Ontario Premier Doug Ford is softening a package of spending cuts for municipal public-health programs and child-care centres, saying he listened to concerns from mayors across the province.
In remarks to the Association of Municipalities of Ontario (AMO) conference in Ottawa on Monday, Mr. Ford said his government’s hurry to fix the province’s finances was behind the initial cuts to public-health agencies, which handle programs ranging from vaccination control to restaurant inspections.
“We recognize our government moved quickly when we came into office to address our inherited challenges,” Mr. Ford told delegates at a downtown Ottawa convention centre. “But we’ve listened to you.”
The move comes three months after Mr. Ford put his retroactive reductions to municipal budgets on hold after a political backlash from Toronto Mayor John Tory and other municipal leaders.
Under his revised plan, local municipalities will be forced to cover 30 per cent of all their public-health costs, starting next year. The province currently covers 100 per cent of the cost of certain public-health programs, and 75 per cent of others.
The original plan would have left some municipalities paying 40 per cent across the board, and singled out Toronto to pay 50 per cent of its entire public-health bill. The original cuts were also retroactive, starting in the current year, months after municipalities had finalized their budgets and property-tax rates.
The Premier’s Office says municipalities will also receive “transitional funding” so that any increased cash they are required to come up with next year for public health is capped at 10 per cent.
As as result, at least for next year, Toronto will need to pay only an extra $4.3-million to keep public-health spending at current levels, said Travis Kann, the director of communications for Health Minister Christine Elliott. (The government had said Toronto was facing an extra $33-million bill for this year alone under the old formula.)
Plans to consolidate Ontario’s 35 public-health units into 10 larger ones are still going ahead. Ms. Elliott, speaking at the AMO conference, acknowledged the public-health reforms had prompted a “spirited discussion,” but said her government had listened to municipalities who asked for more time to absorb the changes.
Mr. Ford also pledged to allow ambulance funding to rise 4 per cent this year, instead of flat-lining it, as he had first proposed.
But the Premier is going ahead with a move to renege on the previous Liberal government’s pledge to fund 100 per cent of the costs of new daycare spots, instead offering municipalities 80 per cent. However, caps on administrative costs for child care will be put off for another year.
The changes were cautiously welcomed by some local leaders. Guelph Mayor Cam Guthrie, who chairs the Large Urban Mayors’ Caucus of Ontario, said his members welcomed the transitional funding, but were still concerned about “significant cuts” to public health and child care in 2021.
Toronto’s mayor said the city was reviewing the information and warned it could still have “significant” budget impacts.
Mr. Tory said he was pleased his city was no longer singled out for larger cuts: “I appreciate the government’s efforts over the past few months to listen to municipalities, including Toronto.”
But Toronto City Councillor Joe Cressy, who chairs his city’s board of health, accused the province of acting without warning. While he acknowledged meetings had occurred at the staff level, he said this new funding model wasn’t discussed.
“In the middle of summer, without any consultation, yet another unilateral announcement of cuts to public health and child care has been dropped on us,” Mr. Cressy said.
Opposition NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the new cuts will still strain municipal finances: “When it comes to vital things like public health, we are in for some very troubling weeks and months to come as these cuts take hold."
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