Health costs, land tax reform hot topics at NOMA meeting

Downloaded health care costs and provincial land tax reform were but two of the hot topics discussed at the 58th-annual general meeting of the Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association last Wednesday to Saturday in Thunder Bay.
“At the conference, the municipal leaders were quite clear that property tax is not the place to fund health care services from,” said Fort Frances Coun. Tannis Drysdale, who attended the NOMA conference with Mayor Dan Onichuk, Coun. Neil Kabel, Coun. Rick Wiedenhoeft, treasurer Peggy Dupuis, and clerk Glenn Treftlin.
“The main issue, without a doubt, had to do with the downloading of services onto the municipalities,” said Mayor Onichuk. “The municipalities are simply having to carry too much of the burden, whether it’s land ambulance or public health.”
Mayor Onichuk noted regional municipalities are having to pay more than 20 percent of health care and social services expenses. He added the funding formula for northern and southern Ontario is the same—despite the fact this region has a smaller tax base.
Coun. Drysdale said NOMA’s board of directors passed a resolution that the province return to fully paying of health care service costs.
The local delegation also met privately with Municipal Affairs and Housing minister John Gerretsen to talk about “the financial challenges the area continues to face,” noted Coun. Drysdale.
“An issue that’s key to people in the north, but we have to explain to them in the south, is provincial land tax reform,” added Mayor Onichuk. “A lot of it emanates from the one question: are the unorganized areas paying their fair share?”
The mayor said this is something he and Coun. Drysdale also brought up at the OGRA/ROMA conference a couple of months ago.
“They sound like they’re actually going to do something about it,” he remarked, noting that having unorganized areas contributing more to the district’s tax base could help relieve expenses such as social services and health care.
“The situation we face is revenues achieved through assessment is the same as 11 years ago while inflation and downloading keeps the costs going higher,” noted Coun. Drysdale.
“It appears there’s over $2.6 billion in unassessed property in Ontario,” she added, noting that if all the unorganized areas in Rainy River District were accounted for, that would mean more taxes generated—and thus less money organized areas such as Fort Frances would have to pay for things like social services and health care.
Besides Gerretsen, Coun. Drysdale noted Northern Development and Mines minister Rick Bartolucci, Community and Social Services minister Sandra Pupatello, and Natural Resources minister David Ramsay also attended the NOMA conference.
All four ministers got grilled during a bear-pit session Friday, said Coun. Drysdale, facing questions on everything from health care to the lumber industry to special subsidies for southern Ontario.
“If they can be that generous with the City of Toronto, they can surely find some of that revenue for us, as well,” argued Coun. Drysdale, adding she felt the ministers had a tough time fielding questions prior to the provincial budget being released later this month.
But Mayor Onichuk said while the ministers faced a lot of flak, he felt the province is focusing in earnest on municipalities. “And that’s good to hear. It’s very encouraging,” he remarked.
“I feel there was a genuine sense of co-operation and an understanding of what municipalities are facing,” agreed Coun. Drysdale. “We’ll see what happens.”
Besides the four ministers, other political delegates on hand included Bill Mauro, Thunder Bay-Atikokan MPP and parliamentary assistant to Bartolucci, Thunder Bay-Superior MPP Michael Gravelle. Kenora-Rainy River MPP Howard Hampton, Conservative MPP Norm Miller (Parry Sound/Muskoka), and Conservative MPP Bill Murdoch (Bruce-Grey/Owen Sound).
“It was great to see representation of all political stripes,” said Coun. Drysdale.
Being the annual general meeting, the NOMA conference also included numerous resolutions, she added.
One was in support of maintaining the coal-fired generating plants in Atikokan and Thunder Bay on the conditions they don’t contribute to smog in Toronto and meet Kyoto guidelines.
Coun. Drysdale noted NOMA feels these plants are vital as they’re responsible for generating 30-40 percent of the power to the region.
Another resolution called for the reinstatement of the spring bear hunt while a second was a motion to lobby against the federal gun registry, its high cost to taxpayers, and its effect on regional residents.
Another resolution was for the province to institute a per household subsidy for municipalities when it comes to upgrading water treatment systems to post-Walkerton guidelines.
While Fort Frances already is meeting these guidelines, noted Coun. Drysdale, many other municipalities have not—and those with a small number of residents are having to charge taxpayers high fees to cover the costs.
She said NOMA also will be working with FONOM/NEOM (the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities/Northeastern Ontario Municipalities) to devise a “common municipal position paper” representing northern communities stances on various issues.
This is to be submitted to the provincial and federal governments.
Likewise, NOMA will be working with the Northern Ontario Development Network and Northwestern Ontario Associated Chambers of Commerce to make a revised, 12-point “Northern Sustainability Solutions” document.
This, too, is a common lobbying tool to be submitted to the senior levels of government, said Coun. Drysdale.
In other news, Mayor Onichuk and Coun. Drysdale were named to NOMA’s board of directors representing Rainy River District at the annual general meeting last week, and both are looking forward to their one-year terms.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work quite closely with the folks at NOMA in the past. They’re highly-respected in Queen’s Park,” remarked Coun. Drysdale.
“All in all, I think we’re going to be a good working group,” added Mayor Onichuk.
He also noted the NOMA conference was the first event in which all the new and re-elected mayors, reeves, and councillors in the region got to meet one another after last November’s municipal election.
“We really do have many of the same concerns,” said Mayor Onichuk. “The key is that we pool our lobbying efforts.”