This week’s conference of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario felt like the last hour of Avengers: Endgame, everyone was going to be there, they all knew there was going to be a fight, and it was all going to end with either a wedding or a funeral.
Pre-conference, the expectation was that Premier Doug Ford was going to change the channel. After a spring of one disappointing announcement after another concerning cuts to municipal funding, Ford was going to talk to those directly offended in-person, and he brought his entire cabinet to AMO in a show of good faith.
Monday’s keynote speech from the Premier was filled with platitudes about “building strong, local partnerships,” and working to “to build Ontario's future together.” Ford then announced that the Community, Culture and Recreation Stream of Federal Infrastructure funds will be open for applications on September 3. Other government initiatives like more money from rural broadband were also mentioned in the speech.
Still, the focus of the coverage was on the fact the Ontario government plans to proceed with cuts to public health and childcare.
On top of that, Ford also said this week that conservation authorities need to “wind down” non-essential programs. And this after he praised the municipal response to flooding in the spring, which is under the mandate of those same conservation authorities.
Confused? Yeah, so were most of the municipal leaders that attended AMO.
Ford announced transitional funding for the 2020 fiscal year so that municipalities “can continue to deliver important services people rely on every day.” But this is the same way that putting a towel on a deep cut is a “transitional” solution for a bleeding would until you go to a hospital and get stitches.
“We recognize our government moved quickly when we came into office to address our inherited challenges,” Ford said. “But we've listened to you.”
Yes, the Ford government listens, but only when it seems to exhaust every single other possibility.
This, sadly, has been the pattern of the Ford government over the last 14 months: announce big change, catch everyone by surprise, release nebulous details, get big backlash, defend, defend, and defend, and then relent like it was no big thing to begin with.
They’ve done it with autism funding, they’ve done with the repeal of certain provisions of Bill 66, they did with the immediate effect of cuts announced in the budget, and they did it again earlier this week with the health and sex education curriculum. It’s always two steps forward, and one-and-a-half steps back it seems.
But in the case of municipal funding, those steps are going to be taken eventually, and it’s all in the name of allowing municipalities to be more fiscally adept. Ford reiterated that the Province has made audit funding available, and that 90 per cent of municipalities have taken the government up on the opportunity, but honestly, what were they supposed to do?
Ford has made it clear before that it’s his assumption that the responsibility for finding efficiencies in the Ontario budget was shared by cities because so much money from the Provincial budget goes back into municipalities who administer how the funds are spent.
What Ford seems to forget, and I do mean “forget” because he was once a city councillor himself, is that cities already have to run a pretty tight ship because, unlike other levels of government, they can’t run a deficit.
But this claim to understanding the demands of municipal politicians was ingrained in Ford’s speech when he said, “I've seen how our mayors are deeply passionate about working for the people. And we have our own champions on our team who have served municipally.”
Ford cited Vic Fedeli, Steve Clark and others in the Ontario cabinet who are former municipal politicians themselves. “We get it,” is what he was trying to say, but if Ford really “got it”, he would recall that when he and his brother pushed for a third party review of Toronto finances, the auditor didn’t even find one-tenth of the billion dollars both Ford Brothers ran on claims of saving.
And under that theory of history being the greatest teacher, it seems that no one in the current Ontario government remembers what happened in the 90s when governments downloaded to save their own fiscal bottom line, and pushed so much work on to municipalities, who then put some much infrastructure on an ever expanding list of projects on the backburner.
Writing this as AMO wraps up for another year, the only clarity coming out of it is that things are going to get even more strenuous for municipal leaders as the time comes to make tough decisions.
The Ontario government doesn’t sit again until late October after the Federal election, which is, not without cosmic irony, when Guelph city council will begin this year’s budget deliberations.
What surprises will come in the next couple of months? Who knows, but they will undoubtedly follow the pattern.