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Provincial budget gets mixed reviews locally

This week’s re-released provincial budget, now with a majority Liberal government in place, met with mixed reactions from local groups.

While the legislation – identical to the plan put forward on May 1 that triggered the June 12 election – contains numerous infrastructure allotments for Waterloo Region, including two-way all-day GO Transit service to Toronto and a new Highway 7 between Kitchener and Guelph, local officials say the proposal creates uncertainty regarding provincial funding to small, rural municipalities.

“On the one hand, we are very encouraged by the government’s commitment to infrastructure funding, especially considering our infrastructure deficit and other municipal infrastructure deficits,” said David Brenneman,  Woolwich’s chief administrative officer. “It’s good to see their commitment to being a partner in solving the infrastructure deficit situation and providing a stable, reliable, continuous type of funding. We also, though, are glad that they are also putting up their share of the money for the Building Canada Fund so that some needed infrastructure projects can get done. Where we are concerned is that while that is going to be helpful, what is not going to be helpful is the cut to the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund (OMPF).”

It is unclear if Woolwich will feel the squeeze though, since cuts in the past haven’t always resulted in decreases in provincial funding.

“I have to be cautious in talking about that because even though the cuts started about a year a go, in the last go-round with funding cuts, (the government changed) the formula to determine how much each municipality is going to get and ours actually went up slightly,” Brenneman said. “So whether in fact we are going to see a cut remains to be seen, but chances are we will and obviously that is concerning.”

For its part, the organization representing municipalities in the province, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, says it’s looking forward “to more detail on $100 million permanent, predictable infrastructure funding for small, rural and northern municipalities.”

The Progressive Conservative Party, predictably, denounced the budget for doing too little to address Ontario’s soaring debt.

“It is troubling in the fact that Ontarians will pay the price for higher borrowing costs and will take billions out of priority services, or everyone’s wallets,” Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Michael Harris said.

Brenneman says the Liberals are in a bind; eager to “invest in the people” as the campaign slogan went, while faced with the reality of a $290 billion debt that will rack up nearly $11 billion in interest payments this year.

“I would say I’m not surprised by the budget. Through our continued discussions and advocacy with the province, we have continued to hear that the Liberal government was trying to come up with an appropriate way to provide predictable, stable and continuous types of infrastructure funding because they realized the seriousness of the infrastructure deficit. And we’re also not surprised in the least that they are trying to proceed with the OMPF cuts, just because we do realize the fiscal situation the province finds itself in.”

Unfortunately, Brenneman continued, financial difficulties tend to be downloaded from the federal and provincial governments to the municipal level, leaving local politicians with difficult decisions.

On the infrastructure side, the government proposes new dedicated funds totalling some $29 billion over the next 10 years for highways, public transit, roads and bridges. Based on population, more than half would go to the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA), with other regions of Ontario dividing up the remaining $14 billion.

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