As he looked over his west-end brewpub, Jason Fisher worried about the end of patio season, and trying to make customers feel safe with indoor dining.
The news out of Queen’s Park — that the Ontario government was cutting commercial hydro rates, permanently slashing the number of businesses that have to pay the Employer Health Tax, and lowering property taxes — wasn’t exactly top of mind.
“We’re focused on trying to bring in revenue and serve our customers,” said Fisher, owner of Indie Alehouse, after hearing details of the Ontario budget announced Thursday afternoon. “Saving a few thousand dollars on taxes is nice, but it’s not the priority right now.”
Small businesses that have been struggling to cope with the devastating impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic won’t see much immediate financial relief from the budget, said Ryan Mallough, Ontario regional director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
“There are measures here which will help rebuild the economy, but some businesses won’t be around to get the benefit of it,” said Mallough.
Among the measures Mallough liked was a 16 per cent cut in commercial hydro rates and a 14 per cent cut in industrial hydro rates. Mallough also praised the government’s plans to make permanent an employer health tax exemption unveiled in May. That change raised the amount of payroll exempt from the tax to $1 million from $490,000.
The province’s decision to cut the Business Education Tax will also help small businesses, as will a budget provision giving municipalities the ability to create a separate small-business class for property taxes, Mallough said. But the impact of those changes won’t be felt for months, Mallough added.
“There are a lot of small businesses who aren’t able to plan four or five months out right now. They’re dealing with two and three weeks out,” Mallough said.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwarth said the hydro rate cuts and tax changes are too little, too late for businesses hammered hard by COVID-19 restrictions.
The changes, said Horwath, “won’t help a boarded-up business.”
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Still, the hydro rate relief will be a huge benefit for manufacturers, said Flavio Volpe, president of the Auto Parts Manufacturers Association.
“This would save some of our members half a million dollars a year. But it’s not just the savings for our members. It’s about attracting new businesses here. Hydro costs have been a big red X for manufacturers looking at Ontario,” said Volpe.
“Employers big and small have told us that, despite all Ontario has to offer, it simply does not make sense for them to come here, or expand their operations, because the cost of electricity is so much higher than competing jurisdictions,” Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips said.
“This cost on business is costing us jobs … this is an important investment.”
The budget also offered some hope for businesses and workers in the tourism industry, which has seen its financial fortunes devastated by COVID.
Calling 2021 “the year of the Ontario staycation,” the budget said the government will allow Ontario residents to write off up to 20 per cent of the cost of “eligible” expenses at local tourism industry businesses.
That came as welcome news to Beth Potter, president of the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario.
“Until borders are reopened and people are comfortable flying on planes again, how do we support businesses in this industry? This is a good way to help,” said Potter.
A recent TIAO survey found that tourism industry businesses had seen an average revenue drop of 69 per cent during the pandemic, and that businesses in Northern Ontario were particularly hard-hit.
“Even SARS wasn’t nearly this bad,” said Potter.
With files from Rob Ferguson
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