Town reps bend ministers’ ears at conference

Duane Hicks

Local delegates got a chance to speak with provincial representatives about issues pertinent to Fort Frances at the annual Ontario Good Roads Association-Rural Ontario Municipal Association conference held Feb. 22-25 in Toronto.
“It was a very good conference and well-attended,” said Mayor Roy Avis, who attended the conference with Couns. Paul Ryan and Rick Wiedenhoeft and Fort Frances CAO Mark McCaig.
They met with Tourism minister Monique Smith regarding the location of the Ontario Tourism Information Centre here, and the impact on tourism and marketing in Northwestern Ontario.
“Our brief included many resolutions by other municipalities in Northwestern Ontario that supported the idea that there should be something done with the tourist information centre in Fort Frances,” noted Mayor Avis, citing Dryden, Kenora, and Rainy River as examples.
“We explained that we, Fort Frances, can’t spend taxpayers’ money on that to improve that centre,” he stressed. “We would be involved in facilitating it, or helping facilitate it, but it’s impossible for us to commit resources to it.”
Minister Smith did say that she would visit Fort Frances in the future to review the site, possibly coinciding with next month’s Northwestern Ontario Municipal Association meeting here.
The local delegates also met with Labour minister Peter Fonseca regarding arbitrated settlements for protective services and how it impacts municipalities’ budgets.
“We got into discussion on how [arbitrations] are picked, and that they should take economic conditions into consideration because with the rising cost to municipalities, it’s very hard to continue and meet your budgets, with the budget restraints that are on right now,” said Mayor Avis.
‘You have to be concerned about the increased costs you’re passing onto the taxpayers,” he noted. “Some of the settlements that have come out of arbitration have been quite high, above the norm, and we feel that is something they should take a good look at.”
This ground was covered with the Ministry of Safe Communities and Correctional Services, as well, along with the topic of potential cost-savings through the amalgamation of fire and emergency medical services.
The delegates also met with Attorney General Chris Bentley to talk about potential shortages of presiding justices of the peace in the region.
“There’s only one serving this district, and it’s hard sometimes to get proper court times for things going on,” Mayor Avis said. “That’s what we were discussing with them.”
As well, they spoke with Jeff Lee, parliamentary assistant to Aboriginal Affairs minister Brad Duguid, regarding the ongoing Agency One land claim.
“That was a very deep discussion,” said the mayor, adding the public will be hearing more about the issue this week.
They also discussed the federal government’s Addition to Reserve Policy, and “the significant planning and harmonization issues” that arise for municipalities because of it.
“We’re asking for some kind of lead or template to work with these type of situations, and they haven’t been providing that in the past,” said Mayor Avis, noting municipalities in Northwestern Ontario are “charting new territory” when it comes to “urban reserves” and they should have more guidance from senior government.
Referring to all these meetings, Mayor Avis noted they were more of a chance to exchange information than anything else and did not necessarily yield definite answers.
The local delegates also attended quite a few plenary sessions with speakers such as Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs minister Leona Dombrowsky, Housing and Municipal Affairs minister Jim Watson, Perrin Beatty, president and CEO of the Canadian Chambers of Commerce, Transportation minister Jim Bradley, Premier Dalton McGuinty, NDP leader and local MPP Howard Hampton, and Ontario PC leader John Tory.
Mayor Avis said that not surprisingly, most of the politicians’ talk revolved around the worrisome economy and the fact that other than some infrastructure funding, municipalities shouldn’t expect many extra dollars coming their way anytime soon.
“In southern Ontario, they’re starting to run into the economic conditions the forestry sector started seeing two or three years ago,” the mayor noted. “But that’s a much bigger population, and that’s where all the votes are, in southern Ontario, so they’re noticing it a lot more than they did a couple years ago [when it was happening in the north].
“With all these plants moving out and closing down, and the unemployment rate up, it’s a real concern,” he said.