The effects of Ontario’s new agenda of “austerity” are beginning to filter down to the local level. Announcements of a cascade of cuts and freezes are starting to arrive, leaving many of the City’s already cash-strapped departments in a state of uncertainty. Among the high schools slated to close are Delta, Sir John A MacDonald, Parkview, Parkside, and others. To cope with this, the Board is hoping to build at least two new schools, but further provincial cuts are casting doubt on their ability to muster the $100 million price tag. Social assistance, too, has come under the knife, leaving Hamilton with a $1.8 million shortfall to make up (more than doubling next year to $3.7 million).

Ontario’s funding structure makes it very easy to “pass the buck”. Because most taxes are centralised then redistributed at the Federal and Provincial levels, then returned to cities as transfer-payments, it’s very easy for politicians to pass financial problems down the line. Cutting funds to cities or transferring responsibility for funding programs (“municipal downloading“) has become a very effective way of indirectly cutting budgets. This allows politicians like McGuinty to balance their books while passing on individual responsibility for making those cuts and facing the public to lower-level municipal politicians like Sam Merulla or Judith Bishop. Conversely, it also allows those municipal politicians and bureaucrats to pass blame back up to “the province”, deflecting the inevitable public ire and blame away from themselves. While all of this goes on, the burden falls on the public.

Politicians use all kinds of tricks to disguise budget cuts. The Liberal Party in particular is notorious for these tactics, being far less willing than the Tories to defend cuts publicly. Budgets or wages can be “frozen” for a number of years and will fall in real terms as inflation takes its toll, or as program costs rise (with growing/aging populations, etc). Infrastructure work can be put off, providing short-term savings at the expense of substantially rising long-term costs (deteriorating buildings, roads, sewers etc). There’s municipal downloading, mentioned above. Increases in user fees and services charges can produce outside revenues (bus fares, tuition, etc). All of these options give the illusion that a government has “balanced their budget” and avoided raising taxes, while only displacing the problem elsewhere.

There is an even uglier side to the way this process functions, and regrettably, it’s very politically effective. By pitting people against each other in an atmosphere of financial scarcity, politicians can not only deflect blame away from themselves, but also gain allies in carrying out the cuts. Sometimes this takes the form of zero-total-increase policies, as the BC government recently used against public teachers, giving them the choice of cuts to their pay or program funding. Other times, industries and workforces are contrasted, usually public/private or union/nonunion workplaces, in an attempt to show that workers are “overpaid”. These tactics are aimed squarely at breaking solidarity between those affected, but they also inflict other consequences. High profile battles like (ie: any teachers strike) inevitably draw in other issues (class sizes, etc). It’s an obviously self-interested crowd-pleaser, but actions like these are often the only way these issues get serious attention (teachers and class sizes, social workers and clients). When those links are severed, those issues fall by the wayside, and it’s generally those least able to be heard who suffer.

The problem can only be passed on so many times. From the Feds to the Province, to Cities, institutions like the School Boards and Hamilton Health Sciences and finally to individual schools, hospitals and facilities. At some point, somebody comes up short. In most cases, those savings are found where they won’t “cause a fuss”, which generally translates to those who are already most vulnerable. The way school closures have fallen primarily upon inner-city, working-class neighbourhoods is a testament to this, as are cuts to mental health services, social assistance and public housing. Cuts elsewhere certainly aren’t unheard of, but are far more controversial as those on the receiving end are much better equipped to speak out.

What should be obvious about many of the cuts listed is that the savings they generate are short-term at best. Most threaten to inflict much larger costs in the long run, both financial and social as large populations are literally thrown out onto the street from closing schools, institutions and workplaces. Avoiding major infrastructure work can mean much larger costs down the line, and cutting workforces will always threaten the economies around them. Further costs come from diminished environmental protections (thanks Harper!) and crippling education systems. In the long run, these measures are never “cheap”.

Does any of this sound familiar, Hamilton? Could poverty and pollution could have a crippling effect on the local economy and quality of life? Have you been to North Hamilton lately?

What we’re seeing now is only a glimpse of what is to come. McGuinty cut $17 billion from budgets, and that cash has to come from somewhere. There will be more shortfalls, and more ugly choices between collectively shouldering that burden or simply cutting people off. More schools will close, hospital waits will increase and thousands more will be thrown out of work. Hamilton, welcome to “austerity”.

We can fight this. From the industrial North End to the far-flung victims of amalgamation, Hamilton’s neighbourhoods have been neglected too long. It’s time to stop letting politicians and the press speak for us. It’s time to organize.

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