WINDSOR – The Annual conference of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario is one of the major events of the provincial political calendar, regularly attracting not just Premier Kathleen Wynne but most of the cabinet and opposition MPPs to listen to the needs of Ontario's 444 municipalities.
The government, however, doesn't just get to listen: it also gets to make crowd-pleasing announcements, and on Monday Wynne announced that $560 million in federal infrastructure funding will be available for municipalities and First Nations to apply for in September.
The hitch is that Ontario does not actually have a final agreement with Ottawa on the federal funding in question, though Wynne told reporters after her opening remarks that a federal-provincial agreement is “very close.”
Wynne says the stumbling block has been the fact of Ontario's infrastructure investments since 2014.
“Ironically, the reason it's taken a bit longer for us is in fact because we're putting in $160 billion in over 12 years, so we were already making this huge investment. When the federal government came along we had to talk about how those investments meshed,” Wynne said.
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The premier also said the Liberal government is going to wait for AMO to come to a consensus on what kind of new taxes its member cities and towns want access to before introducing them. Late last year, then-minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Ted McMeekin ruled out giving other municipalities access to the land transfer tax that Toronto, alone among Ontario cities, is allowed.
Wynne said while the taxes Toronto can levy have dominated the discussion at AMO, there's been no consensus. She argued that towns without a booming real estate market would see little benefit to a land transfer tax anyway.
Minister of Municipal Affairs Bill Mauro said the province wants a solution that will work for all of the province's municipalities, especially small and rural communities.
“For us, we are trying to find some mechanism, some means, and we hope [AMO] will provide that for us to show a path that will help all of them and not just some of them,” he said.
While municipalities have long wanted new forms of revenue to augment their current reliance on property taxes, the looming costs of renewing infrastructure across the province – everything from roads and parks to sewers and transit – is increasingly daunting. AMO research shows an infrastructure deficit of $3.6 billion annually over 10 years, above and beyond existing federal and provincial funding agreements.
On that subject, pollster Nik Nanos told AMO members this morning that his firm's research shows a majority of Ontarians would support a small increase in the HST to fund municipal infrastructure, especially if that tax increase lets municipalities keep property tax increases in line with inflation.
Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown and New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath will address the conference on Monday afternoon.