Money for nothing
By Chad Ingram
Just as there is no such thing as a truly free lunch, there is no such thing as truly no-strings-attached funding from the provincial government to municipalities.
Late last month, a number of Ontario municipalities, including all five councils within Haliburton County, were informed they’d be receiving one-time funding from the province through the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. And the amounts are nothing to scoff at. The upper tier of the county will receive $725,000, Minden Hills and Dysart et al each $542,255, Highlands East $534,469 and Algonquin Highlands $532,292. So collectively, we’re talking about some $2.8 million, which of course, at first blush, seems like a good thing.
However, it seems the money is intended for a pretty specific purpose and one must wonder what the provincial government is priming the county for with nearly $3 million in surprise dollars.
A letter from Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark to heads of council is pretty telling. While it refers to the funding as “unconditional,” it quickly makes clear what it is to be used for.
“While this investment is unconditional, it is intended to help modernize service delivery and reduce future costs through investments in projects such as: service delivery reviews, development of shared services agreements, and capital investments,” the letter reads.
“I believe there will be an expectation that we will be reducing our costs,” county chief administrative officer Mike Rutter told councillors last week.
So, municipalities are essentially being paid by the province to streamline their own operations. That makes it seem pretty likely that municipalities can expect to take a substantial hit when it comes to provincial funding in the next few years. There was uncertainty regarding whether local governments would receive money from the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund this budget year. While that equalization funding has been confirmed for 2019, it’s uncertain whether this funding will continue in the future. Collectively, Haliburton County and its lower tiers currently receive approximately $7 million per year from the fund, used to offset general operating costs. Were that funding to disappear, it would have to be compensated for, either through service reductions or property tax increases.
We know that Premier Doug Ford is over-interested in municipal affairs. Recall his government’s slashing of Toronto city council by half its members in the lead-up to last fall’s municipal election, or the provincial review that is being conducted of Ontario’s eight regional governments. If anyone thought that the province’s smaller communities were going to be left alone, this funding announcement should make it clear that is not going to be the case.
The County of Haliburton is undertaking a governance review/exploration of shared services and while there doesn’t seem to an overwhelming appetite for amalgamation among members of the current county council, a potential single-tier framework should be part of that governance review.
If the county does not take sufficient steps to improve its efficiency, it seems quite likely the premier is willing to take those steps for us.
Beware a free lunch.