As of May 1 the city of Peterborough has cut funding for discretionary benefits which help subsidize certain services for low income citizens.
The cuts will reduce available funding to services such as subsidized bus passes and dentures, while eliminating the funding available for baby supplies and other services.
City Council voted in favour of the cuts at the April 29 council meeting, less than 48 hours before they were to go into effect.
The cuts were recommended by the Committee of the Whole on April 22 as part of a larger report. Several community members showed up to the meeting to urge council to defer the decision on the cuts until a later time.
Carol Winter pointed out to council the importance of the children’s recreational benefits that would be cut.
“For inner-city children whose parents can’t afford exorbitant fees this was the one opportunity to participate in arts or sports programs, or take music or riding lessons.”
Winter also pointed out how the YMCA’s location already makes it difficult for these children to attend events, but they will be “even less accessible” without the bus subsidy which was also cut.
Rachelle Sauvé also pointed out how crucial the bus subsidy is to low income persons, citing how it is tied to one’s Freedom of Mobility.
“That particular limitation will create an incredible barrier that is already something a lot of people struggle with.”
A recipient of these benefits, Rodney Marois, later testified in his own presentation how difficult affording a bus pass could be even with benefits, and how it would be impossible to afford it without them.
Sauvé told council it would be “ridiculous” not to divert the decision on the cuts “until a lot more information is in,” including the Ontario provincial budget to be delivered May 2.
On behalf of the Peterborough Poverty Reduction Network Income Security Working Group, Martha Macfie suggested council defer until September to allow them to account for whatever new information this budget is certain to bring.
Furthermore, she mentioned the importance of continuing these benefits as regards convincing Ontario ministers to provide funding.
“Continuing to fund these benefits on a temporary basis is the only way that the municipality can demonstrate to the province that [they] are absolutely necessary,” she told council.
By the same token, she remarked “if the municipality decides not to fund these benefits it is, in essence, telling the province they are not necessary.”
Mayor Bennett is hoping to meet with ministers from Toronto later this month after the budget is released to discuss the issue.
Macfie also raised concerns about the sudden nature of the changes, citing that “people in agencies have had no time to prepare if these cuts are put into effect May 1.”
Councillor Dean Pappas agreed with this sentiment, saying it would be “premature” to approve the cuts at this time.
Pappas motioned to defer the decision until the Committee of the Whole meeting on September 3, or an earlier meeting if the province reintroduces it’s funding.
The motion was supported by Councillors Keith Riel, Len Vass, and Lesley Parnell, who all spoke in favour of deferral.
Riel stated that “we have to wait for that [Ontario] budget to come down to know what we’re going to play, especially with the discretionary—necessary—benefits that are needed for the community.”
Vass supported deferral, though he mentioned “I don’t think it will be supported around the table.”
Parnell told council “we can afford to maintain the benefits until September.”
However, the majority of council voted not to defer the decision, and then to go ahead with the cuts.
Councillor Andrew Beamer told council “in my estimation we can’t continue using the reserves [to pay for the benefits] or putting it on the property tax bill.”
There was also skepticism from some members as to the necessity of the benefits. Councillor Dan McWilliams mentioned that often there were “duplication of services” between the city and outreach groups and questioned “do we not have [recreational] programs together right now that [low income people] can use right now in the city?”
Councillors Bill Juby, Henry Clarke, and Jack Doris also spoke in favour of the cuts.
As a result of the cuts, total discretionary benefit funding will drop from $2.4 million last year to $1.8 million this year.
Despite the cuts, the city will actually end up contributing more funding this year than the last. In April 2012 the Ontario government cut spending on discretionary benefits from $2.1 million to only $850,000. The city picked up the funding at that time. As a result, spending was effectively increased from just over $281,000 in 2012 to over $951,000 in 2013.
Councillors and residents are now hoping the mayor is successful in negotiating more funding from the province in the upcoming talks.