A HEADLINE this week on a Doug Ford-friendly website was blunt: Cities must face reality. Some would argue they’ve done so for years, despite suggestions to the contrary coming out of the premier’s office these days.
On Tuesday, Ford offered up a whopping $7.35 million so that municipalities — and school boards, too — can hire auditors to go through their books “line-by-line.” The purpose? To determine where they can pinch some pennies. Ford wants them to save four cents for every dollar they currently spend.
Putting aside the issue of how Ford suddenly coughed up $7.35 million in the seriously debt-ridden province he governs, municipal mayors and councillors across the province have a right to feel insulted by the suggestion they do not go through their budgets line-by-line, every year.
Of course, they do. That’s why council meetings, at budget time especially, are often so bloody boring. And every year, worthwhile projects are put off because the cupboard is bare. Unlike the province, by law municipalities must balance their books.
“Reality” was in evidence Tuesday night at Dryden city hall, when a majority of councillors formally rejected a proposal to dump their municipal police force in favour of an OPP contract.
A major concern was significant upfront costs of more than $4 million associated with making the switch to the provincial force. Council obviously felt that taxpayers would never buy that idea when their municipality has been so focused on getting out of debt. Sticking with Dryden’s existing municipal force and its police detachment was clearly the prudent thing to do.
Dryden Mayor Greg Wilson, the lone dissenter, said significant operational savings would have eventually come under an OPP contract. The rest of council stayed the course; Dryden’s remaining long-term debt is $14 million and counting.
Ford, who is trying to grapple with Ontario’s much bigger $340-billion debt, apparently wants municipalities to become as engaged, budget-wise, as Dryden has been of late. This will certainly happen if he starts pulling the plug on provincial grants and/or downloading services.
Currently, small municipalities can rely on the province to provide a portion of their operating budget — up to 25 per cent, in some cases — so they can make ends meet, not counting grants for capital projects, like fire trucks. Northern municipalities may be allowed to keep those financial assistance programs when the province puts them under the microscope in more detail next year. We shall see.
In any event, we hope Ford’s approach won’t be haphazard, such as the wholesale down-loading of provincial highways, which occurred in the 1990s under a previous Conservative government.
Ford also needs to stop preaching about belt-tightening and moaning about the province’s debt — which is indisputably huge — while giving friends plum jobs on the taxpayer’s dime.
That said, becoming more aware of how much your municipality spends is a good thing, and having to defend expenditures to taxpayers remains a tenet of responsible government.
That was certainly in evidence in Dryden this week.