Provincial budget cuts are an attack on the health and prosperity of Toronto, Mayor John Tory said Tuesday as he ratcheted up his pressure on Queen’s Park and urged city residents to make their unhappiness heard.
According to the city manager, Ontario’s cuts mean Toronto is facing a projected funding gap of about $178-million this year, a shortfall that became clear only after the city had finalized its 2019 budget. On Tuesday during a council meeting, the news got worse for the city, with staff saying that they had been told to prepare for an additional $20-million in public-health cuts next year.
“These cuts are a carefully crafted and unfairly harsh offensive against services needed by the residents of the city of Toronto,” Mr. Tory told his council colleagues, who spent much of the day debating the impact of the province’s moves.
“Toronto is the economic engine of Ontario and these cuts run the risk of stalling that engine. A healthy and strong Toronto is good for Ontario and good for Canada. Major changes to our budget pose a real threat to Toronto’s prosperity and defy logic.”
The funding gap puts the city into uncharted territory, facing the prospect of having to re-open an already passed budget and perhaps even issue another tax bill.
City Manager Chris Murray told council that Toronto could be forced to take the unusual step of issuing a second, midyear property tax bill to fill the budget hole. He also dismissed the idea that Toronto could find $177-million in “efficiencies” from its 2019 budget, which was approved March 7, without cutting services.
“You can’t rule out there being a second tax bill. That’s one option that we can give some consideration to,” Mr. Murray said.
Mr. Tory secured near-unanimous council backing for a motion asking the province to reverse its cuts. The only dissenter was Councillor Michael Ford, the nephew of Premier Doug Ford.
The motion included direction to the city manager to use advertising and public notices “to inform and educate the public” about the impact of the provincial cuts.
At Queen’s Park, Health Minister Christine Elliott declined to use rhetoric similar to the Premier’s in the Legislature on Monday, when Mr. Ford dismissed Toronto Public Health as a “bastion of lefties.”
“Of course we’re listening to what Mayor Tory has to say,” Ms. Elliott said. “… We want to make sure that we make the right decisions, but we need to work collaboratively with them. That’s what I intend to do.”
In the weeks since the provincial budget was tabled last month, the effects on city finances have gradually become clear. The province is planning to reduce its funding in a number of areas, including public health, while demanding that cities make up the difference. Ontario municipalities cannot borrow to fund operating expenses and mayors from across the province have made clear their cities cannot absorb these costs, particularly on short notice.
In its battle with Toronto, the province has argued that the cuts amount to a tiny fraction of the city’s overall budget. Councillors have countered that the bulk of the budget is fixed costs or consists of direct flow-through from other levels of government, making the impact of the cuts on the remaining pot of money more severe.
Under questioning by Councillor Joe Cressy, the city’s chief medical officer of health, Eileen de Villa, agreed that Torontonians would be endangered unless the public-health funding is restored.
“If the cuts as proposed proceed, I would put to council that every program offered by Toronto Public Health is at risk,” Dr. de Villa said.
Ms. Elliott said that she expected Toronto to spend its funding wisely, using the $114-million it will still receive from the province this year for public-health vaccinations, breakfast programs and other programs for children with special needs, describing these as “essential.”