Mayor Keith Hobbs has deep concerns that $1 billion earmarked for Ring of Fire infrastructure now appears to be contingent on matching federal funds.
Hobbs, who watched the budget being delivered on television at his city hall office Thursday, said his government sources have told him that means the money will have to be drawn from the $14-billion Building Canada fund.
When announcing the $1 billion investment last week, a trio of provincial ministers made no mention of the money being contingent on federal participation, and vehemently said they wanted Ottawa to fund its share of the estimated $2.2 billion project as a standalone entity as they’ve done elsewhere in Canada.
“It is a bit of a concern after speaking to some people in the federal government yesterday,” Hobbs said. “Apparently their stance is they’ve already contributed $14 billion, or earmarked $14 billion ... with the Build Canada fund and the provincial government has to take out of that fund for matching dollars.”
However, Liberal Minister of Housing and Municipal Affairs Bill Mauro was adamant the money is not contingent on the federal government stepping up to the table, despite the word being used in budget documents.
“Our money is not at peril. Our money is there,” said Mauro, reiterating the province needs help.
“Yes, we need the federal government to be a part of this.”
Hobbs said looks like political gamesmanship being played between Ottawa and Toronto. But it’s Northern Ontario communities that are getting caught in the crosshair.
Hobbs said forcing Ontarians to draw from the Building Canada fund would have trickle-down effects elsewhere.
“We in the north still have a crumbling infrastructure, probably worse than southern Ontario communities. It’s just going to be a matter of wait and see to see where those dollars are spent,” the mayor said.
Mauro said the $130-billion budget, which comes with an $11.3-billion deficit, has plenty to offer northerners.
He pointed to the $100-million rural infrastructure fund, which Finance Minister Charles Sousa has made permanent going forward.
“Communities in my riding, the small ones, will really benefit from this,” he said.
Continued four-laning of the Trans-Canada between Thunder Bay and Nipigon and an additional $14-billion infrastructure fund set aside by the province – part of a $130-billion, 10-year promise – are also part of the plan, which must still garner approval in the legislature or the minority Liberal government could fall.
Mauro also took issue with Hobbs’ concerns about a mandatory Ontario pension plan, which the mayor worried might be too expensive for municipalities and businesses.
Mauro said the province has been hounding Ottawa to reform the Canada Pension Plan, to no avail.
“The average that people get (annually) on CPP is $6,800 and the vast majority of people don’t have an employee pension plan.”
Conservative candidate Harold Wilson, who hopes to challenge Mauro in a spring election in Thunder Bay-Atikokan, said the government’s spend-heavy plan simply isn’t affordable or sustainable.
"Ontario needs a government that has a plan to reduce spending, eliminate excessive red tape, address ever-higher energy rates, create jobs, and especially the courage to implement it," Wilson said in a release.
"This continuation of the McGuinty/Wynne plan won't do it. In fact, now they are increasing both taxes and the deficit at the same time. This drives employers away."
Conservative Leader Tim Hudak has said all along he won’t support the budget, leaving the fate of Premier Kathleen Wynne's government in the hands of NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, who isn’t expected to comment on the budget and whether or not she'll support it until Friday.
Mauro said he won’t speculate on what Horwath might do.
“I don’t know. I truly don’t know,” he said.