NOLUM seeks greater investment in North due to growth

From left, Timmins Mayor Michelle Boileau, Sault Mayor Matthew Shoemaker, Sudbury Mayor Paul Lefevre, and North Bay Mayor Peter Chirico.

The mayors of the five largest cities in Northern Ontario are looking to senior levels of government to join them to address the issue of their growing populations.

Sault Mayor Matthew Shoemaker was host of a NOLUM (Northern Ontario Large Urban Mayors) Monday at the Civic Centre.

The NOLUM meeting included Shoemaker, Sudbury Mayor Paul Lefevre, Timmins Mayor Michelle Boileau and North Bay Mayor Peter Chirico.

Thunder Bay Mayor Ken Boshcoff joined the meeting via Zoom.

Housing and associated issues were dominant topics. 

“All four of us have all requested and none of us has received housing affordability funding from the federal government,” said Shoemaker.

“We are also seeking more assistance at meeting those provincial goals from the provincial government to ensure that the targets have been set for us can be met and exceeded.”

NOLUM is calling for the Government of Ontario to reassess the Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund and Northern Ontario Resource Development Support Fund to better position northern municipalities to take advantage of provincial programming related to housing developments.

Increasing the housing supply – in particular, in terms of affordable options – represents a pressing concern that is expected to become increasingly precarious without additional support from both the Governments of Canada and Ontario. 

Shoemaker says Northern cities have exceeded targets set out by Queen’s Park to qualify for funding under the Ford government’s Build Faster plan, but they could do more if the senior levels of government stepped up with assistance in healthcare, physician shortages, post-secondary education issues and the cost of developing land in Northern Ontario which he said is higher than in southern Ontario.

“We think that economic development and access to healthcare services are inextricably intertwined,” said Shoemaker. “Having companies as we all have that scope out our municipalities and determine if it’s a suitable site for whatever it is they’re trying to establish, one of the first questions is always ‘Will my staff have access to health care?’ So the physician shortage is a true economic development issue in addition to obviously and most critically a health issue. It also has a significant impact on our ability to diversify our economies.”

Timmins Mayor Michelle Boileau said the mayors are prepared to be productive partners to help northern Ontario prosper. 

“With targeted financial support to help us address some of the underlying health care and social services related challenges we’re facing, we will thrive,” said Boileau in a press release.

North Bay Mayor Peter Chirico acknowledged NOLUM’s message to the province remains, in many ways, the same as last year.

“I think it’s critical that we continue to have the same message,” Chirico told reporters. “All of these (issues) are intertwined. “These problems have not just occurred in the last week, the last month, the last year. It’s taken decades to accumulate. Yes, we may have that same message. Are we making strides? Yeah, we are. Some of them…tiny strides. But if we don’t accelerate those little strides…you’re going to hear us continually talk about this, probably for the next 20 years.”

Mayor Shoemaker has publicly stated multiple times recently that the province isn’t meeting its obligations to municipalities facing financial stress on social services. 

Asked how much of the NOLUM meeting health with provincial funding issues, Shoemaker said “lots of it.”

“In Sault Ste. Marie, we get $18-19 million from the provincial government in a provincial grant that comes to us every year. We’re spending almost $30 million on social services. Ambulance, social housing, supportive wraparound services at housing providers, Ontario works and re-employment services…all those services cost more than we receive from the provincial government.

Those are, traditionally, provincial services paid for by provincial taxpayers. Now there’s a grant, but it comes nowhere near…it’s almost a third short in what the output is of that money. We are in need of further provincial attention on that issue.”

Shoemaker said the concern is shared by the other mayors. 

“The efforts (going forward) will be to really enumerate what those expenses are that we’re incurring and go to the provincial government and say ‘these are historically provincial services that have been essentially downloaded to the municipality. Here’s the impact on the budgets in all of our communities.”

Shoemaker says provincial funding only accounts for residents in the City proper, but the Sault serves as a service hub for residents to the north, east and west, that are outside the City’s specific boundaries.

“That’s something the province needs to consider in determining how this funding flows,” he said.

NOLUM will meet again at the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) annual conference in Ottawa in August.

A regular meeting for NOUM is planned for North Bay in the fall.

Shoemaker says the mayors are also looking to meet with provincial cabinet ministers at Queen’s Park later this year, when schedules permit, to further push their message.

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