In the face of growing public opposition and sagging poll numbers, Ontario Premier Doug Ford cancelled retroactive cuts to municipalities for this year, setting the stage for a battle over next year’s funding.
The decision prevents municipalities having to find hundreds of millions of dollars in already formalized budgets and restores 2018 funding in public health, child care and paramedic services. As part of the reversal, the province is also not moving ahead to change the funding formula for Toronto Public Health, which would have seen the city shoulder more of the costs.
In a news conference in the hallway outside his Queen’s Park office on Monday morning, Mr. Ford stood alongside Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Clark and announced that the province would now keep its funding steady in these three areas, while the province and municipalities hold discussions on ways to reduce costs for next year.
“Every mayor I talked to said they could find the savings, so that’s the good news,” Mr. Ford said. “But they said they needed more runway. We want to work with them.”
The Premier was not in Question Period later on Monday to answer opposition questions about the reversal.
The Provincial Conservative government had previously announced a $7.3-million fund to help municipalities find cost savings. Mr. Ford and his officials had also characterized the money that cities would have to find as being only a tiny amount of their overall budgets. Critics countered, though, that most city budgets consist of fixed costs, making the impact far greater.
“Our work isn’t over yet,” said Toronto Councillor Joe Cressy, chair of the city’s board of health and a regular target for Tories defending the cuts. “In the days, weeks and months ahead we must all continue to stand up and speak out, to ensure that any future cuts to our vital public health and child care services do not proceed.”
Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s chief medical officer of health and an outspoken opponent of the cuts, said that she had been gratified by the public’s attention to an issue that typically comes up only in the context of an outbreak or emergency.
“Over the past six weeks, there’s been a provincewide conversation on public health and its value,” she said. “I am encouraged by today’s news from the province, and I do look forward to working with our provincial partners … to create safe, healthy and strong communities.”
Until now, Mr. Ford and his cabinet, including Health Minister Christine Elliott, had defended their cuts, accusing critics of “fear mongering” and spreading false information.
However, a series of polls published last week suggested Mr. Ford’s support had slipped dramatically. On Friday, Mr. Clark met with the Large Urban Mayors Caucus and said he had listened to their concerns.
One cut that wasn’t reversed relates to gas-tax revenue. The previous government had promised to double the share of this revenue it gave cities, a pledge echoed by the campaigning Tories. Once in office, however, the Tories decided not to do so, a decision that continues to stand and one that Toronto projects will cost the city more than $1-billion over the next decade.
The announcement also leaves untouched a range of other cuts that have sparked protests, including a 30-per-cent reduction in provincial support for Legal Aid Ontario and a plan to increase class sizes in schools. And it appears to leave the plans for steep cuts to a range of provincial funding for cities in place for future years.
In a statement issued on Monday by his office, Mr. Tory said that he appreciated the province’s desire to get its budget under control, but that this must be done in a “prudent, collaborative” way.
“I am hopeful this process will be truly collaborative ... without having to make cuts to important services,” he said.
The sudden reversal is just the latest for the government, which has also changed course on other policies after public outcry. In January, Mr. Clark ripped up part of a bill that would have allowed municipalities, with his permission, to build on the province’s protected Greenbelt. And in March, Mr. Ford’s government retreated on changes to the autism treatment program.
With reports from Laura Stone