I want to thank each of you for logging in today to participate in this virtual State of the Region.
While I know meetings of this type have become common place over the last few months, I am personally looking forward to our next opportunity to gather as a community and make the connections that some of us used to take for granted.
I also want to thank the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce and all of today’s sponsors for making this event possible. I am grateful for the opportunity to share some thoughts on the state of our Region and how Niagara will emerge on the other side of one of the most challenging times that we have experienced as a community.
Finally, I want to thank Dr. Mustafa Hirji, the Region’s Acting Medical Officer of Health, and Ron Tripp, the Region’s Acting Chief Administrative Officer, for joining me as part of the discussion panel. I am looking forward to addressing the question from this chamber’s membership.
I want to begin my remarks today by addressing the impact COVID‐19 has had on our economy, our public health systems, and most importantly, our people.
Many businesses are struggling to keep the lights on as doors remain shut and revenues are down. And unfortunately, we all know of businesses who paid an even larger sacrifice to keep the community safe and will never reopen after the pandemic is over.
Based on the research conducted by Niagara Region Economic Development, it is projected that the pandemic will result in almost $16 billion in lost revenues by the end of December should conditions not improve. StatsCanada research suggests that more than 35,000 jobs were lost over the last three months, but given the census catchment area we can be confident that number is larger.
Early projections are suggesting that Niagara’s GDP could shrink by as much as 40 per cent due to COVID‐19 if conditions do not start to improve immediately.
In a recently completed survey, one in three Niagara businesses reported they are at risk of permanent closure. The provincial announcement that Niagara can move to stage 2 starting tonight at midnight is a positive step forward and I am hopeful it will start to right the economic ship across the region.
Areas such as Hamilton, Peel, Halton, Durham and London are all fairing slightly better than Niagara when it comes to unemployment. It is fair to point to Niagara’s tourism sector as one of the driving factors for our challenges.
It is this tourism sector that make us unique and may continue to
have unique challenges even as restrictions are lifted. The amount of
infection south of the border makes it difficult to want to see our borders
open in the near future.
For my part, I am more confident than ever in the innovation and creativity of our tourism sector in Niagara. Just recently, I participated in a call with representatives from the tourism sector who laid out their plans for a safe reopening. What impressed me most on this call was that the safety of our visitors was driving all of the decisions – they understood how important it is to get this right, and that Niagara can make only one first impression when we reopen.
It is important to point out that this is not the first time we have faced challenges that threatened tourism in Niagara. After 9/11, after SARS, and after H1N1, our innovative tourism sector proved themselves able to reinvent their business practices to ensure they continue to be successful. We have confronted challenges before and just as we always do, Niagara will emerge stronger on the other side.
Impacts on Front Line Staff
Another area deeply impacted by COVID‐19 has been our front‐line health care professionals and public health staff. These individuals have been working around the clock for the last three months to ensure Niagara is as safe and healthy as it can be during a global pandemic.
In long‐term care homes, nurses, personal support workers, dietary professionals and a host of other dedicated staff have been working under high‐stress situations to manage outbreaks and keep the most vulnerable in our community safe, while having to take extensive steps to ensure they all stay healthy themselves. At the Region’s eight long‐term care homes, hundreds of staff from every regional department have been redeployed to ensure we are doing everything
possible to keep our seniors healthy.
COVID‐19 has also required us to re‐think what constitutes an essential worker in our community. Three months ago, many would not have considered those who work at grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, pharmacies, post offices, newsrooms, landfills, farms and construction sites as individuals who are absolutely essential to keeping our society functioning. These individuals, some of whom make a modest wage, continued to do their jobs in the midst of a global pandemic simply because it needed to be done.
I also want to acknowledge the challenges that our non‐profits across the region are experiencing. During this pandemic, the need for these organizations has never been higher and the number of financial contributions has never been lower. I was pleased to see relief coming from the federal government to support these vital organizations and I want to thank Niagara’s residents who dug deep into their wallets to ensure our not‐for‐profit organizations could continue to operate during the COVID‐19 crisis.
And with food availability and security becoming a growing concern, the importance of the agricultural sector in Niagara is even more evident. The economic importance of the sector should never be underestimated as we start to plan for the future.
COVID‐19 and Amalgamation
Over the past few weeks, the idea of amalgamation has been raised again as one possible solution to find savings as we start to recover from COVID‐19. While there are a number of differing opinions on this topic, I can tell you that the provincial governance review revealed a number of areas where we could find efficiencies through the streamlining of certain services. I also want to note that after a very extensive review, including hearings and research conducted by two highly regarded advisors, the Ontario Government chose not to move in this direction.
Many in our community may not be aware that there is already a great practice of shared services between the Region and 12 municipalities in areas such as human resources, procurement and IT and I believe there are likely more opportunities worth exploring.
Components of land‐use planning, economic development and other corporate services may also be considered as candidates, but I would be cautious of rushing into any of these service delivery changes without proper study and consideration. While it is true that all of Niagara’s municipalities will be looking at ways to find savings as we slowly start to recover from COVID‐19, lessons learned under the amalgamations in the late 1990s suggest that making kneejerk decisions may only increase our challenges.
As our organizations begin to recover from the effects of the pandemic, I look forward to considering our options as we strive to find ways to make our critical programs and services sustainable.
And as we take steps forward, we must ensure we are addressing the immediate needs across our region, but remain focused on our long‐term goals. It could be tempting to find quick wins that may erode what makes Niagara unique among our peers. Our diverse and balanced region of green space and urban environments is what makes us attractive to visitors around the globe.
Just like the private and not‐for‐profit sector, municipalities have also felt the negative impacts of COVID‐19. And while there has been provincial and federal funds rolled out to keep many businesses and non‐profits afloat during the pandemic, the amount of relief that has been given to municipalities across the country is insufficient to cover the deficits we are projecting.
At last check, Niagara’s municipalities and Region are projecting a deficit of $7.5 million, with the Region’s share amounting to roughly 1.3 per cent on the levy.
We have already taken many steps to mitigate these new expenses and we have already found millions in savings.
We remain hopeful that there will be an opportunity to partner with other levels of government to find a path forward to keep property taxes affordable. Municipalities across Ontario and Canada are also seeking a more favourable formula for the financing of those infrastructure projects that are eligible for federal and provincial contributions.
While it is true that there is only one tax payer, municipal governments only have one tax. In other words, our only major source of income to pay for our vital programs and services is done so through property taxes. The senior levels of government have far more flexibility through the form of progressive taxes that take into account a person’s ability to pay.
That is not to say that the Region is not sensitive to the impacts of COVID‐19 on property tax payers in Niagara. We have waived all fees and penalties on the late payment of property taxes and water bills for as long as the local municipality is also doing so. We also acknowledge that we have a role to play in helping our businesses recover after this crisis and we are in constant coordination with the chambers of commerce, BIAs and other levels of government to ensure our businesses have access to every support possible. For example, the Region has entered into a partnership with Venture Niagara to facilitate the Regional Relief and Recovery Fund. This program provides interest‐free loans to help support the fixed operating costs of small and medium‐sized businesses where revenues have been affected by the COVID‐19 pandemic.
Members of the Chamber will be aware that during the terms of the previous Council, Niagara bid for and was awarded the right to host the 2021 Canada Summer Games. In this regard, preparation for the Games and the associated facilities are well underway and we look forward with anticipation to welcoming officials, athletes and families from across Canada to Niagara for the summer of 2021.
As part of our economic recovery, Regional staff continue to work in cooperation and coordination with Metrolinx on the implementation of GO train service for Niagara with our ultimate goal of securing hourly commuter service at the earliest opportunity. The Region is fulfilling its obligations and responsibilities related to this initiative and we remain hopeful that the Province will provide timely approvals for this project.
COVID‐19 continues to test all aspects of our society: our public institutions, our businesses, our non‐profits, our health care professionals and our people. Hundreds have been infected across the region, and over 60 individuals have paid the ultimate price for COVID‐19. On behalf of Niagara Region, I want to express that our thoughts are with their friends and families.
But, as expected, we have also seen some of the best that our Niagara community has to offer. We have seen manufacturers shift their focus to create products to help combat the virus. We have seen people rally around our front‐line health care workers to thank them for their tireless efforts, and we have seen people give their time and money to non‐profits to help support those most in need.
As of tonight at midnight Niagara will officially be in stage 2 and our economy will start to safely reopen. It is because of our collective efforts to slow the spread of COVID‐19 that we are able to move forward and start finding our new normal. On behalf of all of Niagara, I want to thank all of you for your efforts – they truly made the difference.
I want to close today with this final thought: as a society we have been through many transformational changes over the last hundred years: world wars, the advent of the internet, major acts of terror, economic depressions and even other pandemics. It can be daunting to be living through history, but the important thing to remember is that there is always an end point.
Yes, our lives may never be the same as they were before, but that does not mean we are worse off. In some ways, we have been given the opportunity to rebuild aspects of our economy and our community so that it may better work for everyone. I hope as we slowly and safely start to recover and rebuild, we will do so in partnership and collaboration. I am confident that we can reimagine what Niagara could be, and we will write this story together.