By Jared Adams
Regional Coun. Diane Holmes says the region should pull the equivalent of a fiscal dine-and-dash.
Holmes, whose ward includes Centretown, says the region should not pay for social housing.
Social housing (the cost of which totals almost $61 million) is one of the new costs the region must absorb because of a transfer of responsibilities from the province.
“The province has been saying that downloading will be revenue-neutral, but the region is about $50 million short,” she says, referring to the shortfall caused by provincial downloading. “It’s all been smoke and mirrors on the province’s part.”
The region has an annual budget of nearly $1 billion. Of that, almost 75 per cent must be spent on programs such as social housing and health. The region cannot spend the money on other programs.
Holmes says to make up the shortfall the region will have to make cuts or increase taxes.
The region has already received a one-time payment of $18.5 million to help offset the costs of the new responsibilities and Regional Chair Bob Chiarelli has not ruled out the possibility of another grant to make up further costs.
If the region doesn’t cover the shortfall, it will have to cut other programs, such as road maintenance, garbage collection or supplementary welfare.
Reaction among the other councillors to Holmes’ plan varies.
Coun. Richard Cantin, from Innes ward, says refusing to pay bills forces the region to confront an even bigger shortfall.
“If we refuse to pay the bills, what does the province do? The province holds the big bat: welfare,” he says, referring to the fact that the province could decide not to provide welfare payments in response to the region’s refusal to pay the social housing bill.
Holmes dismisses the idea, saying she can’t believe the province would refuse to provide payments to those in society who need it most.
Merivale-Knoxdale Coun. Gord Hunter, who is also the chairman of the region’s planning committee, says other options exist, such as greater co-operation between local municipalities.
The local municipalities are in charge of collecting the property tax used to fund education.
The money was formerly re-distributed among local school boards, but under changes imposed by the Harris government, the education money from across Ontario is now pooled and re-distributed by the Ontario government.
“We could just take the $50-million shortfall right off the top of that fund,” he says, “and use it for the local area.”
Hunter also says that downloading is just a device to help Harris’ Conservative government seek re-election.
“When election time rolls around, Harris is going to say ‘oh, look, I balanced the budget,’ and we’re going to pay the cost,” says Hunter.
He says the public doesn’t seem too concerned at this point.
“There isn’t a groundswell of concern out there,” he says. “I’ve received about two phone calls on the subject.”
But Kanata Coun. Alex Munter, head of the region’s community services committee, says he thinks the public is concerned with the idea of a tax hike.
“The bill we have been handed from Queen’s Park tries to jack up property taxes,” he said.
“I think what the public wants is no tax hikes and no service cuts.”
Coun. Wendy Stewart, of the River ward, says she believes the region should work with the province, rather than trying to hold back money.
“This provincial government has a history of punishing those who act up.”