Time For A Little Game Of Chicken

September 30, 2011

Despite the divisive and highly acrimonious environment that has settled over council chambers at City Hall these days, through all the sniping and partisan hackery, there is one item that could easily muster the support of more than a 2/3s majority of councillors. This city is being severely short-changed financially by the two levels of senior government, and have been for going on 20 years now. It is not a situation unique to Toronto or other municipalities in this province. It’s happening nationally. Listen to Calgary’s mayor, Naheed Nenshi. It’s taking place in the United States. Witness Chicago’s budget battles.

The difference of opinion, however, arises over what exactly to do about it.

While many of the right leaning councillors acknowledge the problem, their solution seems to consist of shrugging their shoulders and saying, what are you gonna do. We’ve tried and tried with very little to show for it. Let’s move on. It doesn’t hurt that the lack of proper funding plays into their desire to shrink local government down to size. Any case they might make for a more sound fiscal arrangement between the city, the province and the federal government is undercut by the mayor’s refusal to stop claiming that we don’t have a revenue problem.

Still, they do have a point. Previous administrations have endeavoured to secure not only more money from Queen’s Park and Ottawa (in most cases, money they once provided) but also to establish a stable funding formula in order to move past the almost ad hoc, yearly struggles to balance our books. All to only limited success.

Moderate councillors suggest we keep on keeping on, nagging away at our deadbeat provincial and federal politician to do the right thing and start ponying up the cash they owe us. On Tuesday, Councillor Pam McConnell successfully put through a motion for the City Solicitor “…to report to the Executive Committee on the legal implications of the allocation, funding and downloading of Provincial responsibilities to municipalities including a comparison of how municipalities in other provinces have responded to provincial downloading pursuant to the British North America Act and the Constitution Act, 1982.” The BNA Act? Chortles were heard from the council floor. Or maybe that wasn’t chortling. Maybe it was the sound of straw clutching.

But why not seek legal counsel on this issue? We are, after all, legally bound as nothing more than ‘creatures of the province’. Doesn’t that entail a degree of responsibility on the province’s part to keep us properly fed and housed? Aren’t even the lowliest of creatures entitled to move about freely, outside the cage of inadequate transit? (Yeah, I went there.)

Yes, yes, yes. Of course, go about your quixotic tilt. Councillor MacConnell’s motion passed 39-6, with only the mayor and some of his hardest core supporters voting against as well as.. what? Councillor Josh Matlow? What up with that, Councillor?

(Nope.. nope.. Do not get distracted by the curious case of Councillor Josh Matlow’s centrism. That’s… another post entirely.)

In any case, that’s more long term thinking. What about the here and now? Dire warnings rang out over the course of the meeting’s two days that if we could not get our fiscal house in order, if we could not come to some sort of agreement between service cuts and tax hikes, if we could not balance our budget as we were legally mandated to do, as we have every year previously, well, provincial caretakers would swoop down from their perch at Queen’s Park and do it for us. Oh, the shame! Oh, the horror!

You know what? Sometimes I think we should just dare the province to do it. One budget year, we just simply acknowledge that we have not been given the proper tools to do the job adequately and that instead of inflicting damage upon the city and the people living within it, we choose instead not to balance our books. Like the other two levels of government do, we run an operating deficit.

And if the province has a problem with that, hey, come on down, folks. You try it. You get your hands dirty, slashing and burning. You take the heat from citizens outraged at tax hikes. Yeah. Not so easy, is it?

Maybe the time for playing nice has come and gone. Maybe it’s time to up the ante a little. To, I don’t know, start withholding any money we normally pass along in the form of HST payments. The feds owe us some back taxes? Queen’s Park has some outstanding fines? We’ll just take that off the cheque we’re cutting for you, shall we?

Now, as with any belligerence married to a woeful lack of understanding about the implications, ramifications or even possibility of such gestures, my suggestion comes with a Wikipedia-like citation needed. All I’m saying is that we start exploring different approaches to the dysfunctional manner of our relationship to the other levels of government. Playing nice, rolling over and hoping for a rub of the tummy and the occasional bone thrown our way is not proving to be the healthiest of methods. Been there. Done that. And the fucking t-shirt is about 3 sizes too small.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. A more aggressive approach may be in order. By any means necessary. It’s time we thought of ways to beat our federal and provincial representatives out from the bushes where they’ve been hiding, avoiding their responsibility. We need them to come to the table and negotiate not from a position of power but as equal partners. Asking politely hasn’t worked to date. We need to start demanding. To do that, we just might have to upset an applecart or two.

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