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Toronto city councillors need to stop hyperventilating

May 07, 2019
Toronto city councillors need to stop hyperventilating

It’s hard to make sound choices while hyperventilating. So let’s pause. We have choices. Let’s find reasonable ways to start fixing Ontario’s finances.

Of course, some people prefer panic.

“I say this without an ounce of exaggeration: because of today’s cuts people will die.”

Somebody get Toronto city councillor Joe Cressy a paper bag to breath into. He may need to reconsider what exaggeration means if this is his reaction to news that the province is changing its cost-sharing arrangement for public-health programs run by cities. When his head stops spinning, he needs to actually look at the city’s budget.

Public-health programming run by the city of Toronto is set to cost $252 million this year. The city pays for less than 28 per cent and the province covers the rest (the province pays for up to 75 per cent of municipal public-health programming in other cities).

The problem is the province has an $11.7 billion deficit. Even worse, interest payments on the debt are about $12.5 billion. It’s fair for the province to ask the city’s to find efficiencies.

This is why the province proposed to reduce it’s share of funding for city run public-health programs from 75 per cent to 50 per cent. In Toronto, the province estimates that this means funding would be reduced by about $33 million this year, although the city claims it will be more.

But let’s stay calm. We can do this. Reprioritizing funding doesn’t have to involve life-and-death decisions. It just takes a sober second look at spending.

Toronto city council can keep the public health budget at $252 million if it increases its own contribution from 28 per cent to 50 per cent. It just needs to reduce a few other expenses in its $13-billion operating budget.

For example, the City of Toronto could stop funding golf courses and ski hills, and reallocate that money to public health. The five golf courses operated by the city run at a loss, and have seen their use decline by about 15 per cent between 2007 and 2016. They also need about $9.7 million in improvements between now and 2026.

Yes, some golf and ski fanatics will be sad. Ending city subsidies might increase the cost of cart rentals and lift tickets a little. But selling these money pits would almost certainly make up the funding gap for public health.

Toronto’s city council could save money by contracting out more waste collection. It’s already happening in some parts of the city and it’s savings of about $11.1 million per year.

See? That feels better, right? We can save money with more efficient garbage collection and use the money for public health.

The city could also look at wage restraint. Reducing wages for city employees earning over $100,000 by just one per cent would save taxpayers $17 million each year. Within just the public health area, there are 40 employees at Toronto public health earning $100,000 per year, for a total of over $5 million in salaries. Of these, only one is an actual public health nurse.

Let’s be honest. Going from $100,000 a year to $99,000 could cause a little discomfort. But those hearty souls can soldier on.

To recap, instead of risking life or limb, city council could keep public-health funding whole by selling golf courses and ski hills; contracting local businesses pick up garbage; and, trimming salaries for executive bureaucrats.

There’s a reason council opts for panic over calm budget reprioritization. There is less sympathy for slowing implementation of numerous IT capital projects outlined in the public health budget. It would be hard to spark outrage about the province refusing more funding for city public-health inspectors who check to make sure chain restaurants post calorie counts on their menus.

Talking about public policy and funding formulas doesn’t score many political points. Unfortunately, too many councillors prefer to shout “if you disagree with me, it means you want to kill people.” Even if it isn’t true.

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