WELLINGTON COUNTY – The local impact of the province’s May 27 decision to reverse planned retroactive funding cuts to municipalities won’t be huge, but local politicians are taking it as a good sign.
“No, it definitely wasn’t on a big scale,” said Warden Kelly Linton of the impact on the county of anticipated cuts to public health, ambulance services and child care.
“I’d say the City of Guelph, places like that, I’m sure they’re extremely happy. But it is good news for the county for sure.”
In fact, Guelph Mayor Cam Guthrie, chair of the Large Urban Mayor’s Caucus of Ontario (LUMCO), issued a statement on May 27 thanking provincial officials for their decision announced earlier that day.
“On behalf of Ontario’s big city mayors, I want to thank the premier and Minister (of Municipal Affairs Steve) Clark for listening to our concerns and responding,” Guthrie stated.
“I also want to thank LUMCO mayors across Ontario for being a unified voice on this issue. We have said all along that we support the province’s efforts to gets its budget deficit and debt under control, but we need more runway and more details. We look forward to working with the province in the weeks and months ahead to continue to find efficiencies, without jeopardizing core municipal services.”
At a May 24 meeting LUMCO mayors told Clark that absorbing millions of dollars worth of funding cuts after municipal budgets had already been approved would force cities to consider increasing taxes or fees, cutting services, raiding reserves or deferring infrastructure and capital projects. Unlike the provincial government, municipalities are required by law to balance budgets annually and cannot run a deficit.
“There is no doubt that any provincial funding cuts will still cause municipal councils to make some tough decisions,” Guthrie stated.
“But at least now we have the time to come to the table with the province and figure out how to do this in a way that best protects our local residents and the services they depend on.”
Linton said the reversal of the cuts “just gives us another year to work with the province, just to be sure that we’re looking after our services while we are being fiscally responsible.”
Linton noted the province “has made it clear they are looking for fiscal responsibility here.
“They’ve made it clear they’re moving in this direction, but at the same time they have backed down a number of times when it becomes clear that the negative impacts from drastic and fast cuts is going to be felt by regular people in Ontario. To me that’s a good sign,” the warden added.
“They are interested in listening and if there’s solutions to be bought to the table it sounds like they’re interested in moving ahead on things like that.”
While the cuts the county was facing weren’t as imposing as those in larger centres, Linton said the county was making plans to deal with reduced funding.
“I know that we were starting to put some plans in place because we were thinking there was going to be significant cuts, so we were starting to put some contingency plans in place for it and it looks now like we have at least another year,” he said.
Minto mayor George Bridge, who represents Wellington County as a director of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, said the in-year budget cuts would have been a challenge.
“One of the concerns we had was … if you know you’re going to get some funding changes, it’d be nice to know before you set a budget. In the middle of your budget process where do you find the money? I think they’ve realized that,” said Bridge.
“It’s hardly fair when everybody’s set their budgets for the year and somebody changes how much you’re getting.”
While public health, ambulance and child care are upper tier responsibilities, Bridge said the county’s lower tier municipalities would also have been affected.
“It obviously impacts us because at the end of the day if the county has to raise a bunch more taxes, (that) makes it tougher for us,” he said.
County treasurer Ken DeHart said the county was still trying to get a handle on the impact of the cuts when the reversal was announced, so no firm figures were available.
“From a county service-delivery perspective, the biggest hit was going to be in child care. While the overall funding envelope only dropped about $150,000 for Wellington/Guelph, the biggest change was the requirement to cost share previously announced child care expansion funding – which is the funding that was used to expand child care service delivery in the new Palmerston, Erin and the soon to be open Wellington Place Child Care Centres,” DeHart stated in an email.
“Previously these programs were to be covered 100% by provincial grants, but they changed to 80/20 funding, where the municipality would have to share in 20% of the costs to access the 80% funding. Across the system (Wellington and Guelph), this impact was expected to be over [$700,000] annually.”