TORONTO - Toronto and other Ontario municipalities will be under more pressure to slash spending if the Progressive Conservatives form the next provincial government, Premier Dalton McGuinty warned Tuesday.
As Toronto braces for proposed new cuts to deal with a massive budget shortfall, the Liberal leader is courting taxpayers in Canada's most populous city — a key battleground in the upcoming Oct. 6 election.
"I can also say this to Toronto taxpayers: we are very committed to continuing to upload social service responsibilities which were downloaded by a previous government," he said after touring two Toronto plants that manufacture components for solar panels.
"Our uploading in fact will save $170 million in new costs for Toronto property taxpayers."
Tory Leader Tim Hudak won't commit to continue removing that financial burden from municipalities, McGuinty added.
"Mr. Hudak opposes that, so he's going to saddle Toronto property taxpayers with that $170 million," he said. "That's even more pressure that's on the way as a result if we had a PC government."
Liberal officials said they've uploaded $600 million to date from municipalities in welfare and court security costs. If re-elected, the Liberals have pledged to continue uploading a further $171 million from Toronto by 2018.
Hudak won't promise to continue uploading those costs, but the Conservative platform pledges to give all Ontario municipalities a share of the gas tax.
Speaking at a campaign stop in London, Hudak expressed confidence that voters won't be swayed by McGuinty's argument.
"And here's what they'll be focusing on: Do you want four more years of Dalton McGuinty who you know for sure is going to raise your taxes ... or a PC government that will give families relief," he said.
"I think the reality is people will look at the issues here in the province, and the reality is Dalton McGuinty's record is going to hurt him because people want to change."
But looming cuts in vote-rich Toronto may come back to haunt the Tory leader if residents balk at conservative Mayor Rob Ford's plan to rein in spending — a prospect the Liberals have privately acknowledged may give them a boost in the Oct. 6 vote.
On Monday, Toronto's city manager Joe Pennachetti released his final recommendations on what jobs, services and city-run attractions should be cut in the face of a massive budget shortfall.
They include either finding buyers for the Toronto Zoo and Riverdale Farm or shutting them down, closing some museums and libraries as well as looking for efficiencies in transit, fire and emergency services.
Grass-cutting and snow-clearing services may be reduced, as well as subsidized child care spaces. Pennachetti said the measures would save the city up to $300 million over four years.
McGuinty has so far remained tightlipped about Toronto's penny-pinching mayor and won't condemn the cost-cutting plan.
Toronto is "wrestling with its financial challenges," but the city has received more support under his government than it has in the past, he said.
The premier is no friend to Toronto, said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.
Her party will continue the uploading, on top of absorbing half of transit operating costs if municipalities promise to freeze fares and stabilizing funding for child care spaces, she said.
"I think Mr. McGuinty needs to look in a mirror before throwing stones," Horwath said in an interview from Windsor.
The Conservatives argue that rising wages are what's squeezing municipal finances — a problem they say McGuinty has completely ignored.
"Dalton McGuinty's broken arbitration system and the resulting labour agreements have resulted in skyrocketing costs for Toronto that have the potential to drive up taxes," Tory campaign spokesman Jason Lietaer wrote in an email.
"Unlike Dalton McGuinty, we are going to take the pressure off of municipalities like Toronto by fixing the broken arbitration system — requiring all arbitrators to take into account the taxpayers' ability to pay."
McGuinty also came under fire Tuesday by conservative think-tank the Fraser Institute, which named him the second-worst premier in Canada for managing provincial finances.
Prince Edward Island's Robert Ghiz, who is also campaigning for re-election, was ranked at the bottom.
"Perhaps most troubling is the continued poor performance of Ontario Premier McGuinty, whose record on government spending and controlling debt is among the worst of all premiers," Charles Lammam, the institute's senior policy analyst, said in a release.
"For Ontario to regain its position as an economic powerhouse within Canada, Premier McGuinty needs to curtail spending increases, quickly balance the provincial budget, and lower taxes on personal income."
The Ontario Liberals have been racking up record deficits since 2008, when the recession shook up countries around the world.
But it doesn't seem to faze McGuinty, who spent the day touting his plans to create green energy jobs in the province.
He also stopped in Cobourg for a surprise visit with local Liberal candidate Lou Rinaldi at a family farm, then headed to his hometown of Ottawa for his nomination rally.