Special council meeting offers no concrete solution to Ford government’s $90M campus funding cut
A special session of Brampton City Council held Friday to discuss the next steps in developing a Ryerson University satellite campus presented a rosy picture of the future of a project that appears to be in limbo. However, no details emerged about how the campus might go ahead in the absence of provincial funding.
The meeting followed the Doug Ford government’s surprise announcement last week that it was pulling a $90-million funding commitment made by the Liberals prior to the election. The provincial government cited a $15-billion budget deficit as its reason for cancelling university expansion projects in Brampton, Markham and Milton that would have amounted to $305 million in commitments.
“Brampton is used to being thrown a curveball every now and again,” said retiring Councillor Elaine Moore, who served as acting mayor for the meeting as outgoing mayor Linda Jeffrey was not present.
Retiring Councillor Elaine Moore
The emotional whiplash caused by the funding cut on a project billed as the linchpin of downtown economic development was exacerbated by the timing of the announcement. The public was notified of the decision the day after mayoral candidate Patrick Brown declared victory in the city’s Oct. 22 municipal election.
An economic impact assessment for the university project, including an intertwined Centre for Education, Innovation and Collaboration to be built by the city, pegged the construction cost for the campus at around $241 million and an additional $114 million for the CEIC. The outgoing city council committed $50 million for the university campus, from a reserve fund, and $100 million for the CEIC that would be put on the city's books as an external loan even though the money would come from another reserve fund. City officials have said adding any additional capital costs onto the current city debt would be a significant load to take on. A 2015 financial analysis of Brampton's economic picture by the former Ontario auditor general showed a troubling reality, with reserve funds running low, a pattern of sharp property tax increases largely to pay for a bloated municipal government and high costs for growth because the city's hyper-development has not been well planned.
The new council could decide to put a university levy on future property tax bills, much like the expiring levy that property owners have been paying for five years to raise about $10 million in costs to help with expansion of the Peel Memorial Centre for Integrated Health and Wellness, formerly Peel Memorial Hospital.
Officials are now scrambling to make up the $90 million claw-back by the Ford government, which was a shock to the city.
“I actually called the CAOs [chief administrative officers] from Markham and Milton, and they too were very disappointed and surprised by the news,” Brampton CAO Harry Schlange said at the meeting. The effect of the province’s about-face was even more severe for Markham, which he said was on the verge of “issuing purchase orders to start construction of their [York University] campus.”
Schlange indicated that if the planned Brampton project, in partnership with Ryerson and Sheridan College, moves forward it will be at the site chosen by the previous provincial government, near the downtown GO station. Critics of the location, which is currently part of the station’s parking lot, say it was not chosen by Brampton officials and taxpayers, it does not provide enough room for expansion and is not in an ideal spot to integrate the campus into other downtown features. It was chosen by the Kathleen Wynne-Liberals shortly before last spring’s election. It’s unclear why the city would have to stick with the location chosen by the previous provincial government, now that Queen’s Park has pulled out of its commitment to help fund the capital cost of the project.
Mayor-elect Brown, during his campaign ahead of October’s municipal election, made it clear that he wants to pursue a different university plan altogether, a much more ambitious one that would land Brampton a stand-alone university, not just a small satellite campus. He described the project currently being pursued, which was established by the previous provincial government, as settling for a minimum investment in post-secondary education. However, the Ford government and Brampton’s two PC MPPs have made it clear that, even though they pulled funding for capital costs, any plan to keep the project moving forward has to be approved by the province.
Ultimately, it will be up to Brown and the rest of the incoming council, which does not take office until December, to determine how the city will move forward.
Glenn Craney, Ryerson’s deputy provost, attended the special meeting Friday to inform council and the public of what the university is doing to save the plan. He was there in place of university president Mohamed Lachemi, who was in Ottawa lobbying the federal government for funding to keep the project on track.
Schlange said the city’s next step is to “regroup with Ryerson” and that the $50 million already guaranteed by the city is the only funding available right now. He added that “$90 million is a lot of money to recoup.”
It’s not clear where further funding can be found within city reserve funds.
A spokesperson for the City of Brampton said in a statement to The Pointer that the $50 million had come out of the government’s “legacy reserve fund” and that “after this initial commitment, the legacy reserve fund now remains at a $50 million uncommitted balance.” However, “interest from legacy reserve fund balances currently goes towards mitigating annual tax impacts. It would be up to council to make a decision on where and how the funds are to be used.”
According to Craney, the first priorities are to bring two programs of the Chang School — Ryerson’s continuing education school — to Brampton in January, reaffirm a commitment to create an innovation hub in the city, and procure federal funding for the cyber-security institute envisioned as a catalyst for the project, for which Lachemi is currently lobbying.
The Ryerson provost did not offer details about the funding commitments the president is seeking from Ottawa beyond the cyber-security institute. “We continue to talk to them; I think they’re really positive, and we’ll see where that goes.”
Craney also hinted that the university has been pitching to the private sector for investment, but wouldn’t disclose the names of the players. He spent much of the special meeting assuring the council and observers that the Ryerson extension in Brampton will debut on schedule.
When retiring Councillor Gael Miles asked Craney if, “despite the [Ford government’s] announcement, Ryerson University will open its doors in 2019,” he simply replied, “Yes.”
Retiring Councillor Gael Miles
MPPs have been butting heads over the cancellation. Earlier this week, Opposition Leader Andrea Horwath’s motion to have the Ford government reinstate the lost funding was defeated.
Brampton’s two PC MPPs, Prabmeet Sarkaria and Amarjot Sandhu, were absent from the Queen’s Park vote, for which they were called out by their colleagues across the aisle. They issued a joint open letter to Brampton residents on Oct. 25, repeating their party’s familiar refrain accusing the previous Liberal government of “financial mismanagement” and asserting that the cancellation of about $305 million in promised funding for the three university campuses was necessary to help undo the financial damage caused by former Liberal governments.
Brampton PC MPPs Prabmeet Sarkaria and Amarjot Sandhu
They ended the letter by saying “our government would be willing to consider a business case for how these projects may proceed in the absence of provincial capital funding. Brampton deserves a thoughtful, sustainable proposal to bring post-secondary education to our city. Together, we remain committed to working with stakeholders to make this happen.”
Councillor Gurpreet Dhillon, who will take his seat in the new council as a regional member, told those attending the special council meeting that he had invited Sarkaria and Sandhu to join the gathering and had spoken to them about what the next steps ought to be. “I did reach out to both PC MPPs to invite them to the special council meeting. However, I did not receive a confirmation. In our brief discussion, I did receive indication of their interest in working together to find a solution going forward.”
Councillor Gurpreet Dhillon
Councillor Pat Fortini, who will also be moving from his city seat to a regional seat once the new council convenes in December, inquired about whether Ryerson plans to change the proposed location of the university site, near the Brampton GO station. Schlange’s answer, in short, was no.
Councillor Pat Fortini
“We’ll do our due diligence with Ryerson," Schlange responded. "We will continue to do that. Right now, it is that site.”
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