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Sunday, December 8, 2019
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Timing is the biggest issue with Ford’s deficit battle

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THIS WEEK

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Good, bad or indifferent, for Doug Ford there’s no time like the present to enact the ideas he and his Queen’s Park colleagues come up with. Whether it’s cutting the number of council seats and changing election plans just months before voters go to the polls or midstream cuts to municipal funding, Ford is all about being in the now.

Such spontaneity isn’t always ideal, however.

Ford this week backed away from retroactive cuts that put municipalities in bind, forcing them to scramble to cover the cost of ambulances, public health and child care, for instance. Though automatically opposed to any cuts, municipalities were left in the lurch with the immediacy of Ford’s actions, having already set their budgets for the year.

In response, Ford reversed his decision for 2019, noting future cuts will go ahead as planned.

“We’re a government that listens,” Ford told reporters Monday morning. “We’re going to give the mayors more time. We’re going to work with them.”

The announcement was welcomed by the Association of Municipalities of Ontario and its 444 members. It buys them some breathing room and avoids some pending budgetary shortfalls, an issue given that municipal governments are obliged to balance their budgets each year. It simply wasn’t fair to drop that bomb on them at this point.

That doesn’t mean, however, that municipalities should count on future reversals from Ford’s prescribed policies. Balancing the budget is a stated priority, and his Progressive Conservatives are looking to do just that. Whether one is a deficit alarmist or not, the current government has the deficit in its sights. What remains to be seen is just how much ideology comes into play in tackling that deficit: spending cuts, what gets cut, tax increases or decreases are all factors to consider. Ford has already signalled his intention to cut spending, and to focus on some of the softer services in particular.

Some of us may prefer to see taxes raised rather than watch the deficit continue as it is. Some will call for cuts to services and government spending. The unions and bureaucracy are up in arms, as are the opposition parties, particularly over what some see as an attack on public sector workers – the public will be divided over such cuts, some demanding more services while others favouring staff cuts due to a sense that government workers haven’t taken on an equal share of the general economic pain experienced in the private sector. The public relations battle is already in full swing by government workers looking to protect their interests above all else.

There is an argument to be made that public sector spending is outstripping the productive sector’s ability to pay.  As the former depends entirely on the latter, the gap must inevitably cause upheaval as we question the value-for-money scenario: what are we getting for the cash we pour into the system? And how often can governments keep going to the well before it runs dry?

Those are legitimate questions, though ideological biases should be kept out of the equation.

Having denounced the idea of tax hikes, the Conservatives appear headed for cuts. That will translate into fewer dollars for the province. It’s no stretch to predict there will be less in the way of provincial money making its way to municipalities, which have already overburdened their own ratepayers. But chopping is to come, it must begin at the top and work its way through the system rather than immediately hurting the public. The same holds true as a target for municipalities themselves, naturally.

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