Regional Chair Bradley’s 2024 State of the Region address

A transcript of Chair’s Bradley’s State of the Region address, which was delivered on March 27, 2024, is found below.

(check against delivery)

“Good afternoon. I am deeply honored to welcome you all to this year’s State of the Region address. I am grateful for the opportunity to share with you an update on the progress we have made, the challenges we face together, and the promising future that lies ahead for our region.

First and foremost, I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to the Greater Niagara Chamber of Commerce, and the many generous sponsors, for once again making this event a reality. This is my sixth State of the Region and I always value this opportunity to share some time with the hundreds of business and community leaders across Niagara who are here today.

The expertise and leadership each of you shares with Niagara helps to make our community a better place in which to live and work.  

I would also like to acknowledge the presence of the many elected officials who are in attendance today from all levels of government. While all of you are deserving of recognition the format of today’s event will not allow me to name all of you individually. Instead, I would ask that all of the elected officials in the room please stand to be acknowledged.

Finally, I want to recognize the dedicated senior staff from the Region who have joined us today. I can speak from personal experience that talented, professional public servants play a key role in turning the vision of those elected to office into a reality. In Niagara, we are fortunate to be served by some of the most dedicated and capable staff with which I have ever had the privilege of working with.

Economic Update

I want to start my address this afternoon by looking at Niagara’s economy.

Over the past year, we have achieved remarkable success in terms of economic growth and development. Our region has seen a surge in investment across the community, which is a testament to the hard work of many of the people in this room.

I believe these numbers speak for themselves:

Last year, we saw investment in building construction continue its robust performance, totaling over $2.8 billion. In 2023, one in every five dollars being spent on construction was invested in non-residential development, representing a positive trend for Niagara.

In regard to international trade, Niagara continued to post impressive numbers in 2023, with exports reaching a value exceeding $8.2 billion, resulting in a net gain of over $5 billion to our economy.

Our employment landscape remained strong last year, with a low unemployment rate of 5.8%. The labour force also saw a record 222,000 people gainfully employed.

I am also pleased to report that tourism spending rebounded to pre-pandemic levels in 2023, totaling $2.1 billion in visitor expenditures for the entire year.

We also need to consider the economic powerhouse that is Niagara’s agricultural sector. Last year, our farms and greenhouses generated over $1.7 billion for our economy. Niagara’s agricultural sector plays an important role in our job market, employing over 7,800 people directly and 24,000 across the value chain. In terms of growth, from 2016 to 2021, Niagara’s agricultural GDP grew by 21%, outpacing total GDP growth at 18%. We should all be proud of these statistics, and we would do well to remember the crucial role this sector plays in our economy.

In all, our GDP grew to over $22 billion, marking a growth of over $250 million compared to 2022. Despite the global economic slowdown, Niagara continued its upward trajectory, underscoring our resilience and innovation.

As the Niagara Region, it is our role to support and collaborate with our partners in the 12 local communities to help grow the economy. This collaboration has helped to attract and retain over 20 industrial investments in the past two years generating $500 million in capital investment and creating 1,200 new jobs. 

Some of the positive announcements include:

  • Siltech Corporation in Fort Erie
  • Big Country Raw in West Lincoln
  • Linamar Corp in Welland
  • High Strength Plates and Profiles Inc. in Thorold
  • AMSI Inc. in Lincoln

When I reflect on the state of our economy, I am filled with a sense of optimism for the future of the Niagara region.

Yes, there are challenges, but almost every community across the country shares those with us. I believe that Niagara, has once again demonstrated its resiliency in building itself back after the economic impacts of COVID, and its tenacity in coping with the significant global economic slow down.

Regional Success Stories

As Regional government, we also saw considerable progress and achievement in a number of different areas. Just a few snapshot accomplishments include:

  • The construction of the Linhaven and Gilmore Lodge long-term care homes continues to progress on schedule. Once completed, hundreds of Niagara’s seniors will have access to world-class facilities while creating the opportunity for the Region to build more affordable housing on adjacent land.
  • Late last year Niagara Region’s eight long-term care homes completed the national accreditation program, meeting 100% of the standards, leading to an exemplary standing, the highest possible rating available.
  • On the housing side, there are many initiatives underway. For example, the partnership between the Region and Port Cares on an affordable apartment project is making substantial progress. With the Region investing nearly $2.3 million in the project through both equity and DC waivers, there will be 41 new affordable units available once completed.
  • In 2023 we opened a new Community Housing facility in Welland. This building provides 43 geared-to-income units for families, adults and seniors, helping to shorten our extensive waitlist. 
  • Our Public Health department worked hard in 2023 to catch up on immunizations and dental screenings that were postponed during the pandemic. I am pleased to share that nearly 30,000 school-aged students are now up to date with their crucial immunizations and 39,000 children received dental screenings.
  • Last year, our physician recruiter program successfully brought 19 new family doctors to Niagara, helping to address the shortage of family physicians that is being felt across the community.
  • Finally, the 2024 budget contains over $270 million for capital infrastructure projects across all 12 communities. These initiatives, which include roads, bridges and water infrastructure to name a few, will see us maintaining crucial infrastructure that residents and businesses rely on daily.

These are just a few highlights from the last 12 months, but we cannot forget about the more than 3,000 talented and dedicated staff who work tirelessly in dozens of programs to ensure we have access to the programs and services we need.

The Budget

In preparing for this address, I knew that many in this room would have concerns regarding the Region’s budget. As Chair, I can share that the last two budgets have been remarkably challenging. While the increases were necessary, they were also larger than any of us wanted.

For some added context, a recently completed independent study showed that 92 per cent of our spending is invested in services that are deemed essential or mandatory, many of which are accompanied by strict provincial regulations.  With over $9 billion in public infrastructure that needs to be maintained, very little of the Region’s budget is considered discretionary. This fact makes it difficult for the Region to simply get out of a line of business to reduce the budget.

As elected officials, we must attempt to balance affordability with our responsibility to provide dozens of essential services at a standard that our residents have come to expect and deserve.

Our recent budget challenges are being driven by many factors. Some affect all of us, like global inflation, while others reflect the legacy of parsimonious financial decisions made decades ago regarding infrastructure.  

Additionally, we continue to cope with the impacts, as do all municipalities, of the province, and even the federal government, downloading costs onto the Region by making costly policy decisions. Put simply, property taxes were never designed to cover the costs of complex issues like mental health, social housing, hospital development, Ontario works, asylum seekers or climate change. Despite the limitations of property taxes, the Region is continually being called on to respond to these issues.

While there is some funding from senior levels of government for these challenges, and we are grateful for these contributions, it is often insufficient and many programs have been frozen for several years or do not reflect the true cost of inflation, putting further strain on our budget. By way of a real-world example, the provincial policy decisions rolled out through Bill 23 were responsible for 25% of the budget increase last year.

In response to these challenges, we have made all efforts to limit these increases by streamlining services, implementing measures to enforce efficiencies and urging the Niagara Regional Police Service Board to find savings. I also want to share that there have been no new staff in the last two years that are being paid for by property taxes, outside of making some desperately needed investments in EMS to combat offload delays.

At the end of the day, the corporate budget for the Niagara Region came in under the rate of inflation for 2024 at around 3.3%. However, after approving the significant budget for the Niagara Regional Police, which we are required to do, the overall budget increased to the number we arrived at this year.

Despite our significant challenges, we remain committed to providing essential services to our community while being mindful of the impact on taxpayers. We will continue to explore ways to mitigate the effects of global inflation, provincial policy decisions and the significant cost of policing to ensure that we can provide the best possible services to our residents.

Provincial Advocacy

As Regional Chair, another key priority is to continue to foster productive relationships with senior levels of government.

To this end, I am pleased to share that we will once again be traveling to Queen’s Park in May for Niagara Week where we will advocate to provincial decision makers for our top priorities.

This year we are pleased to yet again partner with the GNCC in our advocacy efforts. This partnership ensures that the strong partnership between Niagara’s local governments and the private sector is on full display.

These days in Toronto are a unique opportunity for members of Council and senior staff to have in-depth discussions with provincial leaders on some of the Region’s most pressing topics.

We had many successes last year, including a verbal commitment from Premier Ford to jointly fund the South Niagara Treatment Plant, should the federal government cooperate. We aim to build upon these successes and further advance our core advocacy priorities in 2024.

I look forward to bringing back a series of encouraging updates from our meeting with provincial ministers and officials.

Homelessness

It would be difficult to deliver my view of the “state of the region” without reflecting on our ongoing efforts to address our challenges with homelessness.

We can all agree there is no silver bullet solution to this problem. The issues we are all grappling with are exceedingly complex, systemically interconnected, influenced by a host of external factors and are found not just across North America but the globe. Niagara is not unique in its challenges.   

But that does not mean we are giving up. On the contrary, we continue to make meaningful progress.

One significant step forward is the Region’s installation of the temporary homelessness shelter solution in St. Catharines on Riordon Street. This facility has already proven successful in providing safe and supportive housing for those in need. It stands as a testament to our commitment to finding practical solutions to complex issues.

Regional Council also recently approved a poverty reduction strategy with a goal of ending poverty across Niagara. The strategy coordinates efforts across the region, prevents duplication and will improve communication and collaboration between service providers. I am confident this strategy will better meet the needs of our most vulnerable residents while recognizing the unique experiences of those experiencing poverty.

We also work to prevent homelessness from happening in the first place by providing early intervention and support to individuals and families at risk of losing their homes. This includes rapid rehousing programs, emergency shelter services and counselling. In short, its easier and cheaper to keep someone housed than managing the alternative.

Recently we collaborated with the City of St. Catharines to create a working group made up of elected officials, staff and key stakeholders with an aim to address concerns focused on downtown St. Cathartines. This group meets regularly to discuss strategies to respond to the challenges and to ensure up-to-date information is being shared.

We are dedicated to finding innovative and compassionate solutions to this complicated problem. We will continue to make evidence-informed decisions and search for best practice as we navigate the issue of homelessness in our community.

Housing

I want to address the ongoing and urgent housing crisis that is being experienced across North America. As I have said multiple times in the past, the Region joins the provincial government in their goal to build more homes.

To be frank, while our role is important, municipalities across the province have only a small role to play. Despite these limitations, the Region is working through a comprehensive strategy in an effort to respond to the housing crisis.

First, we are actively doing what we can to increase the supply of affordable housing in Niagara. Through partnerships with developers and community organizations, we are creating new affordable housing units across the region.

We recognize that addressing the housing crisis requires a coordinated effort. We are working closely with all 12 of the local municipalities, community organizations, and other stakeholders to develop innovative solutions and leverage resources and avoid duplication. This includes working with our post-secondary institutions to discuss the impacts of students on our housing market.

There is also a strong connection between housing and public infrastructure. To this end, the Region continues to make critical investments to ensure we have the serviced land available to support growth. One of the largest planned projects in the Region’s history, the South Niagara Water Treatment Plant, will provide service to thousands of new homes and businesses once completed. The Region, in partnership with the local municipalities and the private sector, continues to strongly lobby for cost sharing on this $400 million project with the provincial and federal governments.

As mentioned, I strongly believe that the housing crisis should not be solely supported by the property taxpayers of Niagara. We consistently advocate for funding and resources from the provincial and federal governments to support our efforts to address the housing crisis in Niagara. The need for a “new deal” for the Region will continue to be a central plank in our advocacy efforts going forward, as it is for municipalities across Ontario.

Just yesterday the Provincial government in their budget announced a series of actions they are taking to help make housing more affordable and we applaud those steps. While we await the final details, we are supportive of their decision to reduce property taxes on purpose-built rental, eliminating the province’s part of HST on purpose-built rental and giving municipalities more authority to impose vacant home taxes.

I know I can speak for council when I say the Niagara Region is committed to doing what we can to address the housing crisis and ensuring that all residents have access to safe, affordable housing. By working together with our partners and stakeholders, we believe that we can make a meaningful difference in the lives of our community members.

Shared Services

A year ago, I made a commitment that we would expand shared services across Niagara during this term. Today, I am pleased to report that, in close and active collaboration with our 12 local communities, we are continuing to see real and historic progress in regard to our efforts to streamline service delivery and better use public resources.

Over the years, we have seen a variety of shared service arrangements come to fruition, varying in scope and complexity, and with different amounts of savings. Past efforts across the region include shared fire service pilots, the mergers of libraries, the coordination of animal control services and the recent amalgamation of public transit to name a few.

While I give credit for a number of these initiatives to the local municipalities, these achievements are a testament to Niagara’s commitment to finding innovative solutions to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our services for residents and businesses alike.

Last year, I announced the creation of a team of Regional staff dedicated to identifying, coordinating, facilitating, and enabling more shared service opportunities between and among Niagara’s municipalities. This team plays a crucial role in driving our shared services agenda forward and ensuring that we continue to find new ways to collaborate and streamline our operations.

It is no secret that this provincial government has been clear about their objectives to make government effective and efficient, and to increase the housing supply. To this end, I am pleased to share that the first major initiative identified by Niagara’s 12 local communities for exploration was an opportunity to streamline and consolidate municipal building services across the region.

Once completed, this initiative will reduce the time it takes to get building permits approved and expedite shovels getting into the ground. As an added benefit, the initiative will help to ensure to not only consistent customer service practices, but also the interpretation of the building code.

I see this as a perfect example of the Region working across the 12 local communities to directly address the efficiency of municipal government while also increasing the housing supply.

With just a year of this term under completion, I am enthusiastic for the future and the other opportunities we pursue in the interest of effective and efficient municipal government.

Closing

As we reflect on the state of the Niagara Region, it is my hope that we are inspired by our past successes and motivated by our current challenges. We are a community that has weathered storms and emerged stronger. Our resilience, creativity, and compassion are our greatest assets as we navigate the road ahead.

Moving forward, I am confident that we will embrace the spirit of collaboration and innovation that defines us, working together to build a brighter future for all. Let us dare to have the vision of a Niagara where all things are possible.

In many ways, 2024 is a pivotal moment for all of us. We would do well by remembering that the decisions we make today will shape the Niagara of tomorrow.

Let us choose wisely, let us act boldly, and let us do so with the knowledge that our best days are yet to come.

Together, we can make Niagara a model of progress, the standard bearer for collaboration and a testament to the power of community.”

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