Déjà vu all over again

Back in the 1960s Yogi Berra uttered that now famous observation in response to two batters hitting home runs back to back. 

The phrase has since been turned into a song and its redundant proposition rebuffed by English majors the world over, but the concept works. Ironically, it best captures the mood in municipal circles, where significant or absolute losses of grant funding loom large as the province of Ontario reviews current allotments. This play to bring the province’s books back into shape has been used before.

Coincidentally, a previous Conservative government led by Mike Harris cut funding to municipalities and implemented Bill 26, the Savings and Restructuring Act, 1996. At that time the government’s mood was that the provincial debt and continuous deficit financing were jeopardizing its future. A similar temperament exists within the current government, as outlined in a letter to local mayors suggesting current spending levels are unsustainable.

Yes, debt and its significance lie in the eyes of the beholder. Some politicians can be quite fearless when it comes to borrowing money, while others prefer a more measured approach to budgeting. Regardless of aptitude or discipline employed, there are two major levers to control: revenue and expenses.

After the fallout of amalgamation in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the effect downloaded services had on municipal budgets, it became clear that municipalities needed access to grants if they were to fulfill their core responsibilities. 

The Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund, which replaced the Community Reinvestment Fund originally intended to offset costs of downloaded services, is now under threat as the Ford Conservatives examine their spending commitments. 

Before the Christmas holidays, Minister of Finance Vic Fideli sent a letter to local heads of council, noting his great challenge in getting the $15 billion deficit under control. Without providing a specific number, he indicated this will result in reduced spending, hence the overture to local municipalities that their historic funding is under threat.

For municipalities in Wellington already suffering from a depleting source of grants, there is about $7.5 million in jeopardy should the province outright cancel the program.

The effect of such a shift had mayors scurrying for talking points. Out of Erin, Mayor Allan Alls offered three options to address the impact in his community: a potential 8% tax increase, closure of its two community centres or a reduction in the farm tax break to a paltry 25% pardon on the farm portion (compared with the current 75% factor). While none of these items are palatable, it highlights the very real, significant choices the town may face should funding go away.

Elsewhere across the county, the options will be equally grim. Already strapped budgets that find it difficult to repair key infrastructure like bridges, culverts and roadways will be further hampered. 

As the politically astute Guelph-Eramosa Mayor Chris White noted,  regardless of who caused the problem, local politicians will be blamed for it when taxes rise. 

To wit, that too is déjà vu all over again.