Here’s the original, less gooder edited version of the 2016 budget launch post I wrote for the Torontoist earlier this week.
Speaking of which, while I recognize plenty of worthy causes out there for your consideration this holiday season, you would be making a very substantive contribution to the life of this city by sending some cash the Torontoist’s way. Councillor Shelley Carroll, a former budget chair at City Hall, gave her Best Budget Coverage nod to the Torontoist’s work this week. This can’t happen over the long run without help from readers and everyone else who wants to truly be in the know about the city they live and go about their business in.
So do yourself a favour. Contribute now.
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As the 2016 budget launch wrapped up at a special Budget Committee meeting today, I said to a fellow council watcher as we left the room, “Well, the chicks have come home to roost.” The piper was now demanding his payment. [Insert another cliché here for an imminent moment of decision.]
In what’s being referred to this year as a “Preliminary Budget” instead of what I believe has been called in recent years, “Staff Recommended Budget”, city staff crunched the numbers on both the operating and capital sides of the ledger and delivered up a document that, at first glance, didn’t scare the hell out of everybody. The opening pressure on the operating side seemed highly manageable. $57 million, and bringing in Mayor Tory’s proposed at the rate of inflation property tax rate increase of 1.3%, drops it down to just $23 million. A relatively meagre 2.17% bump in the rate would eliminate the opening pressure altogether.
But here’s where the budget qualified as only ‘preliminary’ and not ‘staff recommended’.
City staff did not eliminate the operating deficit as it has done previously, recommending a property tax rate increase for city council to essentially rubber stamp (after much back and forthing during the next couple months). This year, staff threw down the gauntlet, as City Manager Peter Wallace said they would do earlier this month at his fiscal foundation presentation at Executive Committee. Here’s the revenue you have. Here are the things you said you want to have. You, city council, decide on how and what gets funded. You balance the books, not staff.
Oh, and one last thing: there’s an additional $67 million of requests and directives from council that staff have yet to find any funding for. TTC service improvements like early Sunday openings. Much of the mayor’s Poverty Reduction Strategy. Unfunded. In reality that makes for a $124 million opening pressure before you start factoring in property tax rate increases.
And hey. Let’s not even get started on the unfunded capital expenditures city council has thought would be nice but conveniently forgot to find funding for.
Lest you think I’m all gloom and doom here, that is not my intention.
This approach by staff to starting the budget process in the hole, negatively unbalanced, forces city council to start putting its collective money where its mouth is. For too long, too many of our local representatives have drawn up grand Wish Lists, amassing proverbial castles in the sky (and subways in the ground) without ponying up the cash to pay for it. Worse yet, strangling off sources of revenue in the name of Respecting The Taxpayers.
Well, not this year, not if city staff has their way. With this year’s preliminary budget introduced not balanced, staff is attempting to smoke out councillors from their respective hiding spots. You want to keep taxes low and refuse talk of any other new sources of revenue? What are you going to cut? What services are you going to deny or take from city’s residents? You want to help people lift themselves out of poverty? You want the trains to run on time and not over-capacity? How much do you want to increase taxes (above the rate of inflation, by the way)? Do you want to have another discussion about new revenue tools?
City councillors can no longer have it both ways. That is exactly how Toronto has found itself with a mountain or two of unfunded liabilities and projects waiting in the wings. False promises of grand services, a world class city and low, low taxes. Efficiencies will pay for that, with a little dose of current from capital. All good.
As city staff made clear today, it wasn’t all good. If they have their way, 2016 will be the year city council will finally have to either put up or shut up. There is no longer anyplace they can hide for cover.
— resubmittingly submitted by Cityslikr