Why three elections in two years could mean a ‘lost year’ for municipalities

Since the provincial election, Ontario cities have been in a holding pattern — and with municipal and federal contests coming up, more of the same may be in store, writes John Michael McGrath
By John Michael McGrath - Published on August 21, 2018
a woman at a podium
Outgoing AMO president Lynn Dollin addresses leaders from Ontario municipalities this week in Ottawa. (John Michael McGrath)

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OTTAWA — Mayors, councillors, and municipal bureaucrats may not be the most rambunctious of people, but even so, the halls of Ottawa’s Shaw Conference Centre seem unusually quiet.

The conference of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario represents an annual opportunity for municipal and provincial officials (both elected and not) to gather in one place and share their ideas and priorities for the coming year. In past years, under the Liberal government, they’ve advocated vocally for changes to everything from taxes to torts.

But there’s now a new government in place at Queen’s Park. And, as several delegates told TVO.org, many of the people here are focusing mostly on October’s municipal contests and their re-election campaigns back home.

Next year’s federal election is also a consideration: outgoing AMO president Lynn Dollin is warning that if the new Progressive Conservative government can’t start the process for new infrastructure spending soon, municipalities will face the prospect of a “lost year” in infrastructure planning.

“Municipalities are all lame ducks right now,” Dollin told TVO.org. “And the new councils won’t be up and running until early 2019 … we don’t want to lose another year.”

A 10-year bilateral agreement that Ontario and Canada signed earlier this year spells out the funding-application process for municipal projects that could involve support from both Queen’s Park and Ottawa. In brief: Municipalities submit applications, the province assesses those applications, and then the federal government assesses them again.

All that takes time: AMO wants the application period to open before the end of this year so that new councils will be able to start working on their applications in early 2019. If they don’t, Dollin warns, the funding could be lost.

(Ottawa also has a reason to speed up this process: the federal Liberals probably wouldn’t mind being able to tout new infrastructure spending when they run for re-election.)

Any spending delay could have significant effects on towns that rely on money from other levels of government.

“It affects us up in the North — we rely so much on provincial and federal funding for our projects,” said Wayne Taipale, mayor of Moosonee. “But we don’t know what’s coming down with the new government, so it could be a year without things moving forward.”

Moosonee will be the site of a new hospital (announced under the Liberals), and the province recently announced that a new building would be constructed for the existing OPP detachment there, but the municipality at the far end of the Polar Bear Express rail line has other funding needs.

Doug Lawrance, mayor of Sioux Lookout, said the multiple-election year has also affected his town — and not just because Lawrance ran for the Liberals in the spring election.

“I know even as we entered the fourth year of council, there’s a bit of a slowdown,” Lawrance said. “There’s a bit of a pause, absolutely.” Lawrance acknowledged that his meetings with government ministers have been positive  — although he has had to educate them a bit about his community.

Some mayors did emphasize that there was still plenty of productive discussion happening at AMO this year.

“The delegates who are here are here to work,” said Bracebridge mayor Graydon Smith. “The province is here to do a lot of listening, we’re here to do a lot of talking, and everyone’s trying to get comfortable with each other.”

The minister of municipal affairs and housing, Steve Clark (himself a former mayor and former president of AMO), declined to speak with TVO.org, citing a full schedule. Multiple mayors and councillors, however, were generally positive about the reception they’d received from the new government, even if they said it hadn’t shed much light on what the future may hold.

The Tories have held a substantially larger number of meetings with municipal delegations than the Liberals did in previous years, when, Dollin says, the province accepted 300 delegations. This year, the Tories have scheduled 548 meetings with municipalities.

“They’re definitely in listening mode on all fronts,” Dollin says. “They’re finding their way, finding their footing.”

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