TORONTO — Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government has backed down on retroactive funding cuts to municipalities after sustained pressure from local leaders, who warned of devastating impacts to public health, child care and ambulance services.
Municipalities had been pushing back hard against the funding cuts, which were announced after they already passed this year’s budgets, saying they would need to raise taxes or cut services to cover the shortfall.
Premier Doug Ford said he heard from municipalities that they could find savings in their own budgets, but they needed more time to do so.
“We’re a government that listens,” the premier told reporters Monday. “Are we right 1,000 per cent of the time? I wish we were right 1,000 per cent of the time.”
He said the government would maintain the funding for this year.
“We’ve come up with a conclusion that we’re going to work together,” he said. “Every mayor I talked to said they can find savings. So that’s good news. But they said they needed more runway.”
The Tories are trying to trim an $11.7-billion deficit and had announced a host of funding cuts to municipalities, including for public health, child care, ambulance services, libraries, tourism and conservation authorities.
Ford said Monday that the in-year cuts to public health, child care and land ambulance will not go ahead.
The mayors of Ontario’s largest municipalities had slammed the cuts, characterizing them as “downloading by stealth.”
Toronto Mayor John Tory was leading the charge through news conferences, starting a petition and urging residents to sign, door knocking, and creating a sticker parodying the province’s anti-carbon tax stickers for gas pumps.
Tory said Monday he hopes for a collaborative process, moving forward, to identify efficiencies in both levels of government.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said Ford is now admitting his cuts were wrong, but he should have listened to municipalities earlier.
“Any government worth its salt would have a conversation with partners in advance of massive cuts retroactive to their budgets,” she said in the legislature.
“For weeks and weeks on end this premier has blustered in this legislature and on any talk radio program that would have him, insisting that deep cuts to public health, to child care, to emergency services, to libraries, wouldn’t hit families hard.”
Tory had warned that the public health cuts would affect services like children’s breakfast programs, vaccination programs, and water quality testing, and that the child care cuts would jeopardize subsidies.
For weeks, the premier and his cabinet ministers had defended the cuts as necessary to tackle an urgent financial situation, and said municipalities needed to do their part, as the recipients of a large share of provincial dollars.
He would not reveal what his reversal would mean to the province’s bottom line.
But the cuts, combined with the cancellation of an increase to municipalities’ share of the gas tax, meant local governments would be out well over half a billion dollars annually.
The province has said changes to public health cost-sharing would save the province $200 million a year by 2021-22.
Quantifying the child care funding cuts has been more difficult to pin down. Ontario has allocated $80 million less this year than last year, but municipalities and the child-care sector say that number will be much larger, perhaps even double, once cost-sharing changes take shape for programs such as to create more licensed, not-for-profit child-care spaces.
Spending figures show municipalities were to get $7.7 million less this year for ambulance and emergency services.
Last week, Ford said the province would pay for municipalities to get outside line-by-line budget reviews done.
With a file from Emma Paling
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