Ford’s strategy of hitting municipalities with budget cuts, service downloads is ‘risky’ politics, expert says

Premier Doug Ford’s “drip, drip, drip” strategy of hitting Toronto and other municipalities with budget cuts and service downloads is a major gamble, says a prominent political scientist.

Says Ryerson University’s Myer Siemiatycki: “I think it will be very interesting to see whether public opinion sees this as cost-conscious provincial oversight of municipalities, or reckless harm being done to a variety of core services.

“There are significant early signs this is a high-stakes path, a risky one for the Ford government.”

As details emerge from the recent provincial budget, Ford is deep in a battle of words and calculators with Mayor John Tory over the impact on Torontonians of provincial downloading.

While Toronto says it is being hit the hardest, in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year, mayors from other Ontario communities are speaking out about the impact of cuts on these and urging Ford to rethink his budget-balance strategy.

In summary, the downloading includes the following:

  • Child-care funding cuts and cost-share changes Toronto says will cost the city $84 million in 2019, and more in following years, and jeopardize more than 6,100 subsidized child care spaces for low-income parents. The Ford government pegs Toronto’s cut at $27 million and says the city should be able to cover that by reducing administration costs.
  • Unknown impacts from changes to fees municipalities are allowed to charge developers for community benefits, including new libraries and community centres, as well as parkland, in exchange for getting lucrative building height and density beyond zoning restrictions. Toronto city staff are awaiting details and combing through other provincial changes for potential downloading.

Siemiatycki noted part of the Ford government strategy for dealing with local governments seems to be to blindside them, with little or no consultation, as happened to Toronto last year with a drastic reduction in the size of city council.

This year, the province sprang major changes, along with the promise of billions more in funding, for the city’s transit expansion plan.

Siemiatycki said the biggest risk for Ford is that Torontonians rise up against the Progressive Conservative government, while residents in smaller communities, who have been hit by cuts, including library funding, get angry over the amount being spent on Toronto transit.

Enid Slack, a municipal finance expert at the University of Toronto, said Ford’s downloading points to the need for a new version of the 1998 provincially struck “Who Does What” panel on provincial-municipal responsibilities.

Slack was on the panel, led by former Toronto mayor David Crombie, that used a set of principles to determine which governments should fund which services for residents.

Any downloading to municipalities, which rely heavily on property taxes and user fees to fund services, must include new ways for them to raise funds and gain independence, Slack said. Proposals have included a municipal sales tax , now not permitted under provincial law.

Money that flows to cities from other levels of government are inherently unreliable, she said.

“Governments come and go. They have deficits. They have surpluses. Some give more to municipalities, some less.

“If municipalities get more stable funding sources, they get more autonomy,” and downloading is not such a big threat, she said.

David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering Toronto politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider

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