Merrickville-Wolford Mayor, Doug Struthers, has been busy keeping in touch with what is happening at the provincial level and has some positive, and some concerning news, to report. Prior to the Rural Ontario Municipal Association (ROMA) conference at the end of January, Mayor Struthers attended a session organized by Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport, Michael Tibollo, called to consult with municipalities about how the province could help promote tourism in their area.
Mayor Struthers said he chose to focus on the Rideau corridor as the area that needs the most attention from the province. “My suggestion was making the waterways along the Rideau corridor a priority,” he says, adding that tourism along the Rideau contributes $5.4 billion to Canada’s GDP. “It’s $680 million, if you leave out Kingston and Ottawa,” he says.
His suggestion was to have two instead of three Regional Tourism Organizations (RTO) to make communication less convoluted and to create a strategy to support business development along the corridor. “We are ‘open for business’, but we can be MORE open for business,” Mayor Struthers says, using the buzzword often used by Premier Doug Ford. “The more focused the province can be about recognizing economic activity along the corridor, the better.”
Mayor Struthers says he also had the opportunity to talk with Minister Tibollo at the ROMA conference about the need to give natural gas companies an incentive to expand their services into rural areas. The Mayor, and others on council, are focused on trying to get natural gas to the north side of the river in Merrickville for residents and future commercial development. “We have light industrial zoning over there,” he says. He believes that the Minister seemed to understand the economic benefit of having natural gas there when it comes to improving the economic value of the Rideau corridor, and he is hopeful that progress is being made to get natural gas across the river. The Province has passed legislation which allows the Ontario Energy Board to change their regulations when it comes to the cross-subsidization of services. This will allow natural gas companies to use some of the dollars they collect from bills to expand services to areas that they might not otherwise be able to service, because of lack of density. Mayor Struthers was also able to talk with employees of Enbridge Gas at the conference, who were still skeptical about the feasibility of bringing natural gas to the area because they would need to put a pipe underneath the river at significant capital cost. What they didn’t know, is that there is already an old sewage pipe under the river that has never been used. “I don’t want to get overly excited, but it is a piece of infrastructure Enbridge was not aware of,” Mayor Struthers says. Staff are now providing some of the details of the pipe to Enbridge to see if it will be a feasible solution.
Council has also received correspondence from both the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, and the Ministry of Finance. The letter from Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Steve Clark, states that the Provincial government is in the process of reviewing the Planning Act and the Provincial Policy Statement to “ensure they are calibrated to achieve our streamlining and housing supply objectives.” The letter also suggests that municipalities put any major planning decisions or reviews on hold until the provincial review is complete. Mayor Struthers is a bit concerned about what this vague letter means, and suggested to council that they continue with the development of their own Official Plan, which has been in the works for several months.
The letter from the Ministry of Finance noted that the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund (OMPF), which is the Province’s main general assistance grant to municipalities, is under review. The funding to municipalities will remain the same for 2019, but they will be consulting with municipalities in the coming months to ensure the program is sustainable and focused on Northern and rural municipalities that need the funding the most. “We are committed to announcing the 2020 allocations well in advance of the municipal budget year, so that municipalities have appropriate time to plan,” says the letter, signed by Minister of Finance, Vic Fedeli.
Mayor Struthers feels that this is cause for concern. With the provincial government’s goal to be “efficient and effective”, he worries that this will have a big impact on the funding municipalities receive from the Province, and even on the structure of the municipalities themselves. “I’m not wanting to be cynical,” he says. “But this is certainly cause for municipalities to sit up and take notice.”
Finally, Mayor Struthers touched on the budget, which is currently being prepared by staff. He says the municipality also needs to be “efficient and effective” in terms of their own budget. While the County has confirmed that their tax rate is staying the same, MPAC is continuing a 4-year phased increase in property values, which will see the average homeowner in Leeds and Grenville pay $10 more on their tax bill. This increase in MPAC assessments will also have an impact on the Village’s portion of the tax bill, and Mayor Struthers says they will have to take that into consideration when finalizing the budget, to ensure the tax rate isn’t too high for residents. “We have to manage our debt load, but also the expectations that property owners and tax payers have in terms of the front-line services,” he says. “Keeping our focus on what is critical, what is needed to do, and what is nice to do.”