Municipalities across Ontario are dealing with a lot from Queen’s Park right now: the government has announced hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts to cash transfers to cities and towns across the province, and now those cities and towns are going to have to rewrite their spending plans for the current fiscal year.
That a conservative administration fixated on shrinking the size of government wants to balance the provincial budget through spending cuts rather than tax increases shouldn’t come as a surprise. And that a Progressive Conservative government is putting a substantial fiscal burden on municipalities should come as a surprise only to someone whose memory doesn’t go back before 2003. Municipalities across Canada were the primary victims of both federal and provincial budget cuts in the 1990s. The wave of conservative victories produced by provincial elections in the past two years may mean we’re in for a sequel. Insofar as that would be the natural consequence of the electoral process, that’s fine.
But governments should at least be honest about their policies. And yesterday’s announcement from Premier Doug Ford that the provincial government is putting forward $7.35 million to help municipalities fund line-by-line “reviews” of their activities, to find “efficiencies,” wasn’t honest. Toronto mayor John Tory called the move a “public-relations exercise” — if anything, he’s being too charitable. This isn’t a serious effort to solve a real or perceived problem. It’s spending public dollars to score points in a debate.
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There’s a record of similar exercises we can consult, and it’s not great for the government. Last year, the government presented a “line-by-line review” of provincial finances. Commissioned in a hurry from Ernst & Young, it was largely a waste of ink and time: it told us nothing about the province’s books that any reasonably informed observer didn’t already know or couldn’t easily have discovered using Google. For that, the government spent $500,000.
The record doesn’t get better as we go further into the past. In 2011, then-mayor Rob Ford (the premier’s late brother) ordered a “core-service review” of Toronto’s spending. It cost $3.5 million (from a total budget of about $13 billion) — roughly half of what the province is offering Ontario’s numerous large municipalities to carry out a similar exercise — and it identified $16 million in cuts and little in the way of real efficiencies. The list of potential cuts included such things as water fluoridation and library branches.
Not even the Ford loyalists on council could stomach the proposed cuts. Indeed, the most significant result of the core-service review was probably the wave of grassroots opposition it created: during a 22-hour meeting of Toronto’s executive council, people from across the city begged councillors not to do away with cherished services. By the following January, Ford had all but lost control of the city’s budget process as councillors rebelled.
And, in the end, the results of the 2011 review served only to confirm what many had said from the outset: the vast majority of city spending goes to essential services or to things the province compels cities to do. Cities have far less discretion in their spending than do the provincial or federal governments. The “doing more with less” fantasy that conservative politicians and pundits had sold to voters was just that, a fantasy: real fiscal restraint would mean service cuts.
There’s no reason to think that any municipal audits conducted at the behest of the province will produce a different outcome, because there hasn’t been a revolution in Ontario’s municipal law since the 2018 election. Cities still have to fund police, fire, and EMS services, and those constitute the largest expenses for the vast majority of Ontario’s 444 municipalities.
It’s not even clear that the government really believes that these reviews are about “efficiency” at all, in the normal sense of that word. When the premier calls the Toronto Board of Health “a bastion of lefties,” as he did in question period last week, the clear implication is not that he thinks that the same levels of service could be delivered for less money but that the Board of Health is doing things he thinks are unnecessary and unimportant. But Ford’s lack of interest doesn’t make it any less of a service cut, certainly not for the people who rely on those services.
As far as the government is concerned, there’s no way to lose: either municipalities refuse the money, in which case the premier can claim that they’ve made their own bed, or a review will find some token examples of waste — none of which will come close to matching the government’s $30 million war against the federal carbon tax or to offsetting the provincial funding cuts.
Wanting a smaller government isn’t an inherently illegitimate political position. And it’s certainly not shocking that Ford subscribes to it. But this program of offering tax dollars to municipalities so that Toronto-based consulting firms can pad their billable hours — all to tell us what we already know — is a joke, and not a good one. Indeed, if any other party were doing this, the Tories would call it a scandalous waste of money.