Lynn Dollin is President of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) and Deputy Mayor of Innisfil. AMO represents almost all of Ontario’s 444 municipal governments, excepting the City of Toronto.
The provincial election is less than two weeks away, but make no mistake – the future of critical local services is very much on the ballot June 7.
During the first two leaders’ debates, the trio vying to lead Ontario’s provincial government were peppered with questions about core municipal services, such as policing, transit and economic development. That’s because the fate of our 444 municipal governments is deeply intertwined with decisions made by the provincial government.
The province dictates and regulates municipal services. And municipal governments often deliver and help fund key provincial government programs.
So far, no party has offered a clear plan to support municipal governments. All have made expensive promises. And all have remained silent when asked if municipal property taxpayers will have to pay for them.
It makes sense that we are hearing about provincial health care and education. They are important to communities. Municipal governments provide their own a wide range of important, basic services. Most people use them every day. Yet municipal governments collect just nine cents of every household’s tax dollars. The other 91 cents goes to federal and provincial coffers.
An analysis by the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) found that a $4.9-billion annual gap is forming between municipal revenues collected (largely from property taxes and user fees) and what is needed to pay for services, provincial mandates and infrastructure. Without changes, property taxes would have to double over the next 10 years to close this gap.
Out of necessity and good sense, municipal governments constantly strive for efficiencies. But belt-tightening alone won’t solve a problem of this size. And unlike our federal and provincial peers, we are not allowed to borrow our way out of it.
Municipal governments own more than 60 per cent of all public infrastructure. Previous downloading of provincial costs (not to mention 5,000 kilometres of roads) made it hard to keep up with infrastructure needs. That problem continues to grow.
We regained some lost ground when the province agreed to slowly take back some social services and court security costs. This upload is now worth about $2-billion each year. In simple terms, it means that municipalities have been able to keep property tax revenue that used to subsidize Ontario government programs. Those municipal property tax dollars are now building municipal infrastructure.
That being said, municipal governments are still paying for and delivering provincial services such as social housing, child care and public health. More than 170,000 people sit on the waiting list for housing across Ontario. When it comes to hospitals, we chip in for expansions, new buildings and equipment. We care about the well-being of our communities, but nine cents on the dollar is no prescription for healthy and thriving communities.
Too often, the best interest of the Ontario government and its bureaucracy trumps what is practical and efficient locally. New provincial initiatives are often imposed on municipal governments without enough (or any) money to cover the costs.
In addition, the province’s one-size-fits all approach to municipal rules and regulations drives inefficiency and waste. Kingston is not Kenora. Why not let them each do what works best locally? If we could change and eliminate many arbitrary provincial rules, local governments could better control their own costs.
Anyone who hopes to lead our province should have a clear plan to support municipal government. Taxpayers expect governments to work together and respect their money. We need an approach that considers the impact that provincial decisions have on municipal costs and property tax rates. It is time to stop passing down costs and piling them onto the municipal tax bill.
Local governments need a greater local say in how services are delivered and a greater local share of tax revenue – a share that matches our responsibilities.
In the absence of an effective partnership with Queen’s Park, many municipal councils will face a stark choice: raise property taxes or make deep cuts to municipal services.
AMO wants to see each party’s plan for municipal government. Tell us, and the people of Ontario, what actions you will take and – what actions you won’t.