TORONTO - Ontario's opposition parties urged the Liberal government Thursday to quickly provide disaster relief money to communities hammered by the pre-Christmas ice storm that knocked out power to more than 600,000 homes and small businesses.
Branches, and in some case entire trees, weighed down by ice crashed down onto power lines after the storm, leaving hundreds of thousands across southern Ontario shivering in the dark for days during the holiday period.
"We do have disaster relief programs in place now and the province has recognized for decades that municipalities, when they're hard hit by a disaster, deserve support," said NDP energy critic Peter Tabuns.
"Frankly we should take those criteria, apply them to the (municipal) requests, and share the wealth and the pain around the province when people get hit hard."
There's definitely a role for the province to assist municipalities ravaged by the ice storm and power outages, said Progressive Conservative Michael Harris.
"I think those smaller municipalities will definitely need those resources to be able to assist in the cleanup efforts," said Harris, "but I think we know the extent of the magnitude in Toronto is fairly severe, so there will be more of a need there as well."
A city staff report recommended Toronto council ask the province to declare the city a "disaster area" to qualify for help to cover an estimated $106 million in costs from the ice storm. The report also noted the costs to the city of a severe rainstorm on July 8 that flooded parts of Toronto were estimated at $65.2 million.
The Ministry of Municipal Affairs said Toronto is not eligible for disaster relief for the July floods, but the province would take the cost of the flood damage into account when assessing the city's request for help with the cost of the ice storm cleanup.
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford said Thursday he would move a motion asking the province for an initial $60 million in disaster relief aid.
"We're going to have to ask for a lot more than $60 million," said Ford.
The storm impacted dozens of other communities, from Hamilton and the Kitchener-Waterloo and Guelph areas in the west to Wellington in eastern Ontario, and reports say the total bill from all the affected municipalities could top $250 million.
The Ministry said it won't determine if communities are eligible for Ontario's Disaster Relief Assistance Program until it gets formal requests for help. The province said it needs a financial assessment of the damage from each municipality before it can determine if they qualify for help and the amount of money they would get.
The Ministry also said at least four local councils â€” Brampton, Mississauga, Caledon, and North Perth â€” have already voted on motions asking for their municipalities to be declared as disaster areas, and that other councils have called special meetings to review similar motions.
"Our Ministry will work with these municipalities to review their eligibility for ODRAP once we receive their requests," said Ministry of Municipal Affairs spokesman Mike Maka. "Our Ministry understands the significant scope of the storm, and we are currently reviewing all options to see how the province can best be of help.
The NDP suggested the province, which is facing a deficit of nearly $12 billion, could ask the federal government for help in covering some of the costs from the ice storm.
"When people go through a disaster, they expect government to step in and support them," said Tabuns. "In the United States, when there are disasters, the senior levels of government step in and help cities get back on their feet, and I think that we here in Ontario have gone through quite a disaster with the ice storm."
The Tories said they were worried the province had already spent its $1 billion reserve fund, which is normally meant for emergencies, to pay for the Liberals' decisions to cancel two gas plants west of Toronto prior to the 2011 election.
"We'll have to see where in fact that (relief) money will come from," said Harris. "It could have been all used to save Liberals seats in Oakville and Mississauga."