A storm of bad news leaves Mississauga searching for answers
In an ocean of uncertainty and a constant sense of sinking deeper into this nightmare, news arrives with heavy expectations.
For the past week, as Mississauga grows weary under the summer sunshine we can’t seem to touch, the news has pushed us further from that warm glow we have waited for.
Instead, like an endless winter, the number of COVID-19 cases continues to go in the wrong direction and concerning questions are being raised about inadequate testing across the Region of Peel.
Bonnie Crombie says her city needs more help from higher levels of government and local infection rates are too high for widescale reopening
Most recently, the federal government’s olive branch of $2.2 billion in aid for Canadian cities, money from the gas tax they were always going to receive anyway, has been slammed for not going nearly far enough. And with the virus showing signs of lingering longer than we had originally feared, finances are likely going to be stretched, along with our nerves, even thinner.
So what is Mississauga to do?
“Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. While it has never been the case that the federal government provides operating funding for municipalities, this crisis has generated a need for them to do so now,” Mayor Bonnie Crombie said in a press release this week.
She urged all levels of the government to work together, insisting that now is not the time for jurisdictional politics, saying a new framework is needed to provide cities with the funding to rebuild and recover after the pandemic.
“The federal and provincial governments have provided assistance to every other sector of the economy. It’s now time they help cities. We cannot run deficits or borrow the way the other levels of government can,” Crombie said.
Out of the 3,931 cases of COVID-19 in Ontario since May 10, the GTA’s public health units have accounted for 3,054, or roughly 78 percent. Peel is one of the hot spots that the province is now focusing on.
Mississauga has seen an increase in the number of cases, reaching 2,694 today, June 4, and recent infection rates, according to the Region’s top public health doctor, are painting a worrisome picture.
Mississauga COVID-19 cases as of June 4 and institutional cases across Peel
A new testing campaign rolled out this week by Queen’s Park will hopefully help fight the virus locally, with increased capacity and targeted screening in places where infections are particularly high.
But the overall scenario for Mississauga seems worse than a month ago, when the province said the COVID curve was flattening and plans to reopen were put in place.
Now, as summer nears, it couldn’t feel further away.
The $2.2 billion from Ottawa is not new money and while it may help some cities with urgent cash requirements, it has already been accounted for as a part of annual municipal capital budgets and does not address the dire need for operating funds expressed by local leaders.
It’s unclear how long the City can keep running essential services such as fire and transit, while residents also are on the hook for regional costs such as policing, paramedics and public health.
Testing is the key to reopening and has been under scrutiny. Residents of Mississauga are calling for swift action from authorities as infections climb steadily while there is not enough funding to support city services.
To increase testing the province allowed anyone who fears exposure to get tested, as long as they show one symptom or there is a specific risk that the virus could have been contracted. New mobile pop-up testing units, like the three opened in Scarborough Tuesday, might be coming to Mississauga, in an effort to dramatically increase testing and reach the desired benchmark.
Meanwhile, the city’s share of the $2.2 billion in federal gas tax funding, which is normally received twice a year, once in the summer and an installment late in the calendar, is expected soon. But it can only be used for infrastructure projects.
“We're looking at other ways of supporting the work that the cities and municipalities are doing across the country. Of course, there is still much to do, so that we can start off our regular activities,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.
Hanging out in Port Credit is one of many activities locals are longing for
Municipal leaders feel that this is not enough to recuperate from the financial loss created by the pandemic. There have been steep losses, mainly from operating transit without charging fares, while parking and user fees for things like recreation centres and community programs have dried up.
The City of Mississauga projected about a $50 million deficit by June 1, and around $100 million by the end of the year, if closures remain in place, which increasingly looks like a possibility, especially in the absence of a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.
Premier Doug Ford urged, “We need more money and the federal government needs to step up.”
The Federation of Canadian Municipalities has projected municipalities need a minimum of $10 billion in funding from higher levels of government to maintain services, otherwise Mississauga faces a 17 percent property tax increase, which Crombie has said is not an option.
John Di Nino, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, feels that the preliminary measure from Ottawa is not nearly enough. The union has previously made a clear demand of $5 billion specifically directed to transit operations.
“We know that $5 billion is a short-term fix for a long-term problem. What we're trying to do is stimulate undiminished families with that infusion of money, so they can see the transit systems running, and keep people employed and moving,” he said.
He said the money can be redirected from infrastructure Canada which sets aside $28.7 billion for capital investments over the next 10 years. It makes no sense, according to him, to have that money sitting around for road and transit development when cities cannot even maintain their current infrastructure.
“I think the government needs to stop the political posturing between the province and the federal level. They have an obligation to serve communities across this nation and they needed to respond to those needs,” Di Nino said.
More bad news arrived at the beginning of the week when it was learned that 485 positive tests were not reported by the William Osler health network and that many of those infected live in Peel.
The implications in a city already reeling, where many might have come in contact with the individuals carrying the virus – without any contact tracing for the mishandled cases – are another blow in a terrible season that won’t go away.
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