THUNDER BAY -- The future of a key provincial fund relied upon by many Ontario municipalities is unclear, with the finance minister not committing to maintaining that the same level of financial support.
Ontario Finance Minister Vic Fedeli, during a visit to Thunder Bay earlier this week, said the Progressive Conservative government is still reviewing the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund.
“We’re still looking at all avenues to bring relief to families in Ontario but a decision on the municipal partnership fund will be made very, very shortly,” Fedeli said. “As a former mayor, I know that they need their answers as soon as possible but no decision has been made yet.”
The municipal partnership fund is the province's main general assistance grant program for Ontario cities and towns. In 2018, the fund's total allocation was $510 million, which includes specific categories for northern and rural municipalities.
Fedeli, the former mayor of North Bay, was non-commital when asked whether municipalities should be bracing for cuts.
“I think municipalities understand that there’s a $15 billion deficit right across Ontario,” Fedeli said, adding that the former Liberal government was spending $40 million per day more than it was making in revenue. “There’s a big hill to climb out of. I know that municipalities play such an important role. As a former mayor, I would say to them to give us another short while and we’ll have answers for them.”
Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association president Wendy Landry, who is also the mayor of Shuniah, said there have been previous meetings with Fedeli where the minister was told about the importance of the partnership fund.
While different municipalities receive different amounts through the fund, Landry said it acts as an offset to major costs like social service administration boards and emergency services.
"The same way that the provincial government is feeling the transfer payments from the federal government, we're feeling the transfer payments from the provincial government," Landry said.
"We rely on that money during our budget time and our planning. If we don't have that OMPF funding or if it's significantly reduced for some of our communities, it means significant increases in our municipal taxes which is taking money out of the pockets of Ontarians."
The proposed 2019 Thunder Bay city budget forecasts a nearly $1-million reduction to its partnership fund allocation, with an expected $19.5 million compared to $20.4 million in 2018.
Thunder Bay mayor Bill Mauro said any potential reductions to that funding would likely result in municipalities choosing between increasing taxes or finding efficiencies.
"We're hopeful that the review will not bring anything that is too onerus for municipalities right across the province but if you do make a change, even if they give us some runway to try to adapt to the change if in fact they do bring something forward that is different," Mauro said.