Local taxpayers will foot more of the costs for new daycare spaces and public health programs under changes to municipal funding announced Monday by Premier Doug Ford’s government, critics say.
Just three months after backing down on sudden and controversial cuts to public health, daycare and ambulance services after facing stiff criticism from Toronto Mayor John Tory and others when municipal budgets had already been set, the Progressive Conservatives released updated details Monday as Ford appeared at the annual Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) conference in Ottawa.
“We recognize our government moved quickly when we came into office,” Ford told about 2,000 delegates. “But we’ve listened to you.”
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath suggested in a statement that Ford’s listening skills have not improved.
“This morning, Doug Ford confirmed that the countdown to devastating cuts is on. He’s slashing things like public health and child care, things that keep families safe and healthy, and throwing the problems his cuts will create at the feet of municipal councils.”
The changes take effect in January, including a move previously announced in the provincial government’s spring budget to make municipalities pay 20 per cent of the cost of new daycare spaces — something that had been fully funded by the province.
Carolyn Ferns with the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care said the change will be challenging for municipalities that agreed to expand child care in their communities on the understanding that the province would pick up the full cost.
“It’s going to create a chill for any municipality thinking about expanding child care,” Ferns said. “If suddenly they can be on the hook for more of the cost — and with all the other budget pressures they are facing under this government — they are just not going to do it.”
For public health, the province will provide 70 per cent of funding with municipalities kicking in 30 per cent. Under retroactive cuts announced in the provincial budget, Toronto would have had to pay 50 per cent of its public health costs.
Ford also said ambulance funding will increase almost four per cent this year with another, unspecified increase in 2021.
Still, the chair of the Toronto Board of Health said the change to public health funding remains “short-sighted” because the province has been funding 100 per cent of the cost of some public health programs and 75 per cent of others.
“Premier Ford did the right thing by reversing those retroactive cuts and announcing a reset,” Councillor Joe Cressy said in a statement.
“Today, rather than a reset, we received yet another unilateral announcement of harmful cuts … while details are still emerging, today’s announcement appears to cut all public health funding to 70 per cent. As has far too often been the case, the provincial government has announced news of cuts without providing concrete details.”
Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau also slammed the changes as his Liberal party fights for re-election on Oct. 21.
“Conservative cuts leave municipalities with two choices: raise taxes or cut core services, with both options making life more expensive for Ontarians,” Morneau said in a statement.
In introducing Ford to the convention of mayors and municipal councillors from across the province, AMO president Jamie McGarvey said improving the efficiency of local governments to make them more financially sustainable cannot be achieved “with abrupt, unilateral changes … it will take more than simple belt tightening to make things better.”
“Working together, we can avoid unnecessary turmoil,” McGarvey added in a reference to the furor that resulted from the retroactive cuts in the provincial budget.
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“If the goal is saving money, improving services for people, and showing greater respect for taxpayers, we wouldn’t start with public health or paramedic services.”
Councillor Mike Layton said forcing Toronto to pick up 20 per cent of the cost of new child care spaces approved since 2016 “will throw the city’s children’s services budget into chaos.”
“Who knows what will have to be cut at the end of the day? It’s downloading the cost of child care deeper onto municipalities who already don’t have the financial tools to pay for it,” he added.
As municipalities scramble to come up with the funding, Ferns predicted daycare programs will be squeezed and many may be forced to close.
“The Ford government can try to mask it as efficiencies or administrative cuts,” she said. “But for parents and for families, child care is going to get more expensive, and it’s going to be harder to find the services they need.”
Green Leader Mike Schreiner accused Ford of putting “the squeeze” on municipalities to ease the provincial deficit.
“We cannot play around with issues like vaccinations, food safety and disease control,” Schreiner said.
Speaking at an event to announce funding to combat flooding along the Lake Ontario shoreline, Tory sounded a hopeful note minutes before the premier made his announcement.
“I want to make sure that these much-needed services in public health and child care and a host of other areas for the people of Toronto are maintained, that they are fairly and properly financed. That means that they should be cost-shared in and among governments because they should not be the sole responsibility of property taxpayers,” said the mayor.
With files from Francine Kopun
Rob Ferguson is a Toronto-based reporter covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @robferguson1