TORONTO – Large Ontario municipalities and school boards facing hundreds of millions in funding cuts were offered financial support from the province Tuesday aimed at finding savings in their budgets, a move critics called a “public relations stunt.”
Premier Doug Ford promised up to $7.35 million for the exercise, saying it was needed to help tackle the province’s $11.7 billion deficit.
“We want to help them find savings,” Ford said as he addressed a business audience in Ajax, Ont. “We want to be a partner and provide them with the tools that they need.”
Cities and school boards have warned that the recently revealed provincial cuts will result in layoffs and service reductions. But Ford said that everyone must do their part to bring Ontario’s budget back to balance.
“It’s time for all government’s to get spending under control,” he said. “It takes no courage to raise taxes. But it takes leadership and hard work to set priorities and find efficiencies.”
Ford said the provincially funded budget reviews are optional and could help cut spending by four per cent, with savings redirected to core services. They would be paid for through a newly established Audit and Accountability Fund and would be conducted by outside financial experts.
Toronto Mayor John Tory said his city already does such annual reviews and another one won’t mitigate damage done by provincial cuts.
“If all the province says they’re willing to do is to give us some money to do a line-by-line audit …. without any willingness to discuss both a way in which we save money, but also both particularly when these cuts take effect or when any cuts take effect of any kind, I would view it then more as a public relations stunt,” Tory said.
The City of Toronto estimates that the province’s cuts will cost it $178 million this year and will impact things like childcare, public health and library services.
Other large municipalities have said the province is attempting to balance its budget on the backs of local taxpayers. They also noted that the cuts are coming long after municipalities, which operate on calendar and not fiscal years, have passed their budgets.
The president of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario said the real challenge for its members was mid-year budget cuts from the province.
“Today’s money provides some assistance to help large urban municipal governments find ways to help fill that gap,” Jamie McGarvey said in a statement.
School boards have also warned that they will have to address funding pressures resulting from the reduction or elimination of provincial grants.
The Toronto District School Board has said it may have to eliminate jobs, some programs and end some student busing to address a multimillion-dollar funding gap created by provincial cuts.
Meanwhile, trustees for the Peel District School Board warned Education Minister Lisa Thompson in a letter that their schools will be “significantly impacted” by cuts to funding, planned class size changes and other changes.
Ontario Public School Board Association President Cathy Abraham said the premier’s announcement Tuesday has not been formally communicated to schools. She said finding an additional four per cent to cut from board budgets, on top of the other changes already made to grants by the province, would be challenging.
“We don’t believe that boards across the province can find four per cent to cut in their budgets without negatively affecting public education,” she said. “We’re very concerned.”
NDP municipal affairs critic Jeff Burch said hiring private consultants to conduct line-by-line reviews for municipalities and school boards is a waste of money.
“Doug Ford’s definition of finding efficiencies is to slash funding for public health, education, climate change mitigation and more _ so I doubt municipalities and school boards are interested in learning from Ford’s slash-and-burn budget style,” he said in a statement.
Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said the review fund was “political theatre.”
“The premier needs to go back to the drawing board and listen to the real concerns of municipalities and school boards before downloading cuts,” he said in a statement.