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Citizens With Disabilities - Ontario


City Councillors Want To Withhold $56.1M From Province

Jake Rupert, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Monday, June 18, 2007

In response to what they feel is inadequate funding from the provincial government and a lack will to fix the problem, some city councillors are contemplating drastic action next week.

It comes in the form of a motion calling on the city to stiff the provincial government out of $56.1 million for 2008 disability support funding.

Alta Vista Councillor Peter Hume tabled the motion last week, and it's seconded by Barrhaven Councillor Jan Harder.

The motion says it's unfair for the provincial government to require municipalities to transfer property tax dollars to support programs that are clearly the responsibility of the province, such as disability support.

It adds Ontario is the only province in the country that requires municipalities to contribute to disability support, a policy change brought in by the former Ontario Conservative government of Mike Harris.

It says requiring municipalities to contribute to the program is "the clearest example of bad public policy and bad fiscal policy."

Finally, it calls on the city stop contributing and to try to get other municipalities to do the same.

The move comes after years of city council trying in vain to get the provincial government to change the funding requirement, which was forced on municipalities.

"We're not fooling around with this any more," Ms. Harder said. "We're fed up. We've told the province repeatedly that we can't afford this any more, and they've done nothing. So here we go, we're not sending the money anymore, and I hope other municipalities do the same."

Officials from the municipal affairs and finance ministers' offices were contacted yesterday, but they didn't provide comment.

The motion stems from a long simmering dispute between Ontario municipalities and the provincial government. In the 1990s, the provincial Conservative government passed legislation requiring cities and towns to take over some services that used to be provided by the province or to contribute municipal property tax dollars to programs that the province used to fund entirely, like the disability programs.

With roughly a third of total property tax revenue being eaten up this way, municipalities have been put in a financial pinch.

In Ottawa, the budgetary and property tax blow from these provincial policies have been offset by council through the use of unsustainable practices like dipping into reserves and spending surpluses on operating expenses.

But these options are almost exhausted, and the city is now facing the need for sustained property tax increases at higher than the rate of inflation if it wants to become financially sustainable.

Cumberland Councillor Rob Jellett supports the motion and says the city has little other choice.

"We've reached the end. We can't do this anymore, and this is our line in the sand," he said. "We shouldn't have been paying for this all along. It's their responsibility. We have no control over the program."

However, not all councillors will be supporting the motion.

Bay Councillor Alex Cullen says he'd like to, but he can't because he believes such a move will hurt people who depend on the disability program.

"It's a nice idea, but it crashes on reality," he said. "We'd end up hurting the very people who can least afford to be hurt. So with regret, I won't be supporting it."

The motion will be dealt with next Wednesday's council meeting, but either way, it's not the last attempt by the city and council to change the funding flowing from the province.

The city is also opening up the battle on the public opinion and political fronts.

Currently, an information package is being put together laying out the city's position on a number of financial issues, and it will be sent it to each candidate running in this fall's provincial election. The city will also be launching a public information campaign during the election on the issue.

On top of this, council has established political actions groups, with the goal of driving home the issues with the public.

"We get a lot of grief about property taxes, but I don't think the average citizen knows that a whole chunk of their property tax bill is being sent away to the province," Ms. Harder said.

"We didn't have to do that before, and if we didn't have to now, we could pay for all the things we can afford now. People need to understand we can't fix the roads and do other things we are responsible for because the province takes money for things we aren't responsible for."

© The Ottawa Citizen 2007

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