For yet another year, Montreal’s on-island suburbs have signalled they cannot support the agglomeration council budget.
In a pointed ‘minority report’, the Association of Suburban Mayors (ASM) lamented what it described as a worrying and growing debt load of tens of millions of dollars.
“It is only after the next municipal election that we will really know the size of the deficit we will have on our hands, which we will then be left to deal with and to pay for,” Dollard-des-Ormeaux mayor Alex Bottausci said during Friday afternoon’s meeting of the agglomeration council.
Yet their united front in opposition to the budget made no difference, since Montreal controls the lion’s share of votes on the council.
“That’s part of the shortcomings of the system,” said Beny Masella, Mayor of Montreal West. “No matter how much we vote, no matter how based in reality — how right we are — because they control 82 per cent of the votes, what they decide goes forward.”
Suburban municipalities on the island pay the city of Montreal fees for ‘shared services’ that cross municipal boundaries, notably Montreal’s police and fire departments and the Société de Transport de Montréal (STM), whose territories cover the entire island.
Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue’s mayor says municipalities like hers are being asked by the city to pay more — in her municipality’s case, 4 per cent more — for nothing new in return.
“Yes, we are going to pay 4 per cent more, but that does not in any way reflect more services for Sainte-Anne’s,” Paola Hawa told Global News. “So that means no more police than we had before, no more public transit than before…it’s basically just ‘here’s a bill, pay it, and we’re not giving you anything in return.'”
Beaconsfield Mayor Georges Bourelle agreed. He said his municipality will be taking Montreal, along with the Quebec government, to court in the new year over their failure to correct an error in the formula used to calculate how much each municipality owes in fees.
That error, which figured into the budgets presented in both 2019 and 2020, led to Beaconsfield overpaying a total of $4 million across both years, he said.
“$4 million is a lot of money, and we are not going to stop until the situation is resolved,” Bourelle said.
Despite the strife over the 2021 budget, there is cause for optimism. Starting in January, the province will begin mediating negotiations between Montreal and the other members of the agglomeration council to amend the formula for shared service payments.
Montreal West’s Masella hopes that could mean an end to calculating payments based entirely on property values, which has been the case for years.
“In other words, we want to look at user pay, for things like potable water, public transportation and things that we send to the dump, and we want to look at a population component when we talk about public security,” he explained.
Masella struck a hopeful note when asked if this might be the last year West Island mayors feel they have no other choice but to vote no on the budget.
We’ve been talking about this for many, many years, and quite honestly, I don’t think we’ve ever made as much progress as we have right now,” he said.
“We haven’t solved anything yet, but at least we’re sitting at the table.”