The McGuinty government's relations with the incoming mayor of Toronto are off to a bumpy start, with Ontario's Finance Minister calling on Rob Ford to stick to his penny-pinching ways when it comes to provincial funding.
The issue involves a long-standing disagreement between the City of Toronto and the Ontario government over the cost of running a province-wide welfare program. Ontario Works helps unemployed residents with basic living expenses such as food, shelter and clothing.
Toronto has asked the province for $53.7-million to help run the program in the city - a request made well before Mr. Ford swept to victory in last month's municipal election.
Although the province has agreed in principle to pay half the cost of administering the program as part of a 50-50 cost-sharing arrangement with all 445 towns and cities in Ontario, it has not agreed on an amount, said Finance Minister Dwight Duncan.
He suggested that Mr. Ford, who campaigned in the mayoral race on reducing "waste in the system," should be agreeable to lowering the city's funding request.
"They're asking for too much," Mr. Duncan told reporters on Monday. "The mayor himself has talked about waste, and we just think it's way out of line."
For his part, Mr. Ford declined to discuss the funding request made by his predecessor, saying he will address the matter next month when he meets with Premier Dalton McGuinty.
Stuart Green, spokesman for outgoing Mayor David Miller, said he fully expects the province to meet its obligation.
"We have assurances from Minister Duncan's office they will meet that 50-50 commitment and the matter of the specific dollars and cents is just being finalized literally as we speak," he said.
Ontario has allocated $400-million to meet its funding commitment in the 2010-11 fiscal year. However, the province and its municipalities have not yet agreed to a new approach to funding administration costs.
"We are working with and will continue to work with the City of Toronto and the new mayor to determine their costs," said Andrew Chornenky, a spokesman for Mr. Duncan.
The formula for determining the cost per caseload has not been changed since 2000. At the same time, the number of people receiving social assistance benefits in Ontario has risen sharply since the onset of the global economic slowdown two years ago. At the end of October, 451,540 residents were receiving Ontario Works benefits, up 22 per cent from October, 2008.
The province agreed two years ago to take back responsibility for funding social services that had been shifted to cash-strapped municipalities in the mid-1990s. As part of the accord, the province agreed to pick up the entire tab for welfare costs, beginning in 2010 and phased in over eight years. Prior to the agreement, municipalities paid 20 per cent of the program costs for Ontario Works.