Toronto City Council will debate asking the Ontario government to help pay for cleanup after an ice storm that left hundreds of thousands of people without power – a bill that may ultimately be shared by Ottawa if costs rise.
As power crews worked Monday to reconnect the final homes affected by the week-long outage, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford asked for a Jan. 10 council meeting to request money from Ontario's Disaster Relief Assistance Program to cover cleanup costs, such as clearing debris.
Ontario's government said it will consider the request. If costs mount, Ontario could then seek funding from the federal government, triggering a process used in disasters such as the derailment in Lac-Mégantic and the summer floods in southern Alberta. Public Safety Canada confirmed on Monday that Ontario is eligible to apply for help under the Disaster Financial Assistance Arrangements program if its costs meet a "threshold" of $1 per capita, or roughly $13.5-million. It's not clear if it will, and therefore unclear what each government will pay for.
"We're not at a point where we can answer concretely if we'd attempt to recoup any costs from the feds," said Craig MacBride, a spokesman for Ontario's Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services.
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was noncommittal on the city's request. "We have not assessed at this point what the funding may or may not be," she told reporters on Monday. "I don't know what the ask is and I don't know exactly what the magnitude of the situation is."
Typically, disaster response is led by municipalities and provinces – also a reason why Prime Minister Stephen Harper didn't visit Toronto during the holiday-season outage. "The federal government always stands ready to help communities in the event of a state of emergency. In this case the response to the storm that hit Toronto over Christmas was ably led by the city with the support of the province," Mr. Harper's spokesman, Jason MacDonald, said Monday.
To complicate matters, the federal and provincial disaster programs have different lists of what's considered eligible.
Nevertheless, the federal system is based on per-capita costs. Ontario is responsible for the first $1 per capita, or $13.5-million, of what Ottawa considers eligible costs. The federal government would then pay half of the next $27-million or so, and three-quarters of the next $27-million. Anything over roughly $67.5-million, or $5 per capita, would be 90 per cent covered by the federal government.
But early signs suggest the costs of the ice storm response won't reach that level – Toronto Hydro estimates the storm will cost it between $8-million and $10-million, and it's unclear whether any of that would be covered by the DRAP or DFAA programs. While Toronto was worst-hit, the outage also affected several other communities across Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, all of which continued to deal with outages Monday. And cleanup is adding to the storm response bill. In Toronto, Mr. Ford said 115 crews were working to clear fallen trees and branches.
In the meantime, Ontario is focusing on short-term help – announcing Monday it was matching donations, to a maximum of $100,000, from five grocery chains to help those whose food has spoiled after days without power. Families are eligible for a $100 gift card, while individuals will get a $50 voucher. "I know that this won't replace all the food that has been lost. I understand that, but we believe that it is a help," Ms. Wynne said.
Once "immediate needs are met," Ontario will work with storm-battered municipalities "to decide how to respond to longer-term needs, including looking at assistance programs such as the Ontario Disaster Relief Assistance Program," said Mr. MacBride, the Ontario government spokesman.
All but 400 homes and other buildings in Toronto had power restored by Monday, down from a high of 300,000. The 400 clients were expected to be reconnected later in the day. Toronto Hydro CEO Anthony Haines choked up during a news conference, saying employees have "worked around the clock. We're all tired but we never stopped."