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Ontario municipalities push for frank talk with province on who pays for what

TORONTO — Steep property tax increases being proposed across the province are partly the result of Ontario offloading various costs to local governments in the 1990s, municipalities say, and it’s time for a frank talk about who pays for what.

The province announced a “new deal” for Toronto late last year, in which it agreed to take over the cost of two Toronto highways to help ease the city’s financial pressures, and now other communities want similar support. 

The Association of Municipalities of Ontario will be pushing this week at the Rural Ontario Municipal Association conference for a broader rethink of the provincial-municipal relationship.

“I think the ‘new deal’ is really encouraging because it does upload key infrastructure that was downloaded in the 1990s, but it also makes a commitment to work with the City of Toronto to take a look at the fiscal framework into 2025,” AMO executive director Brian Rosborough said in an interview.

Toronto had initially pushed for the new deal because it was facing a large budget shortfall, but that hasn’t gone away. It has proposed a 10.5 per cent property tax increase, which could balloon to 16.5 per cent if the federal government doesn’t reimburse costs related to support for refugee claimants, officials have said.

Many municipalities across the province – which cannot run deficits by law – are looking at high property tax increases.

“We are seeing numbers like six, seven, eight and even 10 per cent,” Rosborough said. 

“That’s just for 2024. We have fundamentally a systemic problem that needs to be addressed, or we’ll be looking at those upper and even double-digit increases into the future as well.”

Municipalities and their taxpayers are paying for infrastructure and services that should not be their responsibility, Rosborough said, such as public health, land ambulance services, bridges and highways.

“We can draw a direct line to the property tax proposals that are being tabled today and the downloading of the 1990s,” he said.

Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Paul Calandra said he was looking forward to talks at the conference. 

“We have proven that we will always have the backs of our rural and northern municipalities when it comes to making sure they have the resources they need to support the growth we’re seeing,” he wrote in a statement. 

“I look forward to meeting with our partners at ROMA and discussing how our government can continue building Ontario and make sure no part of the province is left behind.”

Robin Jones, chair of the Rural Ontario Municipalities Association and mayor of Westport, Ont., said rural municipalities support AMO’s push.

ROMA’s focus at the conference is rural health care. The association will be releasing a research paper showing that 525,000 rural Ontario residents don’t have access to primary care.

“That’s an amazing amount,” Jones said in an interview.

“The other thing is … that rural Ontarians are losing access to primary care four times faster than in urban areas. So(doctors) are retiring more often or they’re leaving their practices four times as fast outside of urban centres.” 

Jones said rural municipalities would like to see the province enable them to rely more heavily on health professionals such as paramedics and nurse practitioners, through expanding their scopes of practice.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 21, 2024. 

Allison Jones, The Canadian Press


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