London Free Press - May 23, 2019

Turner - LFP May 23 2019

From childcare to policing, and public health to zoning applications, the price is rising for London city hall.

City officials are warning politicians that property taxpayers will be shouldering a heavier burden thanks to millions in provincial downloading – and not just the $4 million hit to the bottom line expected this year, but mounting costs that could add $6.6 million to London’s budget each year by the end of 2023.

One political scientist called Doug Ford’s provincial government’s strategy, spelled out in a new report released Wednesday by city hall’s finance department, “grossly unfair.”

“It’s somewhat egregious because a lot of this downloading is retroactive to after the municipalities have come up with their budgets. That, in a way, is grossly unfair,” said Nelson Wiseman, a University of Toronto politics professor, adding it’s reminiscent of the Mike Harris years.

“This whole thing about efficiencies . . . that word is just thrown out to try to get around saying that we’re cutting.”

City politicians already are wrestling with that reality, setting a meeting to look at city services that could be trimmed or cut altogether.

The provincial downloading looks likely to inflate a 2.7 per cent annual tax hike target during the next four years – the equivalent of an extra $82 on the property tax bill of a home assessed at $241,000 in 2019 – endorsed by council just this week.

City treasurer Anna Lisa Barbon said the $4 million in provincial downloading would push that tax hike closer to 2.9 per cent to maintain the status quo at city hall, though there are ways – including service cuts – to mitigate the increase.

And given the estimate that London may face as much as $6.6 million in additional annual  costs by 2023 due to provincial downloading, the city treasurer’s report also raises the potential of even higher tax hikes by the end of the four-year budget.

But Elgin-Middlesex-London MPP Jeff Yurek, the only Progressive Conservative representative in London, defended the move, pointing to his government’s commitment to pulling Ontario out of the red and balancing the budget.

“What we inherited as a government was a $15 billion deficit, $375 billion in debt, and a $1 billion a month going just to pay that debt,” he said. “We’re hoping municipalities will take a look at their service delivery and try to find their own efficiencies and redundancies.”

He said cities such as London should be able to avoid raising taxes and ensure any cuts to services are “negligible” if they look hard enough for savings. On Tuesday Ford announced $7.35 million in funding for big cities such as London to tap for a “line-by-line review” of their budgets.

The reality of the provincial changes – which a group of big city mayors deemed “downloading by stealth” earlier this month – also is prompting city hall staff to look at a long-dormant policy that recommends against filling the gap when senior governments start cutting.

City hall treasurer Anna Lisa Barbon said that’s a “guiding principle” staff use to craft financial plans for city hall, but one that hasn’t been used in years.

In some cases – such as climbing health unit budgets – city hall is obligated to make up the difference.

“With certainty, we know there are pressures,” she said. “We’ll have to make sure there’s ample contingency for council to deal with that . . . we will keep looking for efficiencies.”

But Barbon said there is still a lot of uncertainty around how revised cost-sharing agreements and provincial cuts may affect London’s multi-year budget, which will cover 2020 to 2023. City hall staff need more information before projecting tax hikes to the end of that period.

NDP MPP Terence Kernaghan slammed the provincial government as one that “works against . . . local interests.”

The outcome of this scheme is that London will have to let families suffer Ford’s cuts to services like child care, public health and transit — or be charged a ‘Ford Tax’ to backfill what he cut.”

Yurek rejected the assertions that his government is unfairly burdening municipalities.

“I don’t think you can really download by stealth, the numbers are right out in front of them. We want to work in partnership with municipalities.”

Council will have some hard decisions to make come budget time. The multi-year budget, covering 2020 to 2023, is expected to be tabled later this year and debated early in 2020.

At least one local representative isn’t buying the Conservatives’ justification.

“There’s only one taxpayer. The province is just abdicating responsibility for things in the provincial realm,” Coun. Stephen Turner said of the hit provincial downloading will have on city hall’s budget.

“Ultimately the net savings to the public is zero.”

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