Mike Schreiner, leader of the Ontario Green Party, says municipalities will need significant financial help moving forward – and increasing property taxes is not the answer.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Advocate, Schreiner talked about how the COVID-19 virus is influencing municipalities, long term care homes, public schools and universities, and small businesses as Ontario tries to re-open carefully and cautiously.
“It is clear that Ontario municipalities will need significant financial help moving forward,” says the Green leader. “Municipalities have taken on new costs as they have battled COVID for the last three months.”
According to Schreiner, towns and cities have few ways to raise additional income except increasing property taxes.
This should be avoided at all costs, the Green leader says, as property taxes are one of the most regressive taxes available to use.
Kawartha Lakes city council will be meeting Tuesday to discuss its situation.
Schreiner believes that stable and financially viable municipalities are essential to a recovery in Ontario to produce jobs and wealth for all. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has called for a $12 billion bailout program, and Schreiner feels that figure may only be a starting point for getting Canada’s towns and cities back on solid financial footing.
The Green leader, since releasing his bailout ideas for Ontario municipalities, has participated in multiple radio interviews about the plan. Schreiner also shares that he has had meaningful discussions with municipal leaders in Guelph (where his riding is based), Halton County and Waterloo who have all appreciated the focus the Green Party has brought to the dire financial plight mayors are currently facing.
Schreiner says the tragedies that have occurred in Ontario’s long-term care homes “have convinced me that the province needs to invest more resources” in this area.
He would also like to see legislation to ensure there are minimum standards regarding care and staffing in place immediately. Seniors need to live with dignity and respect, he notes, and should be guaranteed four hours per day of nursing care.
Making this happen would mean starting with a raise in pay for front-line workers, and improving hours so workers don’t have to work in multiple facilities. Schreiner wants to see more registered nurses employed at all long-term care homes across Ontario.
He would like to see a re-imagining of seniors’ housing to include co-housing, laneway suites and granny flats.
For instance, there is a bill before the legislature that would allow the growth of co-housing where several seniors could live together in one home. They would each own a piece of the home, sharing common spaces allowing for companionship and independent living.
When asked to comment on Premier Doug Ford’s leadership during the COVID pandemic, Schreiner complimented the Conservative Party leader “on his clear communication and solid respect for science and health protocols.”
“However, Greens fear that people are falling through the cracks in this crisis.”
Commercial rent, social assistance
Schreiner was surprised the premier was not more supportive of a Green proposal before the legislature to ban commercial rent evictions. The Green leader fears that many businesses are going to be locked out of their properties just as they are needed to spearhead a recovery.
He also questions why those on social assistance in Ontario have had their Ontario benefits clawed back if they qualified for the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). Schreiner also wonders why Ontario disability recipients are not having their payments topped up to meet what CERB is paying out.
Public schools and post-secondary
On the issue of school closings until September, Schreiner says emergency distance learning is a challenge for all involved: parents, students and teachers. But staff and student safety have to come first in all decisions made by the ministry of education, he notes.
When asked about the hodgepodge messaging coming from Ontario’s colleges and universities about their re-opening plans, Schreiner was not surprised by the lack of a united message coming from the post-secondary institutions.
He said that unlike the publicly funded elementary and high schools, post secondary facilities in Ontario have significant independence from the government even though they receive a third of their budget from Queen’s Park. The Green leader’s riding contains University of Guelph and he paints a bleak picture for post secondary institutions across Ontario next September.
First, he believes that schools will find it difficult to survive without the thousands of foreign students returning to Ontario to go to their schools. Their generous tuitions, often four times greater than those Ontarians pay, have become critical for all schools to keep operating.
Second, Schreiner said that he thinks many Ontario-born students will take time off next year because they have no desire to learn online. At minimum, the Green leader expects enrollments to drop precipitously for semester one. At the same time, schools are taking on additional costs to move their programming online.
Re-opening the province
The Green leader is very sympathetic to the pressure the premier is currently under to re-open the province.
Schreiner says that as an MPP, “I am regularly fielding calls from constituents who want the lockdown lifted. Business leaders have told their representatives at Queen’s Park that they do not want an opening and second lockdown, rather than an extended first closure, because the second closure would be massively disruptive and confusing.”
The Green leader supports a slow re-opening, “because the test and contact tracing needed in Ontario is not in place yet. I am disappointed that Ontario has yet to hit its target on testing.”
He says that Ontario needs to make significant investments in public health so the province can restart in a thoughtful and cautious way.