The last council meeting of the year felt a little like the calm before the storm.
Yes, it was Tuesday evening when we started hearing the rumbles about Thursday’s wicked winter storm, but the meeting itself seemed remarkably laid back considering what’s coming in the next several months, and the crisis the meeting dealt with directly.
The main item was the approval of one-year funding to expand the hours of the Royal City Mission, which will allow the mission to be open 12 hours a day, six days a week starting at 8 a.m. Presently, Guelph’s homeless shelters close for the day at 8 am and the mission doesn’t open till 12 p.m. It’s a small move, but it’s going to make a big difference for people downtown with nowhere else to go.
"We have some major issues we need to solve in the absence of the province not helping to solve them," Mayor Cam Guthrie said before the final vote. Credit to the mayor and his committee for trying to fill the void, and there a lot of municipalities in Ontario that are being forced to find their own local solutions too.
Having said that, “the absence of the province” is not something we think about because the Government of Ontario has been very omnipresent in municipal affairs for the last several months.
Since the summer, city councils have been bombarded with 'Strong Mayor' powers, changes to planning policy, the reduction and elimination of fees, more provincial oversight, the vetoing of Official Plan decisions, a proposed redrawing of the Greenbelt, and even stronger 'Strong Mayor' powers.
All of these moves are supposed to accelerate housing development, but there’s a lot of doubt that these changes will actually have an effect. What won’t they do? Well, they probably won’t do a lot of things that might actually have a viable impact on the problems driving our housing crisis.
These bills don’t increase the funding of social services. They don’t create more mental health and addiction treatment options. They don’t create more affordable housing that people can actually afford or invest in creating more social housing. They don’t increase the rates of ODSP and Ontario Works to match the cost of living or raise the minimum wage to be more reflective of the current living wage.
Something else that the Ontario government could have done is help municipalities invest in land and services. There are big pieces of land in Guelph that are smack dab in the middle of already developed areas that we can build on with a little extra elbow grease and/or cash from the province, and you don’t need to tear up any greenspace to do it.
I’m thinking specifically of the old IMICo site on Beverly Street. Its land is too toxic to build on now, but any development there could be folded into the warm and friendly embrace of the Ward. I’m also thinking about any future development on the Lafarge site just west of the Junction, which will need an underpass beneath the GO tracks to reconnect SIlvercreek Parkway in order to be viable.
They’re called brownfields. Circumstances around previous land use make them hard to build on, but building on these sites is probably better in the long term than tearing up a forest, or a wetland.
I doubt our provincial government has thought about this though because the Original Sin of Bill 23 and others isn’t their effect on municipalities – which is heinous – it’s the bills’ sloppiness. Successive Ontario governments helped create a problem that became a crisis, and then the Ford government made it the exclusive responsibility of cities to solve the crisis with one arm tied behind their back.
Yes, part of this is ideology and owing favours to wealthy donors, but the biggest part of it is laziness. Actually attacking the issues requires understanding the needs of each individual municipality and creating solutions that address those needs. That takes time, effort, energy, and a willingness to listen to many voices and finding compromise.
Instead, we got laws rewritten and passed with more criticism than consultation, and it was policy that the current government didn’t run on even though we had a provincial election just six months ago. At no point in the spring campaign did Doug Ford or any of his ministers utter the words “strong mayors”.
So instead of trying to find a way to get more housing and solve the other problems, our city staff are having to parse massive omnibus bills and incorporate changes to our official plans, master plans, zoning bylaws, and multiyear capital and operating budgets. At the same time, our staff is also doing the work that the province should be doing, vis-à-vis finding ways to fund social services.
In the midst of all the problems that cities like Guelph have been called upon to deal with in recent years, our local governments have been increasingly forced to fund solutions that technically don’t fall under their jurisdiction because the alternative is that nothing gets done. Cities have increased spending on social services almost twice as much as either the federal or provincial governments.
Perhaps this Christmas Santa can bring us a new deal for cities. If the upper levels of government don’t want to attack the problems that are technically theirs to solve, they should give municipalities the power and authority to fix it themselves. Right now, it feels like our city council is the only government body interested in acting on these issues, but they’re shackled by the rules.
You’ve probably heard that “cities are the creatures of the province” but how long can the creature be abused by the mad scientist who created them before they snap? Stay tuned.