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Public to lose as province, municipalities square off

Critics aren’t wrong in calling Doug Ford’s offer of $7.35 million to help Ontario municipalities do line-by-line budget audits just another public relations manoeuvre.

The Progressive Conservatives are taking heat for a range of cuts to its own spending, including cutting transfers and downloading costs to municipalities at midstream, local governments having already set their own budgets for the year. That’s left many communities scrambling at this point, a task made more difficult by provincial laws that demand municipalities balance their budgets each year.

Asking municipalities and school boards to cut spending by four per cent, retrenching in favour of core services, isn’t likely to endear Ford to bureaucrats who prefer to simply boost budgets every year and pay for it by hiking taxes and fees.

The cuts Ford sees are reminiscent of the gravy train comments made while he was a Toronto councillor and his brother Rob was mayor: there turned out to be far less gravy than expected. That doesn’t mean, however, that there shouldn’t be an attempt at cutting costs. In fact, cuts can be made. And fairly easily, too … if there’s a will, which is the one ingredient missing where empire-building bureaucrats and compliant councillors come together, i.e. municipal government.

The easy part comes into play with a basic cost-benefit analysis: how many citizens benefit and at what cost. Leaving aside spending on society’s most vulnerable, there are plenty of instances where governments spend money, often lots of it, without any commensurate value to enough people to justify said spending. Making such cuts requires first that bureaucrats and politicians actually consider the public good and the public purse – most certainly not a given, as we can plainly see – and second that they’re prepared to make actual decisions that might leave them open to criticism.

As we’ve seen on many occasions locally, officials are always ready to say “yes” to requests for spending, but rarely say “no.” Once approved, even poor spending decisions and lightly used programs are rarely reviewed, let alone cut.

Ford – or, more likely, those working for him – knows this. His voluntary request is likely to hold any sway. By offering to help with the cost of reviewing municipal spending, he takes away an easy excuse not to carry out such an audit, though bureaucrats eager to bring in consultants to spend more money aren’t likely to be as keen to hire consultants to cut their budgets.

If there’s no uptake, as is likely – former premier Dalton McGuinty tried to the same voluntary tack in asking municipalities to freeze wages, to little avail – Ford will have a reason to make the cuts mandatory. In that case, he’ll have to have third-party agents make the changes so that frontline services aren’t cut – a punitive step taken out on the public – and all the savings come within the ranks of the bureaucracy.

That would be a big departure from what we’ve seen, both locally and as a rule in the province. Instead, of zero-based budgeting and line-by-line review of an ever-bloating list of expenditures, taxpayers continue to see operating expenses to rise. There never appear to be any real effort to cut operations in order to free up some money for the growing infrastructure deficit, the millions of dollars that will be needed to replace aging roads, bridges, sewers and the like.

We’ve seen that bureaucratic priorities don’t always align with the public interest.

Leaders determined to set priorities would need to balance expectations with reasonable levels of taxation, essentially selling the merits of more prudent spending. That’s more work, however, than taking the easy road: spending more, and taxing everyone as a matter of course.

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