Municipal governments got some breathing room from the province Monday after a beleaguered Premier Doug Ford bowed to growing pressure and reversed retroactive cuts to public health, land ambulances and child care.The move — announced during a hastily called morning news conference — was greeted with relief and caution by municipal and public health leaders who had been scrambling trying to deal with the cuts part way through the fiscal year.Mayor Jim Watson, who noted that Ford called him Monday morning with a heads-up about the announcement, said it’s a “glimmer of hope” that the Ontario PCs understand cities’ financial constraints.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford addresses media outside of the premier’s office at Queen’s Park in Toronto, Ont. on Monday May 27, 2019.
Ernest Doroszuk /
“I appreciate the fact they listened, and they heard from a number of mayors from across Ontario that retroactively making cuts to public health and ambulance service and other (funding areas) is not helpful and it’s not a good way to describe a partnership,” Watson said.However, Watson said there are still questions about what the PCs will do to understand the funding requirements for municipalities in 2020 and beyond.“We assume the next step is they’re going to want to bring in cuts in January,” Watson said. “While it’s a small step forward that they listened to us with respect to the timing, we still have to negotiate a fairer deal that ensures that vulnerable people in our society aren’t affected by these cuts in health care, paramedics and day care.”Related
In a letter to municipal leaders, Ford made it clear that there will be cuts, just not this year. “There is only one taxpayer, and the job of finding savings while protecting core services rests with every elected official in Ontario,” the premier said in the letter.The decision to pause the 2019 cuts was made, Ford wrote, “on the understanding that, as partners, Ontario’s municipalities will use the additional time to work with the Government of Ontario to transform critical shared public services and find the efficiencies that will ensure their sustainability.”Michael Donahue, who heads the County of Renfrew’s health board, called Monday’s announcement a “stay of execution” for strapped municipalities.“I am certainly pleased with today’s announcement that they are recognizing how ill-conceived these in-year cuts were and the chaos they were creating in municipal finances,” Donahue said, adding, “Essentially this is a stay of execution and we need to continue to impress on the province that these services are crucial in our communities and we are running pretty lean operations.”During the press conference at Queen’s Park, Ford said “the status quo cannot continue,” suggesting the province is still willing to reduce municipal funding transfers as his government tackles the provincial deficit.But Ford, whose government has been pressured from everyone from municipal officials and doctors to former ministers of health, said he had been listening to the concerns.“We are staying focused on our agenda, but we listen,” he said.The in-year cuts would have forced Ottawa Public Health to cut $3.8 million from its $60-million budget this year. Renfrew County would have faced a half-a-million-dollar cut to its public health budget. Municipalities also faced significant retroactive cuts to paramedics and childcare as well as other services.In Ottawa, council’s finance and economic development committee is scheduled to receive on June 4 an update from finance staff on the 2019 municipal budget. Provincial funding cuts, revealed after council approved the municipal budget in March, had created a major budget problem for city hall this year as it continues to write cheques for other unforeseen expenses, like the response to floods in communities along the Ottawa River and a massive snow cleanup bill in the first three months of the year.Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli, who heads the city’s health board, said the announcement gives public health officials “an opportunity to look at the situation going in to the 2020 budget” when the province says it will consolidate 35 existing health units into 10 and reduce the amount the province pays for public health.There has been little information about what those changes will mean to the way public health is delivered. The province has promised consultation.Egli said he hopes there is time now for meaningful discussions between municipalities and the province about the future of public health and other services.Toronto has been particularly vocal about the impact of the cuts. Mayor John Tory warned the 2019 cuts could lead to a $178-million shortfall that could be felt in everything from the vaccination program to school nutrition programs.Ford is offering money to municipalities to do a line-by-line audit of their books to find savings, potentially as much as four per cent.Last week, Watson said he’d consider such a review if the premier stopped the funding cuts for the 2019.On Monday, the mayor was still skeptical about a financial review bankrolled by the province, mostly because there are few details about how the audit would work.“I can send the province our whole stack of budget documents and ask them to go through it, but I’m not sure if that’s going to be effective and a good use of tax dollars,” Watson said.ALSO IN THE NEWS: Deputy chief says he remains committed to Ottawa force, allegations will be found to be falseOntario to end Beer Store deal —move would pave the way for beer in corner storesInternal documents give glimpse into ‘glacial’ pace of work to improve bus safety after Ottawa crash