Earlier this week, Toronto City Council met to address the funding cuts announced by the Province of Ontario over the last several weeks. These were made retroactive to April 1 this year.
Toronto’s City Manager has estimated that the tally of cuts the city is facing is about $178-million, including Provincial reductions for Children’s Services ($85-million), Toronto Public Health ($65-million) and Public Transit ($24-million). As the City has already passed its 2019 budget – which must remain balanced by law – these cuts put the City in a no-win position choosing between massive cuts to core services, or taking the unprecedented step of re-opening the budget and sending out a second property tax bill.
The Province has claimed that the City should be able to “find efficiencies” to absorb these cuts without affecting services. This thinking is not new. The Fords initiated a similar process in 2011 ordering a core services review in Toronto conducted by KPMG. Residents may remember that the conclusion of the study determined that the only way to dramatically lower costs was to cut core services – an action most Willowdale residents did not support at the time.
There is no question that City staff and its elected officials must remain vigilant, constantly reviewing costs to find efficiencies. This idea was reinforced by a recent catch by the City’s Auditor General in reviewing forestry contracts. But such cuts should be thoughtful and based on facts and figures.
What is being proposed by the Province is akin to attempting surgery with a sledgehammer. Even if the intentions are pure, and the lack of any advance notice or consultation makes that questionable, the approach will inevitably have a bad ending.
City Council has asked the Province to reverse its position and have a real conversation on how best to move forward. If they refuse, a difficult discussion will be needed. As described at the time of the 2019 Budget, the City’s finances were already precarious after drawing down reserves for several years and relying heavily on Land Transfer Tax funding. These cuts make the existing situation even more challenging.