The Big Freeze

August 20, 2012

Good news, Toronto!

Looks like the city’s not going to face a what-the-hell-let’s-just-go-for-a 10% cut across the board in fiscal year 2013. Nope. Things are looking up. We’re just going to have to deal with a 0% budget freeze. So already put upon departments, services and programs will merely grind to a further halt through attrition and more sprung leaks rather than amputations and major blood loss.

Along with a spending freeze, the Globe and Mail reports that city manager Joe Pennachetti has also called for ‘a ban on new service initiatives’. So, it’s all stand pat and hope for the best. We just can’t be too sure how big our surplus is going to be next year.

It’s difficult to keep your head above fiscal choppy waters when you insist on swimming with only one arm. Mayor Ford’s proposed 1.75% property tax increase barely covers the rate of inflation, never mind any of the wage settlements various city workers are scheduled to receive. Instead of exploring other sources to generate more revenue, it’s all about further reducing services until…

Well, that’s the $123 billion infrastructure deficit question.

You see, fiscal conservatives on council will tell you that we need to reduce the $400+ million spent annually on paying down our debt principle and interest. When we get rid of that, well then, the sky’s the limit. We can start dishing out for all those nice-to-haves everybody loves so much but doesn’t really want to pay for.

Like a properly operating public transit system. Serviceable roads. Bridges that don’t fall down in chunks. Libraries with computers and books other than trade paperbacks.

Until such time when this city is debt free, we’ll all have to just get by. Make do with less. Show the kind of discipline the likes of Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong is so proud of when he votes to cut everything Mayor Ford says needs to be cut.

Discipline and courage.

“I am doing this for everybody’s future,” fiscal warrior and city budget chief, Mike Del Grande proclaimed. “Unfortunately, they want me to be the bad guy.”

No, that’s not true, councillor. What we really want you to be is a better budget chief. One who realizes that miserly penny-pinching and refusing to have a sensible discussion about the true costs of maintaining a healthy city now doesn’t in the least leave a prosperous future for the coming generations. It just leaves a mess that they have to clean up and you don’t have to pay for.

In reality, it’s kind of the exact opposite of courage and discipline.

I don’t know how much latitude senior bureaucrats like Mr. Pennachetti have with the elected official they deal with. Certainly the fate of Gary Webster must serve as a cautionary tale about dealing with the Ford administration. But this budget freeze/no new service initiatives mode he’s adopted for the upcoming year is at odds with the city manager I saw speak at the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance this spring about Toronto’s fiscal health. He boasted about our double-A credit rating. He suggested there was probably no more than $100 million still to find through efficiencies. Further cutting wasn’t going to solve any looming crisis that may be waiting up ahead for us.

And make no mistake, Mr. Pennachetti is now proposing further cuts to departments and agencies that he has already taken a knife to in the past couple years. Zero increases mean less money. Even our current budget chief can do the simple math from that.

As long as the city manager insists on making these kinds of austerity demands, he continues to play accomplice to those who aren’t really all that interested in being fiscally responsible. He offers cover to their claims of being brave and disciplined. He’s insisting on further hardship for those already hard hit by previous cutbacks for the sake of those operating under the faulty premise that they’re hard done by.

Our city manager’s already done much dirty work for Mayor Ford. It’s time he starts looking out for the best interests of those who’ve paid a hefty price for their collaboration.

impatiently submitted by Cityslikr