Tories make mockery of Mid-Pen process

By Joan Little - The Hamilton Spectator May 26, 2003

An irate Burlington council voted Tuesday to launch a judicial review of the province's handling of the Mid-Peninsula highway. An incensed Councillor John Taylor pointed to the May 7 first reading of Bill 25 in the legislature, "An act to enhance public transit and provide for a smart transportation system in Ontario." Like many of this government's bills, its name is deceitful, and it confirms the mockery of the Mid-Pen public process.

Introducing the bill, Transportation Minister Frank Klees lauded the protection of future infrastructure corridors from development, relieving congestion, and co-ordinating multi-system transit fare cards.

He neglected to mention it would eliminate environmental assessments for new freeways. Or that it would override local official plans and zoning without any recourse or appeal. Or deprive landowners of the right to sue the province for land devaluation or other impacts caused by new corridors. The minister would gain supreme power over new freeway alignments.

That contravenes the Environmental Bill of Rights, and is an affront to every Ontario citizen. It appears the game plan is to bulldoze this bill through the legislature before the election.

Premier Ernie Eves, unveiling his Progressive Conservative party's election platform, promised tax cuts, mortgage deductions, and education tax breaks for seniors. But "TRAP" would be a fitting acronym for "The Road Ahead Platform" because it creates problems and costs for municipalities and lacks environmental integrity.

 

TRAP's "Safeguarding the Natural Environment" policy lists highway needs, including "a mid-peninsula corridor linking the GTA with Niagara's border crossings, through Halton, Hamilton and the Niagara Peninsula." (The province's preferred route crosses the escarpment). TRAP also promotes a simplified environmental assessment (EA) process. Presto -- Bill 25!

TRAP also promises regulations for management of nutrient waste (manure), but Eves, in a March news release, stated small farms would be absolved from complying until 2008 at the earliest. Walkerton's source of water contamination was manure runoff from a small farm outside town during heavy rains.

TRAP's "A Fair Deal for Municipalities" policy is an insult to every municipal council. Acknowledging municipal revenues aren't flexible because most come from property taxes, it continues, "Your municipal and provincial taxes will only increase with your approval" (referendum).

Let's be frank! Municipalities are in dire financial straits, facing ever-rising expenses because of forced amalgamations, downloaded provincial programs and reduced provincial grants. (Only $65,000 is available for Burlington's 2003 operating budget). SuperBuild capital grants are project-specific, and funded one third each by the municipality, province and federal government. They are divvied up among competing communities, so are not assured.

TRAP would allow new taxes -- gas, hotel or motel room, or parking taxes -- to fund local projects (an arena, road repaving) if voters agree. Yeah, right! Responsible councils attempt to keep up with competing municipal needs. For example, if repaving is not done early enough, roads require reconstruction.

A livid Burlington Mayor Rob MacIsaac condemned this new "incomprehensible" intervention in the operation of municipalities proposed by the Eves government.

"They're always looking for bad guys, scapegoats, to divert attention from their own problems," he said. He asked, "Would a referendum also apply to increases in user fees" (recreation program fees, dog licences, etc)?

Halton Region began a $110 million, seven-year accelerated cast iron water main replacement program in 1997 (before Walkerton), expected to add about $42 per year to the average water bill. Burlington faced extra costs too, because when roads have to be dug up anyway, it makes sense to rebuild those in poor condition. Would a referendum have supported these increases? Post-Walkerton, taxpayers appreciate the region's foresight.

Municipal elections are held on a fixed date every third year. This year Burlington's will cost about $230,000. Adding a question on the ballot would cost little. But a non-election year referendum would cost almost as much as an election. Instead of meddling in municipal issues, the province might consider fixing provincial election dates.

TRAP also proposes an Ontario Municipal Services Quality Auditor review spending of large municipalities every year. What would that cost? (Municipalities already hire auditors.)

TRAP veers from the promised Eves' "kinder, gentler" track to Mike Harris' divisiveness and meanness, with so-called wedge issues. Welfare recipients, the homeless, teachers, unions -- all figure prominently in the platform.

A crankier Eves, more arrogant and confrontational today, did not apologize for the recent outrageous middle-finger gesture of MPP John O'Toole in the legislature.

Public confidence is not bolstered by the March Magna budget debacle and the May 13 revelation by an Opposition member, that a surprise order-in-council had been signed by two cabinet ministers the day before Magna, authorizing the government to spend $36 billion over six months.

And TRAP raises more concerns, as Burlington is finding out.

Former Burlington alderman and Halton councillor Joan Little is a freelance columnist. She does not identify with any political party. Her views are her own.

 

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