As the annual Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) conference winds up for another year, delegates from most of Ontario's 444 municipalities are taking stock of their time with provincial government officials, and among them are members of the Guelph team. In the waning hours of this year's conference, Guelph Politico talked to Mayor Cam Guthrie and Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Scott Stewart about what was accomplished, and what the first AMO with the Ford government was like.
“I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised. They have been very welcoming, very open to hearing what’s going on Guelph,” said Guthrie of representatives from the Conservative government. “In some cases we’re having to tell people what’s going on in Guelph, but for a lot them, they already know what’s going on in Guelph, and we've gotten some very positive feedback.”
“This is a great opportunity to build our relationships with new friends and old ones, and we’ve been sharing a lot of our information," added Stewart. "A lot of it is sharing our innovative approach, and our key priorities and how they can match up with the new provincial government, and also the relationships we’ve had in the past.”
The 10 member Guelph delegation had 16 meetings over the four day conference, so Guelph Politico asked Guthrie and Stewart to comment on some of the topics covered.
Two-way, all-day GO Trains and High Speed Rail
Guelph's delegation, along with delegations from other cities along the 401 corridor, met with Minister of Transportation John Yakabuski to make sure that transit developments remain, ahem, on track.
“After we were done with our delegation, and our asks, it was very positive," said Guthrie. "Everyone’s on the same page. They do not want anymore gridlock, they understand there’s an economic benefit, they were very positive about what it can do to the economy as well as people’s lives in order to get them home earlier, have dinner with the family, and have a better overall well being.”
Stewart agreed saying, “We’re not in competition with Kitchener-Waterloo, or Toronto, or Brampton, were in collaboration with them, and that was a great signal to the province that this is an area that’s in it together and we’re looking for some very specific things."
Highway 7 Extension
There were also conversations with Minister Yakabuski about the pending expansion of Highway 7 between Guelph and Kitchener.
"We wanted to have the extension of Highway 7 at Woodlawn and the Hanlon to be signalized and have grade separation so that we can maintain traffic flow, and that’s not just for the commuters, but for the businesses in that area of the city too so that they can get their goods and services moving," said Guthrie.
“It’s about supply chain management," Stewart added. "You hear that often from our businesses, and we want to make sure they stay competitive."
Revenue Tools for Cities
Representatives from the Large Urban Mayors Caucus of Ontario (LUMCO) met with Minister of Finance Vic Fedeli to talk about giving other municipalities the same revenue tools granted to Toronto in the City of Toronto Act. Guthrie saw the situation differently.
"I flipped the word 'revenue' on its head a little," Guthrie explained. "What I told the minister was instead of tools to ask for more fees or more taxes, the province can create efficiencies that can trickle down to municipalities and save us money.
"That's revenue we can use at the municipal level to either not tax our own citizens anymore, or use the revenue for infrastructure we use in the city.”
What kind of efficiencies?
“Under the Planning Act there’s a lot of duplication from other ministries that might be looking at the same thing when it comes to approvals," Guthrie added.
"I want to be very clear: this is not about skipping any processes or not following through on any of the obligations we would have to meet under those requirements, but it’s a question of why do we have three different ministries look at the exact same thing, when efficiencies could be made with one body looking for something to be checked of," he said.
"If we could find these efficiencies it could make things move faster and it could save money.”
Guelph Innovation District
Progress is slow on this file, but the progress continues even with the ministry under new management.
“We’ve been working hard with Infrastructure Ontario, and even though they’ve changed what ministry they report too, this relationship is so far along, and so good that this was just information sharing today with the Minister," Stewart said. "It was more of a get to know the new minister session, but I don’t think there are any hiccups at all with that file at this stage.”
Guthrie agreed. "There was nothing that come out of that [meeting] that concerns me at all. In fact they were very excited about moving this along."
The mayor added that the provincial government's mantra is to not hold on to liability or underperforming assets like the lands for the GID. "They are actually fully onboard, and I feel it was the most positive of the meetings I had today," Guthrie added.
The New Main Library and the South End Community Centre
Guthrie said this meeting with Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport Sylvia Jones was about putting those two projects on the ministry's radar. As the provincial government is currently undertaking a line-by-line review of Ontario's finances by a third party, there were no promises about money.
"After that information is released, they’re going to see how these projects align with the financial outlook of the province, and then what kind of commitment they can make looking forward," Guthrie explained.
Community Energy Initiative and the Green Energy and Technology (GrEAT) Centre
In their first weeks in office, the Ford government has hardly seemed friendly to the clean tech and clean energy sectors, but Guthrie said that Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Energy, Northern Development and Mines Paul Calandra was interested in hearing about Guelph's work on these files.
“They liked the fact that the GrEAT Centre would align with that entrepreneurial spirit, the clean tech, and when it comes to jobs, so that part I feel they were actually excited about," Guthrie said. "When it came to our Community Energy Initiative, they were very positive about that as well, because they believe that as we look to what we want to achieve, it will help with the economics: putting money back in people’s pockets, putting money in municipalities pockets from a corporate position, so that in turn can create more funds, more revenue, and more efficiencies for the municipality,” Guthrie added.
Neither Guthrie nor Stewart were able to attend this meeting with Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing Christine Hogarth, but Councillor Cathy Downer did. She was actually less than impressed with the results of this meeting with provincial representatives.
"It seems clear that they want this issue to be with the Federal Government and want municipalities to advocate to the Feds, not the Province," Downer said by email.
"It was also clear that they see 'affordable housing' as a supply and demand issue. They propose to increase supply by 'cutting red tape and streamlining development processes,'" Downer explained. "I do not know what this really means, but this is a concern for many already rapidly growing municipalities as growth does not pay for itself now. Speeding up growth will put extra pressure on City finances and other government services.
"It really doesn't resolve the issue of affordable housing for all."
“It’s always about building relationships," said Stewart looking back at the conference. "We’ve had an awful lot of that, and we need to make sure that the doors are open, and that they get our vision."
"They’re aware of out projects, they’ve got work they have to do, and they know that Guelph is open for business, and that’s the next step is working together," Stewart added.
“I’m leaving the conference with new cell phone numbers so that I can reach out to people in different ministries, and make sure they’re kept in the loop and make sure that if we need them we have the right contacts," Guthrie added.
"I came into this skeptical. It’s all new, everything’s fresh, and I’m very excited to see that they want to help with the same things that me, as the mayor, wants to look at, which is jobs, efficiencies, innovation, and infrastructure.
"Those types of things we can find common ground on."