Why Doug Ford may have to rescue Toronto

OPINION: Mayor John Tory has painted a grim picture of Toronto’s financial state. If Ottawa won’t come to the city’s aid, the province will have to
By John Michael McGrath - Published on May 25, 2020
Toronto mayor John Tory has warned that the city will have to make major budget cuts if it receives no support from other levels of government. (Cole Burston/CP)

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Before the weekend was filled with tears and recriminations over crowds at Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park, the city’s mayor, John Tory, delivered an impassioned plea to higher levels of government for financial help to fill the gaping hole the pandemic has left in the budgets of Toronto and all Canadian cities. For a man not usually accustomed to shouting doomsday warnings from the rooftops, Tory spoke with a surprising amount of fire and brimstone.

“We could be left with a city that can’t work” in the absence of financial support from other levels of government, Tory said. “If they want to make sure the largest transit system in Canada can still be relied on for essential workers, if they want a robust economic recovery, than they have to support Toronto and cities in this region, and across this country now.”

He is not exaggerating. The cuts that Toronto faces in order to balance its budget would basically leave the provincial capital a shell of its former (or even current) self. Across vast swaths of the city, the TTC would be hollowed out: the Sheppard subway and Scarborough rapid-transit lines would cease operating entirely, and most of the rest of the service — including, crucially, buses and streetcars — would be reduced to half service or less.

But even that wouldn’t come close to closing the gap Toronto faces — $1.5 billion, at minimum, and possibly as much as $2.8 billion or more. Fire, police, and paramedic spending would need to be slashed, but that’s fine, because it’s not as if the city currently needs all the first responders it has, right? How about the city-run long-term-care beds, where the battle to contain COVID-19 is still raging: Can we afford to lose more than 1,300 beds? Even before the pandemic, that would have been a disaster.

It's true that Toronto has contributed to its general state of fiscal misfortune, but, basically, none of that is relevant to its current problems. I’ve been as noisy as anyone about the folly of the Scarborough subway or rebuilding the Gardiner Expressway, and I’ll continue to be when it’s called for. And I’ll continue to criticize my city’s obsession with making anyone other than incumbent homeowners pay for the infrastructure and services needed to keep the place running, too.

But even if Toronto were run in every way according to my (obviously correct) preferences, that still wouldn’t matter. TTC farebox revenues have disappeared, and Toronto was never going to be able to replace those without massive tax increases or equally massive spending cuts elsewhere. The city can’t run an operating deficit, and the city’s usual toolbox of accounting dodges are totally insufficient to the task at hand.

Tory is captaining a fragile dinghy in an unprecedent gale, so it’s no surprise he’s not being choosy about who comes to his aid: any port in a storm. And whether Toronto finds safe harbour at Queen’s Park or Parliament Hill won’t matter much to the people whose livelihoods are saved. If Ottawa comes to the rescue, neither Tory nor any other Canadian mayor is going to say no to the money just because, as a constitutional matter, it’s strictly a provincial affair.

But what if Ottawa says no? What if, in the face of the hundreds of billions of dollars Ottawa is spending elsewhere trying to keep the national economy from going into cardiac arrest, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says that the provinces need to do this part of their job, that Ottawa can’t do literally everything for them?

It's not an impossible prospect — not least because, if Trudeau were inclined to bail out the nation’s cities, he could’ve announced that by now.

In that case, the responsibility for Ontario’s cities and towns will fall on Doug Ford’s shoulders (where it actually belongs, in any case). He’s not premier by accident or happenstance: he wanted this job and worked hard to get it. The job description might not have included “dealing with a global pandemic” when he won the 2018 election, but it absolutely did include “keep Ontario’s cities from collapsing due to unforeseen emergencies.”

And that would be true even if he hadn’t run an election campaign promising that he would take responsibility for Toronto’s transit future. Which, inconveniently for him, he did. And it would still be true even if Ford hadn’t, as his first act of business as premier, demonstrated unequivocally that he thinks municipalities are solely and exclusively the jurisdiction of the provinces. Which, inconveniently for him, he did.

Even in a pandemic, the premier doesn’t get to have it both ways. The costs of saving Ontario’s municipalities are properly the province’s, not Ottawa’s, and if Ford can’t squeeze more money out of Ottawa than he already has, Queen’s Park will need to dig deeper. If he doesn’t want to do that — if he and Finance Minister Rod Phillips imagine they can manage their own deficit on the backs of municipalities — they risk blowback vastly more damaging to the Progressive Conservative party than that caused by the 2019 budget. The cuts Tory outlined on Friday could be duplicated, with only slight variations, in every major city in the province.

Or, instead of heading toward a totally avoidable catastrophe, the premier could decide to run a slightly larger deficit than the one that’s already planned. Why this is even up for discussion is just one of the many mysteries of this pandemic.

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