Mayors call for COVID relief to prevent tax increases

The Canadian Press
Shawn Jeffords

TORONTO — Ontarians could face property tax increases and service cuts if upper levels of government don’t provide immediate financial support to municipalities coping with massive pandemic-related costs, leaders of the province’s largest cities and regions said Monday.
The municipal leaders said $10 billion in aid is needed for communities across the country, including Ontario, and federal and provincial governments must resolve their differences before cuts and fee hikes are forced upon communities.
The Large Urban Mayors’ Caucus of Ontario, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, and the Mayors and Regional Chairs of Ontario penned a joint statement Monday to ratchet up pressure on the governments to come to a resolution.
“Our residents need support now,” the groups said in a statement. “The time is up for federal-provincial wrangling about how to share the costs.”
The groups’ request comes halfway through the municipal budget year, and they said time is running out for a commitment. They’re urging the federal government to address the issue in a fiscal update set for Wednesday.
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in additional costs and lost income for towns and cities, including steeply declining transit revenues.
Cam Guthrie, chair of the Large Urban Mayors’ Caucus, said municipalities do not want to raise property taxes or cut services but if they don’t receive urgent help they’ll have little choice.
“We are frustrated by the continued dance that seems to be happening between the province and the federal government,” he said. “We’re going to have to start thinking about taking some measures … to help with these dire fiscal positions that municipalities are in.”
Some councils are considering cancelling transit services, reducing public health, fire and police services, and closing parks and cultural sites to cut costs, he said.
Not allowed to run deficits by law, municipalities across Ontario have already been laying off thousands of staff during the pandemic.
Last week, Premier Doug Ford said the province needs more “flexibility” when it comes federal funding for municipalities.
Guthrie said Ford is correct, and also asked that the funding not be made too restrictive or bogged down by an overly bureaucratic process.
“It needs to be done in an expedited way,” he said. “We have had an excellent partnership with the province and the federal government, but this is starting to put a strain on that partnership when we have been raising this red flag for months now.”
Toronto Mayor John Tory has said his city is facing at least $1.5 billion in cost pressures this year because of the pandemic.
Mississauga Mayor Bonnie Crombie said her city has already had to make difficult decisions because of financial pressures related to COVID-19, including laying off 2,000 staff.
Crombie estimated that the pandemic is costing her city $20 million a month.
A spokeswoman for Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark said the province is calling on the federal government to provide flexible funding to municipalities.
“Given the national scale and magnitude of the shortfalls facing Canadian municipalities, it is imperative that the federal government step up and join us in developing a plan to help our municipalities recover from the impacts of COVID-19,” Julie O’Driscoll said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for Infrastructure and Communities Minister Catherine McKenna said the government has proposed changes to its infrastructure funding model, including a new COVID-19 funding stream that would increase the federal cost-share for a broad range of projects and provide quicker approvals.
“Minister McKenna has been engaged with provinces, territories, municipalities, Indigenous leaders and other stakeholders on infrastructure measures aimed at addressing the current pressures facing communities due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Lama Khodr said.
Meanwhile, Premier Doug Ford said the final two communities remaining in the first stage of Ontario’s reopening plan will move ahead Tuesday.
Ford said Kingsville and Leamington will move to Stage 2 as of 12:01 a.m. because COVID-19 outbreaks on local farms are under control and community spread of the virus is low.
Last week, the government dispatched Emergency Management Ontario to help co-ordinate health care and housing for more than 190 agri-food workers who have tested positive for the virus.
Most of Windsor-Essex, except for the two towns, moved to the second stage of reopening on June 25.
Ontario reported 154 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, along with 160 newly resolved cases.
The province also saw no new deaths due to the virus over the previous day, the first time that has happened since late March.
The total number of cases now stands at 35,948, which includes 31,426 marked as resolved and 2,689 deaths.
The province completed roughly 17,303 tests for the novel coronavirus over the previous 24 hours.