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Council, chamber may meet to discuss differences

While some city councillors and senior staff have said they are upset with statements made in a Sault Ste.

While some city councillors and senior staff have said they are upset with statements made in a Sault Ste. Marie chamber of commerce media release issued April 15, chamber president Mark Barsanti says there was no intention to offend, but rather, to help.

The release, issued the day after council approved a zero percent residential tax increase in the 2014 budget, quotes Barsanti, on the chamber’s behalf, as saying “the Sault Ste. Marie Chamber of Commerce is pleased that its voice was heard during the 2014 City budget deliberations.”

“There were several e-mails exchanged between myself, the Mayor and some councillors last week and throughout the weekend.  I believe our concerns were taken to heart and the budget reflects our concerns to an extent.”

That, along with statements from Barsanti calling for council and staff to reduce the city’s dependency on $17 million in provincial support, and a call for council to do more to improve the level of private sector development to spur job growth, has irritated some staff and councillors. 

Joe Fratesi, chief administrative officer, told “any input the chamber provided had nothing to do with the end result of the budget.”

“To write these last-minute letters and take credit for an end result that they didn’t influence at all is really not helpful,” Fratesi said.

Barsanti told us the chamber has been criticized by some councillors for not providing input in past budget deliberations and is now being scolded for actually getting involved.

“The press release was not to steal anyone’s thunder, the press release said we were heard and they managed their budget well,” Barsanti said.

Fratesi questioned Barsanti’s call for the city to reduce its reliance on $17 million in provincial funding.

“Municipalities can raise revenues through very limited sources such as tax increases and user fees but the rest comes from provincial funding,” Fratesi said.

“To suggest it’s like a handout we’re getting is wrong…anyone suggesting it’s a bad thing needs to look at the bigger picture.”

“Those comments by the chamber that we should get off that (provincial funding) clearly indicates to me a very naïve understanding of the relationship between the city and the province,” Fratesi said, comparing provincial funding to the city to the vital transfer payments provinces receive from the federal government.

“We put to the mayor a three-page position paper which clearly outlined our position on the OMPF (Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund) and the city is making it seem as if we said we should forego or return the OMPF, when our paper doesn’t say that at all,” Barsanti said.

“The less assessment you have and the greater your need, the more OMPF money you get, but as you get more industrial and commercial properties online, the province will pull back on OMPF dollars because you’re becoming more self-sufficient.”

“The city of Brantford is a perfect example…from 1999 to now their reliance on OMPF funding has dropped drastically and they moved from a population of roughly 75,000 people to 93,000 people by attracting a lot of industry,” Barsanti said.

“Let’s plan our fiscal policy so that we can attract more investors, so that our tax base goes up, our tax burden goes down, and we become less dependent on the OMPF.”

“I don’t think anybody is suggesting that the OMPF be given away, but I don’t think it’s healthy to say let’s keep taking it for as long as it’s there and when it goes away because of changes in political winds we’ll deal with it at that point,” Barsanti said.

As for council and staff to work towards making the city more business friendly, Fratesi said the Canadian Federation of Independent Business recently named Sault Ste. Marie the second most entrepreneurial city in Ontario. 

“In fact, over the last 10 years we’ve been on an improvement curve in terms of our growth and stability and to suggest something different should happen is a negative, not a positive suggestion,” Fratesi said.

“We’ve got one of the highest industrial tax rates in Northern Ontario…it’s very hard for the EDC to say ‘come to the Sault’ when our industrial tax rates are higher than other Northern communities,” Barsanti said.

“We need to tax in a way that makes us more competitive, more open to investors.”

To do that, Barsanti wrote in the chamber media release, “we have to ask ourselves whether or not we would be willing to forego some levels of some services.”

“If we know that we can bring in an influx of investment, then maybe we can look at reducing different services,” Barsanti told us.

“It doesn’t have to be closing pools and skating rinks…it has to be a community discussion before making any decisions on what services should be cut.”

Barsanti said city staff should be looking for savings as the city handles a $180 million budget.

Fratesi said elected leaders and the chamber should meet and iron out any differences.

Barsanti said a discussion on Thursday with Ward 1 city councillor Steve Butland was productive.

“There will be a meeting between the chamber and council, but it has to be more than a reconciliation meeting,” Barsanti said.

Such a meeting would have to be a roundtable discussion instead of an appearance before council at one of its regular meetings, Barsanti said.

Barsanti said Butland would speak to council about arranging a meeting.

“I’m sure it will happen.” 

“We must talk about how business and government can work together to move our city forward…we need open discussions, we want to get results,” Barsanti said.