The news from Premier Doug Ford on Monday morning was music to the ears of small town municipal leaders gathered in a Toronto hotel for their annual advocacy conference.

Not only won’t the provincial budget contain any surprises that will hurt their bottom line, but the province is moving ahead on two major files for these leaders — the expansion of natural gas and high-speed Internet access.

Ford announced that a partnership between the province, the federal government and private partners would bring improved cellular and broadband service to areas in Norfolk, Wellington and Lambton counties, with more expansion to other regions on the horizon.

The premier also announced that the Ontario Energy Board will soon start taking applications for the expansion of natural gas in rural areas. While natural gas accounts for about 75% of home heating in Ontario, the lack of distribution means in many rural areas homes still rely on oil, propane or electricity. The province has promised to expand natural gas for residential use to lower costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

“Switching to natural gas can save a household up to $2,500 a year in heating costs. It’s one way our government is making life more affordable for the people of Ontario,” Ford said.

Rural and northern municipal governments have made clear to the province that expanded access to these two products is a top priority.

The premier also promised “no surprises” in his government’s budget for municipal leaders, a welcome change from last year when retroactive changes to funding left municipal leaders scrambling.

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Finance Minister Rod Phillips, also speaking at the event, promised to keep funding stable for the $500-million Ontario Municipal Partnership Fund and to consult on how to better focus the program for municipal needs.

“Municipalities are critical partners in delivering services to the people of Ontario and we will continue to listen and work together to support people in every community across the province,” Phillips said.

blilley@postmedia.com



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