Municipal champion no more; Rinaldi the invisible man

First published: March 11, 2006

It is very hard these days to tell who is leading the government in Ontario, as the Liberals move in a direction that is hardly, well, liberal. If one closes their eyes, it is, as if, we are back in the early days of the Mike Harris’ Common Sense Revolution with all the downloading and stripping of local control.

Take the case of a $96 million plan to reduce wait times at hospital emergency departments announced early last week. On the surface, it sounds wonderful. Finally, more money for much needed services. Yet, under careful examination, the money is going to Local Health Integration Networks, newly formed regional bodies overseeing health care services for massive sections of the province. There was a time when each hospital in every community received money when dollars were being passed around.

But, no more. Northumberland Hills Hospital did not receive a single penny; and instead, it all went to Toronto, Kingston and Ottawa. Even worse, money was also given for special intensive care beds to help people who need extra attention. But again, none came here. Instead, the money went to Peterborough.

Residents had better get used to this because this is the new reality under the Tories…I mean Liberals.

Yet another example, far more painful than the lost hospital money, is the downloading of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement Service (OMERS). Local politicians are pulling their hair out over this one, since it will have a direct impact on our property taxes, driving budgets through the roof. And, Northumberland MPP Lou Rinaldi is one of the chief Liberal architects of the legislation. But, more on that later.

OMERS is one of Canada’s largest pension plans with $39 billion in investments to serve 355,000 active members and almost 900 employers. These are pension plans for municipal employees, everyone from the chief administration officer to the person who cleans the washrooms.

In June 2005, the Liberals decided they were no longer going to be responsible for it. And, while it was not costing them any money directly, it is one less administrative body the government will no longer need to pay. If it were only the governance of the plan at issue, then municipalities would have little to say.

But that is not the case. The new governing body is required to set up supplemental pension plans for emergency service employees: police, fire and paramedics. These separate, stand-alone supplemental plans would be negotiated between the municipalities and the employees’ unions.

Here is where the politicians go crazy. They are truly afraid these costs will skyrocket. As one union is able to negotiate a better supplemental plan, then others will be forced to pay the same rate. Compounding the problem, the municipalities cannot use traditional lock out tactics because these employees are emergency workers. So deals can be arbitrated and the entire decision is out of their hands.

It would be impossible to design a system that is more damaging and with less local control.

It is no wonder Northumberland County councillors tore a strip out of Rinaldi a few weeks ago during a meeting where politicians expressed concern about the $200,000 the county will pay out immediately. It is estimated to jump to $1.2 million in five years.

What is most disconcerting is the response of Rinaldi, who fluffed off the politicians.

It should be no surprise Rinaldi is so quick to deflect criticism. As a member of the general government committee at Queen’s Park, he voted, along with all the other Liberals on the committee, to ram this legislation through. In a review of Hansard, the official transcripts of the legislature, there is no evidence any concerns from a local perspective were made by Rinaldi; nor, did he deviate from his party’s plan to get this bill through.

There was a time when Rinaldi was a feisty municipal leader who fought downloading. Those where heady days, back in July 2000, when he squared off with former Northumberland MPP Doug Galt. He blasted away at Galt complaining the lack of money to handle these realignment of services, including roads, ambulances, childcare, social housing and more.

Ironically, when he was elected as MPP, Rinaldi promised to ensure the riding gets its fair share and proper level of services. At his first speaking engagement after he was elected, in December 2003, he told the crowd that the people at the local level shape their municipalities when they elect their municipal politicians. “They have the steering wheel,” he said, adding it’s the province’s role to provide support.

Those days are now gone, as residents witnessed last week. Northumberland County is being pushed into the shadows as concerns are ignored. Our hospital doesn’t get its fair share and our property taxes are being jacked higher and higher as Liberals continue to download services, just like the Tories before them.

As for Rinaldi, it is, as if, he has become invisible to county taxpayers. Sure, he helps lots of constituents with problems. And, no doubt, there are organizations and institutions that benefit from his efforts. Brighton got its health clinic and Port Hope got one, too. And for some, these are great accomplishments.

But where is he on issues like downloading, an issue so close to his own heart? As we watched with the OMERS debate, Rinaldi is a party man. And, when called on by local politicians for aid, rather than follow through with his promise to listen to those who “have the steering wheel”, he is gone. This was the guy from Brighton who championed municipalities. Now, he is a spectre, a ghost of his former self.

It leads one to ask: Lou who?

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