as cities and towns struggle against the tide of a slumping provincial economy, opposition critics said last week.
The delay -- the report was originally due months ago -- has forced municipalities to start planning budgets without knowing how responsibility for various services will be split between the two levels of government, said NDP municipal affairs critic Andrea Horwath.
"It's unacceptable that municipalities are trying to budget in the dark, with a blindfold," Horwath said Thursday. "They need to get at this issue and they need to get at it in a big strong way."
Announced nearly two years ago, the joint review was to take place over 18 months and examine areas such as delivery of housing, health and social services, and infrastructure funding.
Municipalities lobbied the province for years to reverse downloading that occurred under the Conservative government of then-premier Mike Harris and take back ownership of programs like social housing, which are currently funded through property taxes.
Adam Grachnik, press secretary for Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Jim Watson, said parties are at the negotiating table working toward a consensus report.
"We are close. The partners have agreed that we want to get it done and we want to get it right," Grachnik wrote in an email.
Government statistics indicate the amount of money provided to municipalities through various programs has increased to nearly $2 billion in 2007 from just over $1 billion in 2003.
The funding -- provided through the municipal partnership fund, gas taxes, ambulance and public health -- is projected to increase to $2.8 billion by 2011.
Horwath, however, accused the government of "foot-dragging" and said the Liberals should have had a plan in place before the October 2007 election.
"Now we're waiting in the dog days of summer with bated breath to find out what the plan is," Horwath said. "And the unfortunate reality is ... the weight of that downloading burden continues to crush municipalities."
Conservative MPP John O'Toole called the delay a "tragedy" and said a weak Ontario economy means more pressure on social programs, making it imperative to put in place a plan to determine who has responsibility for what services and costs.
Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley lambasted the government for stalling on taking back costs he said should never have been dumped on municipalities in the first place,
"This is the only province in Canada that puts social services on property taxes," Bradley said.
Solving that problem "could have been done on the back of a napkin at a Tim Hortons on a Saturday afternoon coffee session."
Downloading onto municipalities has crippled communities for nearly a decade and now that Ontario is in an economic downturn, it will only get worse, Bradley warned.
Bradley said he's also concerned about the province's ability to resume responsibility for those costs in the current economic climate.
Stuart Green, a spokesman for Toronto Mayor David Miller, said talks have been productive and the city remains optimistic the report will offer some clarity and certainty to municipal budgeting processes.
"It means some certainty to budgeting," said Green. "Not just Toronto, but cities and towns across Ontario go into their yearly discussions with the hope that the province may or may not pick up a new cost."
He said Toronto isn't concerned over delays because talks are complicated and they don't want to rush the process.
Joe Rinaldo, Hamilton's acting city manager, said it would have been nice to have the issue dealt with before the budgeting process began but the city still welcomes the review of services.
"It's taking a little longer than anticipated," Rinaldo said. "From the city's perspective, we would have preferred the issue had been dealt with prior to the 2008 budget."