Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has bragged about his ability to balance the city’s books without going cap in hand to Queen’s Park.
But at 8:45 on Wednesday morning, Mr. Ford will arrive at Premier Dalton McGuinty’s wood-panelled office at the provincial Legislature, where sources say he will ask for help to kick-start the city’s subway expansion. The mayor wants to pay for most of the $4-billion extension to the Sheppard subway through partnerships with the private sector. Critics question whether the line can be built without government involvement.
The second meeting between the two leaders comes at a time of shifting dynamics between Mr. McGuinty and Mr. Ford. At their first formal tête-à-tête last December, the Premier, who was trailing in the polls, was not about to go up against a municipal leader with a 60-per-cent approval rating. Mr. Ford secured a commitment from the province to work on a new transit plan.
In recent weeks, however, Mr. Ford has come under enormous criticism over a core service review suggesting deep cuts to city services in order to erase a structural deficit hovering around $774-million. During his mayoral campaign last year, Mr. Ford pledged to balance the books without any service reductions and was often quoted saying, “We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem.” He said just five months ago that he had balanced the budget without the province’s help.
Mr. McGuinty, for his part, is no longer looking as vulnerable these days. While the Progressive Conservatives are still ahead of the Liberals in the lead-up to the provincial election, the gap is narrowing, according to a recent survey by Nanos Research.
At the best of times, the right-leaning mayor and the Liberal Premier are not political allies. Wednesday’s meeting, coming just three weeks before the election campaign officially begins, is expected to be particularly awkward.
Mr. Ford is not openly campaigning for Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak to win on Oct. 6. But at a Tory barbecue this month at the Etobicoke home of Mr. Ford’s mother, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was caught on camera effectively endorsing Mr. Hudak. Mr. Harper said he hoped the Conservatives “complete the hat-trick and [win] provincially as well.”
“It’s no secret that from time to time we have our differences,” Mr. McGuinty has said in describing his up-and-down relationship with Mr. Harper. “We are of a different political stripe.”
It is not clear whether Mr. McGuinty will strike a new tone with Mr. Ford at Wednesday’s meeting. Until now, he has been conciliatory toward the mayor in public, even after Mr. Ford put the provincial government on notice last March that he was ready to play hardball if it did not agree to his request for $150-million this year. In a radio interview, Mr. Ford threatened to ensure that the Liberals do not get back into office following the election.
If the province chooses not to help, Mr. Ford told Newstalk 1010 in March, “then I have no other choice but to get out, as I call it, ‘Ford nation’ and make sure they’re not re-elected.”
Mr. McGuinty did not cut the city a cheque for $150-million. But he did keep Mr. Ford happy in other ways. His government gave the green light last March to the mayor’s $12.4-billion plan to extend the Sheppard subway and bury a proposed light-rapid transit line along Eglinton Avenue.
The province will pay for the line under Eglinton Avenue, along with the cost of replacing the deteriorating Scarborough Rapid Transit elevated train with LRT technology. The province’s $8.2-billion share of the cost does not represent any new spending, but rather money that had been previously committed for Transit City.
The city is on the hook for the $4.2-billion cost of expanding the Sheppard subway. A spokeswoman in Mr. McGuinty’s office would not confirm the nature of Mr. Ford’s “ask.” Sources familiar with the subway expansion said it would be on the agenda.
A spokeswoman in Mr. Ford’s office was reluctant to provide any details about the meeting.
“They are aware of the financial challenges the city is facing right now and those will be part of the discussions,” said Adrienne Batra, a spokeswoman for Mr. Ford.