Budget draws mixed reactions

Last Thursday’s provincial budget included big money for Toronto but little for Northwestern Ontario, NDP leader and local MPP Howard Hampton charged.
“This budget is all about the McGuinty government trying to purchase two by-elections in the Greater Toronto Area in the next 10 days,” Hampton said Friday.
“There’s very little in this budget for regions and communities outside the GTA.”
Hampton cited the stressed health care system, the struggling forest industry, and municipalities dealing with downloaded services as some of the items that were not adequately funded in the budget.
“They’ve got the money to address these issues. They’ve chosen not to,” he charged. “Instead, they’re plowing it all into an urban transit fund focused on the Greater Toronto Area.”
Hampton also cited a $100-million cut to the Ministry of Tourism’s budget, a $10-million cut to the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, and a “fairly significant cut” to Native Affairs.
“Some ministries that are important for us in Northern Ontario are being hit pretty hard,” he said.
“I think people in the GTA are very happy with this budget. . . . For the rest of the province, it’s pretty slim pickings,” he added.
The budget did include $4 million to establish a bio-energy research centre in Atikokan, linked to the Atikokan Generating Station.
“This centre will help accelerate work now underway on the future use of the station, carry out research of practical relevance to the future of the community and the province, and allow the station to continue to be a source of employment for the community,” the 2006 budget document read.
Hampton dismissed the gesture as “a pre-election bribe.”
Taking into account payroll and property taxes, the AGS is worth about $10 million to the economy of Atikokan every year, he said.
“The $4 million is pitching money at Atikokan to lessen the blow as we head into an election year,” Hampton argued. “Does this constitute a sustainable plan for Atikokan going forward? No.”
For now, the AGS is still scheduled to close in 2007.
But Atikokan Mayor Dennis Brown said he also has been told the town will get an additional $2 million for 2006 “to help us with our budget challenges.”
“That’s a great bit of good news. This is very uplifting to the community,” he said.
Last Thursday’s budget also included a $1.2 billion investment for roads, transit systems, and bridges across the province.
Some $400 million of that will be used as one-time funding for municipalities outside the GTA to improve municipal roads and bridges, with an emphasis on rural and northern routes.
The Town of Fort Frances, for instance, will receive $883,409 of that one-time funding.
“We don’t know any of the details of that, how it will be applied,” Mayor Dan Onichuk said Monday. “The one thing it does say is we get to pick the priorities that it could be used for. So we’re waiting for some more information and details.
“Of course, they always come out with wonderful announcements, but we have to find out, ‘OK, what does it mean to us really,’” the mayor added.
Speaking more generally, the mayor said the budget is “a good thing” and that the province has been taking steps to help out the region.
“Earlier announcements leading up to budget of course, with the province actually taking responsibility over the next couple of years working to where they’re paying 50/50 for the ambulance, was a huge help to the whole district,” noted Mayor Onichuk.
“This will be a help, the announcements on forestry will be a help—I think the provincial government has finally got the message,” he added. “And I don’t think it’s over yet. A lot more can be done and a lot more will be done.
“Now, we just have to start hitting the feds.”
Coun. Tannis Drysdale said getting the $883,409 was “exciting” given such a boon from the province is rare.
“I can’t remember a time in Fort Frances when a road wasn’t paved without it being ‘Connecting Link,’ 90-cent dollars, or something else,” she said, referring to funding programs where the town has to pitch in at least part of the total cost.
As to exactly how the money will be spent still has to be discussed, noted Coun. Drysdale, adding town staff will have to be asked for their input.
For instance, council must be aware of the condition of the sewer and water infrastructure beneath particular streets before deciding where they should make surface repairs.
As for the rest of the budget, Coun. Drysdale said she was unhappy to see there wasn’t any money for the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund (OMPH) for Fort Frances.
“That means that beginning next year, we could be in jeopardy of losing significant portions of our transfer grants that we used to pay for social services. So that’s unfortunate,” she said.
On the bright side was the announcement for the Atikokan research plant.
“That’s important for Fort Frances because we all pay based on our assessments for social services,” Coun. Drysdale explained.
“The announcement of the closure of the coal plant shifted a lot of assessment away from Atikokan, and all those costs would have to be picked up by the taxpayers of Fort Frances.
“So if this research plant can maintain the assessment for Atikokan, it will save us, starting next year, what I think would have been close to $200,000 a year in additional costs.
“So, $800,000 in nice in one-time funding but not having to increase taxes to pay for the $200,000 is good for the long-term,” Coun. Drysdale said.