AMO conference sheds light on key issues going into Ontario municipal elections

By Daniel Adam
Staff Writer

The recent Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) conference brought provincial ministers and municipal spokespeople alike to the nation’s capitol for delegations on key issues facing municipalities across the province.

Greg Rickford, Kenora–Rainy River MPP says the conference is geared toward providing municipalities the opportunity to meet with ministers.

“It’s an exciting conference,” he says. “I attend a lot of conferences … this is probably the busiest, and likely the most meaningful.”

Incumbent Fort Frances council candidate Wendy Brunetta says she attended AMO on the municipality’s behalf, but also joined Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association (NOMA) in delegations with ministers.

“It think it was a really good use of our time,” she says. “AMO is a really great place for our municipalities to be seen and heard by the ministers.”

Councillor Brunetta says she brought a number of region-relevant issues to the government and opposition parties.

“The first one we spoke about was the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund — they redid the formula, and a fair amount of municipalities lost funding,” says Brunetta. “The ask there was that the government look at committing to stabilizing that funding and then look at the inequities.”

Some of her discussions with ministers also included the sale of Crown land.

“There’s a number of municipalities in our region that have Crown land right within their municipality that they can’t make use of,” says Brunetta. “So we’re asking the government to examine those municipalities … it would be a win win because the province would be paid for that land, and then those municipalities would have that property to expand.”

She says another key issue mentioned was railway taxation.

“We brought this issue to the government multiple times,” says Brunetta. “And we’re still of the opinion that we should be taxing railways based on the same formula as the other provinces in the country.”

Brunetta says they shared that a number of northwestern municipalities are getting large bills for the repair and maintenance of right-of-ways at crossings.

“There’s never any consultation. They just all of a sudden get this huge bill which, of course, they hadn’t budgeted for, so it’s causing a lot of problems in some municipalities,” she says. “So we’re asking the ministry to again reconsider the taxation formula. It just doesn’t seem correct that we should be maintaining [CN’s] infrastructure when it’s no longer a Crown corporation.”

“For some municipalities, it’s a big chunk of change,” says Deb Ewald, recently-acclaimed Rainy River mayor. “And generally, you don’t know what the cost will be.”

Brunetta says they also talked to ministers about plans to consolidate EMS and public health organizations.

“In our huge geographic area, it doesn’t make any sense to have less EMS stations as well as less public health organizations,” she says. “We just reiterated that we do not agree with or support that decision.”

She also got to speak with health minister Sylvia Jones on physician recruitment and retention.

“We have an aging clinic that isn’t an ideal workplace, especially since COVID, and flooding, and everything else,” says Brunetta. “We stressed to the minister that if they could help us, it would go a long way to help retain our doctors. Because even though we’re struggling to recruit new doctors, we certainly don’t want to lose the ones that we have.”

She says NOMA also did a joint presentation with the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM) and the Northern Ontario Service Deliverers Association (NOSDA) about mental health, addictions, and homelessness.

Mayor Ewald, who was also a part of the meeting, says she thought it was very well received.

“We don’t just go to the ministers with problems, we usually try to bring what we see as solutions to these issues,” she says. “And I think they’re getting it. Hopefully we’ll get some positive outcomes.”

Minister Rickford agrees that housing was a key part of discussions at AMO.

“I’m the first one to acknowledge that there’s more work to be done,” he says. “But bringing the kind of housing optionality to our towns and cities isn’t just a top priority, but I think this both this budget, and this conference were clear signals that we will and are redoubling our efforts to address these challenges that municipalities writ large have identified.”

Rickford says his chats with Fort Frances councillors were about “a new Fort Frances, so to speak,” as the town will have a new mayor, and at least three fresh councillors after the municipal election this fall.

“There’s an opportunity from the outset to set forth a new vision and plan and what that looks like for the economy,” says Rickford. “It’s been a great privilege and an honour to serve with Mayor Caul and the existing council. We’ve accomplished a lot for a town that’s faced some really difficult economic circumstances, and we see a new horizon.”

He says he’s had some very preliminary meetings with Fort Frances officials on what the province can do to help improve the town’s economic fortunes and prosperity.

Councillor Brunetta says Fort Frances is in a state of transition and is looking for economic development opportunities.

“In the upcoming election, I think that’s one of the main things we need to be considering — how are we going to recreate our community to move toward something that will sustain us through the years,” she says. “The mine has been great, but we know it won’t be there forever.

“I think that once we have a good, strong economic base, then we need to look at building on that. We need to keep our infrastructure in place, we need to grow our social activities, and we need to make Fort Frances a place where people want to live, and grow their families, and move forward.”

Ewald says going into the election, the biggest priority is keeping communities viable.

“To get to keep things fresh and attract people to your community and keep them there — that’s the kind of stuff that’s really important,” she says.

Ontario municipal elections take place on October 24. This year, many municipalities have eliminated in-person voting. For more information on how to vote, visit your local municipality’s website or town office.