Town reps bend ears of ministers

Local delegates got the chance to talk to provincial ministers at the Rural Ontario Municipal Association/Ontario Good Roads Association joint conference in Toronto last week.
And while it wasn’t the only topic talked about, the future of the local paper mill here was a prominent topic, Mayor Dan Onichuk said during a report to council Monday night.
In a meeting with Natural Resources minister David Ramsay, Mayor Onichuk said the issue of “slash” (tree limbs) and how they’re used was discussed.
He noted with plans in the works for a “hog fuel” boiler here, Abitibi-Consolidated had to be sure it would have the province’s blessing to remove slash from forests and burn it to create electricity before going ahead and building it.
The mayor reported that Ramsay said discussions on the use of slash are ongoing.
And in a meeting with Energy minister Donna Cansfield, Mayor Onichuk said he expressed the need for a power purchase agreement between Ontario and Abitibi to ensure the longevity of the local mill.
“In short, if the bio-mass boiler moves ahead, there is a three-year construction phase to have it up and running,” he noted, adding a power purchase agreement would help the mill with power costs in the meantime.
He also noted Cansfield would take this information into consideration, and was assured she understands the importance of the mill to the life of this community.
Mayor Onichuk and Coun. Drysdale also met with Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs minister Leona Dombrowsky regarding a Canada-Ontario Municipal Infrastructure Fund (COMRIF) grant for the proposed reconstruction of the Portage Avenue underpass.
But he was told there’s been no word back regarding that funding application due to the change in government in Ottawa after the Jan. 23 federal election.
The local delegates also got to talk to Public Infrastructure Renewal minister David Caplan, hoping to discuss lottery licensing concerns given the problems in the past year with various groups (the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship and “Communities in Bloom”) holding raffles because they don’t fall under certain provincial criteria.
But Mayor Onichuk noted they were “barking up the wrong tree.” While gambling falls within Caplan’s ministry, Government Services minister Gerry Phillips is in charge of lottery licences.
Mayor Onichuk also spoke with Labour minister Steve Peters regarding proposed changes to the Employment Standards Act as it relates to scheduling breaks for ambulance attendants.
While he admitted some attendants in extremely busy areas such as Toronto might not get breaks on some shifts, it’s not a “blanket” issue across Ontario and not necessarily a problem here.
As such, the changes to the act, which could involve having ambulance managers or overtime staff called on to cover staff to get their breaks, should be instituted under “demonstrated need.”
And while he couldn’t get a meeting with Transportation minister Harinder Takhar to talk about the sale of the international bridge here, Mayor Onichuk did get a chance to talk to broach the subject over dinner with Caplan, who will be following up on their discussion.
< *c>Announcements
Coun. Drysdale, who attended the conference as both a member of town council and a Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association board member, also noted there several important announcements were made at the conference (including a forestry aid package covered elsewhere in this edition of the Times).
For instance, the province announced a funding commitment to ensure it pays the 50/50 cost sharing of land ambulance services by 2008.
This will be reached with funding increases this year ($50 million more than the current base allocation), in 2007 ($100 million more), and in 2008 ($150 million more).
Coun. Drysdale also noted Premier Dalton McGuinty announced his intent to form a tri-level commission on federal/provincial/municipal fiscal issues, and to work toward relieving municipalities of the downloaded costs that make up the current provincial/municipal gap.
She said the premier also announced the province intends to propose four-year terms for council members and school trustees—putting local officials on par with their provincial counterparts.
As well, Coun. Drysdale said Municipal Affairs and Housing minister John Gerretsen announced the province will update the Municipal Act in the spring session of legislature, giving municipalities greater flexibility and accountability.
Phil McNeely, parliamentary assistant to the transportation minister, noted the province is proposing minimum maintenance evaluations for northern municipal roads and bridges in addition to regular inspections.
He added the recent Bill 169 is devoted to lowering speed limits, raising speeding fines, and making it illegal to disregard a construction traffic sign.
Meanwhile, Caplan said the province is dedicated to encouraging renewal and growth, with a plan to first invest $30 billion into public infrastructure, then pump $11 billion into transit and $10 billion into education by 2010.
Another $30 billion-$40 billion also will be put towards improving water and sewer management systems.
And Coun. Drysdale noted the Clean Water Act also is on its way this year, with the aim to create locally-focused water protection and assessment systems.
The province remains committed to paying 100 percent of the inspection costs for seasonal and rural non-resident systems.