PAUL FORSYTH/Niagara This Week
Industries that decide to build new plants or expand existing facilities in Niagara will be eligible for a break on regional development fees for the next two years.
That’s because regional council approved waiving those fees during 2013 and 2014, in the hope the move will spur investment and hopefully create badly needed new manufacturing jobs in a region hammered by plant closures in recent years.
But even some council members who voted in favour of it said it’s important that property taxpayers in Niagara know they’ll be the ones footing the bill to pay for waived fees designed to help pay for things such as road projects and expanded ambulance and police services needed to accommodate growth.
The Region normally gets about $100,000 a year in development charges from the industrial sector. Plans call for waived fees to be paid for this year from a reserve fund, with next year’s waived fees to be included in the 2014 regional budget.
Under provincial law, municipal governments that give such breaks on development charges must top up development charge reserves.
St. Catharines Coun. Brian Heit, who voted against waiving the fees, said waiving the fees is akin to grants — something he said the Region shouldn’t be doing.
“None of this is free,” he said. “The taxpayers are paying. We’ve got to find that money somewhere.”
Likewise, Lincoln Mayor Bill Hodgson — who supported the fee waiver — said it’s vital that taxpayers know they’ll be funding any such breaks.
“There are no free rides,” he said. “We shouldn’t pretend.”
But Welland Mayor Barry Sharpe said the plan is in essence a two-year trial to see if waiving the fees can stimulate industrial investment.
Port Colborne Coun. Dave Barrick said development charges are indeed something that can hold back investment. He told council that earlier in the same day he spoke with a developer who said those fees are the reason why he’s not investing.
St. Catharines Coun. Alan Caslin said if the waivers do lead to new investments, that could mean new employment.
“It means jobs,” he said. “These are small dollars in comparison to the return we’ve going to get.”
Regional chief administrative officer Mike Trojan said the Region has about $9.2 million in a contingency fund. But he noted while that sounds like a lot of money, it’s only four per cent of operating costs for the government. Accepted standards are that such a fund should actually be between five and 15 per cent of those expenses, he said.
The fee waiver comes about four months after the Region approved new development charge rates that saw fees it charges per square foot of new industrial space more than double. On Jan. 9, Niagara Industrial Association president Roy Timms told regional politicians that waiving the fees for two years will send a message out that Niagara is open for business.
At last Thursday’s meeting, regional councillors also agreed to development charge breaks for the Heartland Forest nature experience in Niagara Falls and Fort Erie’s Peninsula Plastics of about $123,000 and $21,000 respectively. Heartland Forest plans to build a new nature centre, while Peninsula Plastics is building an expansion.