Communities across Ontario are breathing “a big sigh of relief” after the province decided against forcing regional governments to amalgamate, the president of an umbrella group for municipalities said Friday.
Ontario Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister Steve Clark on Friday said the Progressive Conservative government isn’t interested in dictating local decisions, including about amalgamations.
He made the remarks at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) fall policy conference.
“There is probably a big sigh of relief that the government is listening,” Parry Sound Mayor Jamie McGarvey, president of AMO, said after the announcement.
AMO represents all 444 municipalities in Ontario.
“We certainly prefer to be recognized as adults in the room. We have that opportunity for self-determination, and the (provincial) government is providing financial funding for those municipalities that want to take a look at modernizing, doing things better,” said McGarvey.
Clark announced Friday the province is offering up to $143 million over the next four years for municipalities to “modernize” services and look for budget savings through audits.
“Our government will not impose any changes on municipalities. There will be no forced amalgamations,” Clark said.
“We’re not going to impose a set size to a council, we’re just putting into practice what municipalities told us. There’s an incredible will out there to work with us to find these savings,” he added.
Earlier this year, Doug Ford’s government pledged to review nine regional governments – including Oxford County, Waterloo Region, and three GTA regions, among others – raising concerns about amalgamations.
The province said the review was about making sure local governments “are efficient and accountable to their residents and businesses.
A total of 82 upper and lower-tier municipalities had been under the microscope.
Clark said more than 8,500 people and groups communicated with the province during the review, which was led by longtime former Waterloo Region chair Ken Seiling and Michael Fenn, a former provincial deputy minister and civic bureaucrat.
Asked how much the review cost, Clark said Fenn and Seiling were paid $600 a day for their work but didn’t provide a total figure.
Other key proposals shared Friday include re-aligning municipal budgets – they typically run over a calendar year – with the province’s fiscal year, which begins in April. Consultations will begin soon. That could be a game-changer for municipalities, which are often “stuck” with great financial uncertainty after passing budgets in the fall or winter before provincial changes become clear in the spring.
Clark also unveiled a plan to combine the provincial and municipal voters’ lists, a move to simplify municipal election. Creating a single list may have to be phased in over two civic elections, expected in 2022 and 2026, Clark said later.
Clark also said a provincial audit fund announced earlier this year – used by every municipality in Ontario to look for savings in their budgets – will be extended until 2023, with $6 million a year to help cities launch line-by-line reviews.