Provincial budget cuts to cities across Ontario scheduled by Premier Doug Ford and his Progressive Conservative government were largely reversed on Monday in what is a considered a win for Mayor Cam Guthrie, who leads an alliance of big city mayors.
“We’re a government that listens,” the premier told reporters, adding that municipalities “needed more runway. There’s savings, but they need more time.”
While the Large Urban Mayors Caucus of Ontario were not against finding efficiencies in their government’s, the poignant issue for them was the changes scheduled to take place after local budgets had already been passed.
Guthrie wrote in a news release posted in the morning that LUMCO and Queen’s Park will be working together “in the weeks and months ahead to continue to find efficiencies, without jeopardizing core municipal services.”
“There is no doubt that any provincial funding cuts will still cause municipal councils to make some tough decisions. But at least now we have the time to come to the table with the province and figure out how to do this in a way that best protects our local residents and the services they depend on.”
LUMCO members have been placing pressure on the Ford government since a strongly-worded letter was sent by Guthrie on behalf of the coalition on April 30. After that, Guthrie went gone on a media spree and spread the word that the cuts were “downloading by stealth.”
The pressure campaign, in the end, appears to have paid.
LUMCO had met on Friday to again call on the provincial government to delay planned cuts that cities warn will interfere with budgets already passed by municipalities, saying they “continue to be alarmed” after Ford announced a $7.35 million fund to find 4 per cent in efficiencies.
The PC premier said at the time that he could not balance the budget and eliminate a deficit that stands at about $11.7 billion without transferring some of the cuts to cities and other public sectors, explaining that 92 per cent of provincial spending “comes through municipalities and other agencies.”
Guthrie said in a press release that they were concerned by the “retroactive cuts” and were “united in concern about Bill 108, which could put at risk cities’ finances and ability to provide parkland, community facilities, and well-planned neighbourhoods.”
The mayors called on province to immediately extend the deadline for consultation on Bill 108 from the current June 1 to Sept. 30 so that cities are allowed “adequate time to comment.”
After the mayor and LUMCO released the initial April statement, the province soon after announced a fund to help cities find efficiencies, with Premier Doug Ford encouraging mayors to cut 4 per cent.
The mayors said they understood the position that the government was in to balance the budget and get debt under control, but “again call on the Government of Ontario to defer the implementation of these funding cuts”.
Continuing in his statement as chair, Guthrie added that they want to “work together on how to minimize the impact of the people we all represent, and the services they depend on.”
To absorb the funding cuts the province has made cities “will be forced to consider increasing taxes or fees, cutting services, raising reserves, or deferring infrastructure and capital projects,” he added.
“Unlike the provincial government, municipalities are required by law to balance their budgets annually and cannot run a deficit.”
The Toronto Starts reported on Monday that one item not being rolled back or changing is the share of provincial gas funds that the municipalities receive from the province. The money received was planned by the previous provincial government to increase year-over-year.
Those dollar go towards local transit services with more money given based on ridership and the city’s population. Ford in April with the fiscal budget cancelled the increases.
The Mercury Tribune reported that the last time Guelph received the allotments, it was around $3 million and, under the previously scheduled increase, the city would have been given an extra $750,000.
However, in this year’s budget planning, Council did not account for the increase.
Despite what seemed to be escalating into a politically tense situation between the conservative premier and the coalition of big city mayors — that included conservatives as well — tensions between the province and municipalities appears to have cooled for now.