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Bill 108 is the province's way of putting cities in their place

This week's Market Squared looks back at a year of the Ford government, during which cities were reminded just how little authority they have
Doug Ford
Ontario premier Doug Ford. Canadian Press photo

Of the many concerning things about the recently passed Bill 108, the More Homes More Choices Act, perhaps the most concerning in an existential sense is the reminder that cities don’t really get to control their own destiny in Ontario.

Seemingly on a whim, going from introduction to passage in just over a month, Bill 108 has upended municipal budgets, capital planning, allowed build forms, and the preservation of natural heritage and endangered species. And it happened over the official objection of many municipal councils, including Guelph’s.

But Bill 108 is now the law of the land, but the exact consequences of the changes to the city’s bottom line, and its capital forecast, are unknown. A staff report will come before council on June 24 that will outline the potential impacts, but staff have been left in a proverbial void as they wait for new regulations from the province.

Of course, it’s not like Ontario’s municipalities were just waiting around for the Ontario government to drastically alter 13 different pieces of legislation including the Development Charges Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Environmental Assessment Act, the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal Act, the Ontario Heritage Act, and the Planning Act. Plans have been in progress, sometimes for years, and now all those plans are up in the air.

Disruption is inevitable when a new government takes over, especially after 15 years of single-government rule. No one doubted that the Progressive Conservatives were going to reprioritize once they were in charge, but it’s seemed as though there’s been a special dedication on the part of Premier Doug Ford to reaffirm a second-class status for Ontario cities.

From the shrinkage of Toronto City Council, to cancelling and reviewing regional governments, to Bill 66, to the myriad of cuts announced in the provincial budget that affected conservation authorities, legal aid, childcare, and health units, it’s seemed like the Ford government has enjoyed exerting authority on the cities. After years of cities trying to establish themselves as partners, the province has reminded them of their place.

Now, the Ford government has argued that because 90 per cent of their funding goes through school boards, hospitals and municipalities these governing bodies should help find the four per cent efficiencies they promised to secure in last spring’s campaign. That sounds like at least half of a partnership, doesn’t it?

Of course, the request only came after municipalities had been handed what seemed like a new cut every other day. It’s like in the movies when a hired goon beats the tar out of somebody and then throws him a handkerchief to wipe the blood away, it’s a nice gesture, but it wouldn’t have been necessary if they guy’s nose hadn’t been broken?

In the meantime, cities were scrambling trying to find out how big the hole was going to be, and where they might find the cash to compensate. Ford probably thought he was doing treasurers and financial staffs a favour when he offered $7.35 million for third-party audits, apparently unaware that people directly responsible for budgeting are always on the look out for ways to save.

Suppose for a minute that the Ontario government put the horse before the cart. Suppose the Ministry of Municipalities and Housing said, “Look, we need to save money, and you’re the ones administering how that money is spent. We’ll help you find four cents for every dollar, and then we’ll see where we can make cuts and bring down the provincial deficit.”

Sometimes, tone is everything. Although the PCs ran on the idea that the provincial belt would need to be tightened, but they didn’t say how. You can cut your own fat by consulting your doctor and a nutritionist to come up with a balanced diet, and exercise regime, or you can starve yourself, take diet pills, and work out four hours a day, which will definitely make you loose weight, but might harm your health in other significant ways.

This is what happens when you run on a hope and a prayer, not to mention the general displeasure of the long-serving incumbent, instead of a costed platform.

Uncertainty is the great enemy in all financial planning. Any bean counter with a calculator and a C.P.A. certification will tell you that they hate the unknown, and while it was well known that the PCs would change the rules, it caught everyone off guard that they’ve nearly changed the game.

Combined with a pronounced confrontational attitude, and we see now a new gridlock between municipalities and the Province where snap changes are made, and if cities yell loud enough, and long enough, then maybe the Province will back off a little. At least for a while.

In a Toronto Star article about internal tensions in the PC caucus, Ford was quoted as saying that he’s “tired of the fighting” and “tired of things being so adversarial.”

If only it was within his power to change the tone…