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Canada Ford offers $7.35-million for cities to audit budgets, Tory calls it a ‘public relations exercise’

Ontario Premier Doug Ford says his government will fund “line-by-line” audits for interested cities and school boards to help them absorb the province’s cuts to public health, child care and other services – something his critics immediately labelled a publicity stunt.

Speaking at a business luncheon on Tuesday at a golf club in Ajax, Ont., east of Toronto, Mr. Ford said he is creating a $7.35-million fund for large municipalities and school boards to hire independent experts who could help them cut their own costs as the province works to reduce its deficit and debt.

The Premier and his Progressive Conservative government are facing a growing backlash over a series of provincial cuts hitting municipal budgets, with mayors across the province speaking out. Toronto Mayor John Tory has said the funding reductions will cost his city almost $180-million in retroactive cuts this year alone, possibly forcing the city to pare back key programs or even issue an extra tax bill.

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“We’ve heard from a few municipalities that they will need to raise taxes, that new taxes or deep cuts to services are the only solution, they say,” Mr. Ford said. “Well, I am here to tell you there is another way out there, my friends, because there is only one taxpayer … and taxpayers have had enough.”

Mr. Tory said his government already looks line by line at its budgets and is currently going through this year’s books to find ways to offset the blow of Mr. Ford’s cuts, which come long after the city’s 2019 budget was finalized.

“This appears to be a $7-million public relations exercise by the Government of Ontario,” Mr. Tory said in a statement issued Tuesday afternoon.

He added that he questions the priorities of a provincial government that proposes spending hundreds of millions of dollars to rip up a contract with the Beer Store to put beer in corner stores instead of on “breakfast programs for kids and child-care subsidies for families.”

Speaking to reporters after his speech, Mr. Ford doubled down on his recent criticism of Mr. Tory, declining the Mayor’s request to reverse his retroactive spending cuts.

“I talk with the Mayor frequently – probably more frequently than you folks realize,” Mr. Ford said. “But he’s come up with two solutions: either raise taxes or cut services. And we have a third solution for him: Let’s drive efficiencies.”

Mr. Ford said Toronto will only see $130-million in cuts – less than 1 per cent of the city’s $13.5-billion annual budget – not the Mayor’s estimated $180-million. Toronto officials have said in recent weeks that they have already found many cost savings and that a large portion of the city’s budget is spent on public transit or police and fire services.

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Mr. Tory has been waging an escalating battle against the provincial cuts, asking Toronto PC MPPs to urge the government to reverse course. But he campaigned last fall vowing to take a diplomatic approach with Mr. Ford, whom he defeated for the mayor’s job in 2014.

In a letter sent to the Premier Monday, Mr. Tory asked that he reverse the retroactive cuts imposed on the city for 2019 and engage in talks to find savings in cost-shared programs in a “prudent manner.” The Mayor said he supports efforts to get Ontario’s deficit down.

But he also said finding such savings is not easy, pointing out that when Mr. Ford was a city councillor and his brother, Rob Ford, was mayor, they directed the city to spend $3.5-million on an external review that only found net savings of $12.6-million.

Later Tuesday, Mr. Ford was greeted with a mixture of applause and boos at the Collision tech conference in Toronto, where he was promoting his government’s “open for business” message. His appearance at the conference, which organizers said has more than 25,000 attendees, came after it was announced that Ontario had cut $24-million in funding for artificial-intelligence research at two leading institutes.

With a report from Laura Stone

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