Crisis? What Crisis?

It was surprisingly calm, Joe Pennachetti’s talk yesterday afternoon at the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance. Serene, even. Reflections on Toronto’s Fiscal Health and the Decade Ahead: A Discussion with the City Manager. Toronto’s Fiscal Health? I mean, isn’t that sort of an oxymoron?

Nope, according to our City Manager we’re doing just fine, thank you very much. Still got that Double A credit rating. Our debt, hardly runaway, will peak at about 10% of our assets in 2015, a financial situation most of us personally would consider top notch. “We have a very healthy financial city at this point of time,” Pennachetti stated.

It belied the hysteria and apocalyptic noise we were subject to during last year’s budget process. And the year before that. And during the 2010 municipal campaign.

Come to think of it, Pennachetti’s presentation quietly pulled the carpet out from the raison d’être of the Rob Ford mayoralty. We have a spending problem, folks, not a revenue problem. Time to tighten our belts and Stop the Gravy Train.

(Are you as bored reading that as I am writing it?)

Now to be sure, the city manager was not averse to finding efficiencies, trimming whatever fat there was to be trimmed. The KPMG Core Services Review was his idea. Long overdue in fact. He thought it should’ve been carried out over two years not one (another sign there was never any need to hit the panic button the mayor and his allies so wanted push). Pennachetti was also onboard for the aggressive negotiating tactic we saw with the city’s workers earlier this year. Like the Deputy Mayor, he felt the city needed more control over scheduling and back end things like benefits.

Here’s the thing. If I heard the numbers right, the Core Services Review netted the city a savings of about $24 million. The labour savings? About $20 million. That’s on an operating budget north of $9 billion. Or about .5%.

I know everyone has different lines they draw. Count the pennies and the pounds take care of themselves. What’s 44 million when you’re talking billions? But a million here and a million there eventually adds up, etc., etc.

The point I’m trying to make here is those are numbers that don’t correspond to the tumult we witnessed arriving at them. No one’s suggesting finding $44 million in savings wasn’t valuable but was it worth the cost, not just in terms of money but the psychological and political warfare that preceded it? Forty-four million is simply a far cry from last October when the mayor in a speech to the Empire Club warned, Toronto’s financial foundation is crumbling. If we don’t fix the foundation now, our dreams for the future will collapse.

Mr. Pennachetti did want the assembled crowd to know that the $774 million number being thrown around at the beginning of last year’s budget debate as a spectre of this crumbling financial foundation was real. Yeah Joe, nobody ever disputed the veracity of that amount as an opening pressure. There was just a whole lot of disingenuousness in using it as the amount that needed to be cut from the budget, the shortfall needing to be made up. The number was nothing more than a scare tactic used by those wanting to cut more, to cut deeper.

Admittedly, it’s not all chocolate and roses. There are a couple ‘smoking guns’ as Pennachetti referred to them that the city needs to deal with to maintain the current fiscal balance. One is the ever increasing chunk of the budgetary pie taken by emergency services (TPS, EMS and fire department) and the TTC. The other is social housing, especially the eye-popping outlay of cash needed for the repair backlog at the TCHC, roughly three-quarters of a billion dollars.

But as the city manager pointed out, these are things we won’t be able to efficientize™ (Lucas Costello) or rationalize under control. In fact, in one moment of surprising frankness, Pennachetti expressed doubt there was more than $100 million in service efficiencies left to be found in the budget. There would be no cutting our way to a brighter, more prosperous future.

Which is where the 2013 budget debate (coming soon to the airwaves near you) is going to get really interesting. With precious left to cut, the city will be facing the need to approach balancing the budget in two ways Mayor Ford abhors. Going cap in hand to the senior levels or, as some might refer to it, hitting up a couple of fucking deadbeats for the money they owe us. Or we’re going to have to look at generating more revenue, ie raising taxes.

Consider these numbers.

If the province finally re-uploaded the cost of social housing and their half of the TTC operating budget — two things they used to be able to find the money to do – that would free up $550 million for the city which is nearly $100 million more than the estimated opening pressure for 2013. We would then start the debate in positive rather than negative territory. Any talk of cutting services, shuttering programs, finding efficiencies, layoffs would be moot.

That’s not going to happen, of course. Somehow we have found ourselves, alone in the developed world, in a position where senior levels of government contribute precious little to the well-being of their municipalities. They seem to believe that we’re not their problem and serve as little more than piggy banks, sending off money and getting nothing near the value for it.

That leaves us with no alternative but to look at different ways to generate revenue. Yes, raising taxes. This runs contrary to the mayor’s view that we don’t have a revenue problem but, let’s face it, that was an empty rhetorical tic from the get-go. Nothing more than wishful thinking on the part of a sizeable majority of Torontonians who let themselves be convinced that we were overburdened with taxation and under-serviced.

(Interesting observation from the city manager yesterday who said that if we took a picture of an average street corner, we could see at least 20 services the city provides us. Check out slide 4 of yesterday’s presentation to see just all the things you receive in return for the local taxes you pay.)

While the last two budget cycles have been all about austerity and cutting, there is very little left to excise — outside of perhaps the police services which is another topic the mayor will likely be unwilling to broach — without causing serious, irreparable pain that starts diminishing the quality of life in Toronto. It’s now time to start talking about building and growing and figuring out exactly how to pay for it. That’ll include some unpleasant words Mayor Ford doesn’t like to hear but it’s the direction he’s unwittingly taken us in.

supertramply submitted by Cityslikr

3 Responses to Crisis? What Crisis?

  1. Nick says:

    Nicely observed, CitySlikr: shock-and-awe, then it turns out the sky’s not falling. As an aside, Pennachetti might wish to take some public speaking and presentation lessons – that Slide 4 is way too busy (but I love the detail for the 10 minutes it took to read it).

  2. Keele says:

    Ask the Toronto Port Authority to pay up the millions it owes this city in back taxes.

  3. glenn storey says:

    good article, but i still hate supertramp, and always will.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: