Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson says he “appreciates” the provincial government’s move to postpone cuts to Ontario municipalities’ funding for public health, land ambulance, and child care services, but says the city will still fight for “a fairer deal” as it negotiates funding for the next fiscal year with Queen’s Park.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Steve Clark, minister of municipal affairs and housing, announced on Monday morning that the province would give municipalities “more runway” to find “efficiencies” in those services ahead of their 2020 budgets.
“While it’s a small step forward that they listened to us with respect to the timing, we still have to negotiate a fairer deal that ensures that vulnerable people in our society are not affected by these cuts of health care, paramedics and day care,” Watson told reporters at a press conference on Monday for an announcement on lowering patio fees for restaurant owners.
Over the past few months, the provincial government had announced it was slashing or freezing its contributions to municipalities’ 2019 budgets for a number of different areas in an effort to tackle Ontario’s $11.7-billion deficit. (Public library services, conservation authorities and some tourism offices have also been affected but those were not mentioned in the premier’s announcement on Monday.)
Big city mayors, including Watson and Toronto Mayor John Tory, have criticized the province for introducing those funding changes after municipalities had already passed their 2019 budgets, and characterized the move as “downloading by stealth.”
“While I recognize the province has some financial challenges, downloading to us where we have no one to download to but taxpayers is fundamentally unfair,” Watson told reporters on Monday. “Today there’s a glimmer of hope that the province recognized, I think, through pressure and conversation that they probably made a mistake in trying to retroactively put these cuts in place.
“So now we have to work with them over the next several months and see what we can do to try to bring forward some kind of a resolution that is not going to hurt our taxpayers.”
Before Monday, Ottawa Public Health had been bracing for the province to change the cost-sharing formula for public health funding. The Ottawa Paramedic Service, for its part, had learned it wouldn’t be getting a funding boost the city had budgeted around.
The mayor had previously said the City of Ottawa would likely have to dip into its reserve funds to make up for the unexpected funding shortfalls. That won’t have to happen now, he suggested on Monday.
The city’s treasurer has been doing the math to figure out the impact of all the province’s funding announcements on Ottawa’s financial books but she’ll have to “go back to the drawing board” with the latest news, Watson said.
The mayor said the premier gave him a heads-up over the phone earlier Monday morning that the province would be reversing the in-year cuts to public health, land ambulance, and child care services.
Speaking in Toronto, Ford said the province was being “responsive” to its municipal partners’ concerns and would work together with them on their future spending plans, describing this approach a “win-win for taxpayers across Ontario.”
The premier, just last Tuesday, told big municipalities and school boards the province would pay up to $7.35 million to have outside financial experts review their budgets to identify savings.
In response, Watson told reporters on Wednesday that he wasn’t interested in a third-party audit of the city’s books but would be “willing to entertain the idea” if Ford pressed pause on the retroactive cuts and if the city received “a better view of what this report or this proposal is all about.”
Asked whether he’d permit that review now, Watson said he’s “still waiting for details” on the premier’s offer.
“All we have right now is a letter and a press release, so we don’t know – Is the money for us to hire someone? Do they send someone in?” he said.
Asked whether the rollback of the mid-year cuts to public health have any effect on the government’s plans to consolidate the province’s 35 public health units – which could see an expansion of Ottawa Public Health – Watson said he didn’t know, noting he had a limited amount of time with the premier on their call Monday morning.
In an email later on Monday, a spokesperson for the premier’s office said there have been “no changes to our government’s plan to consolidate health units.”
– With files from The Canadian Press