Can’t Or Won’t?

During a budget Twitter discussion last week, Torontoist’s David Hains boiled the process down to 140 characters.

(If you want it in greater detail, I cannot encourage you enough to read his property tax analysis from a couple years ago.)

In essence, for a couple key reasons, the keyest being municipalities, unlike their provinical and federal counterparts, cannot run annual operating deficits. Their books must balance. A dollar amount is chosen — This is what we’re going to spend this year! — and you then walk back to where the money comes from. pickanumberProperty taxes make up a large portion of that revenue, in and around 40% usually, so to get 40% of x dollars, the property tax rate has to be y.

More or less.

For a mayor, their administration or the city council to determine what that property tax rate is going to be ahead of spending projections essentially subverts the process. Mayor Tory’s campaign pledge to keep property tax at or below the rate of inflation, and then claiming a public mandate for that after winning office, is simply saying there’s only going to be this much money regardless of needs or other promises and improvements made. You want something new, a service enhanced, some shiny bauble or other nice-to-have? You have to cut something or somewhere else. mathAn ‘offset’, as they say in order to not state the word ‘cut’.

This is especially true since the mayor and his team are refusing to even discuss other sources of revenue. Aside from selling off assets  like Toronto Hydro and city-owned parking spaces, that is, or increasing user fees or squeezing more pencils and training costs from the city. Today on Metro Morning, the budget chair, Councillor Gary Crawford crowed over the possibility of finding an additional $5 million in savings by an exhaustive line-by-line search through office expenses. $5 million in the face of an identified $67 million shortfall in funding for promises and requests already made by Mayor Tory and city council.

By a pre-emptive determination of what the property tax rate will be, thus fixing 39% of the operating budget in place, Mayor Tory is stating just how much he is willing to spend on the city. gotyourbackThis and only this amount. Any addition must be matched by a subtraction. Or found through efficencies, 10s, 100s of millions of dollars paid for by chump change belt tightening.

Two years ago, John Tory picked an arbitrary number he thought would help get him elected mayor of Toronto. It was a number that represented his political well-being not the well-being of the city he wanted to lead. By refusing to budge (much) from that number, and digging his heels in like his predecessor had, Mayor Tory is showing exactly whose interest he’s really looking out for.

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Going Through The Budget Motions

This city is a thousand moving pieces, a million maybe. (I was going to say a billion but we’ve heard that kind of exaggeration around these parts before.)movingparts

So anyone who thinks they can call for an across the board budget cut in the name of efficiencies without negatively impacting someone somewhere simply is not aware of the vital role City Hall plays in the lives of every resident in Toronto. Or, they don’t care. A wish list. Nice-to-haves versus need-to-haves. Tough choices, fiscal realities, and all that kind of talk.

This jumped out at me yesterday at the first Budget Committee meeting of 2016 where the serious public deliberations about this year’s budget began. It was the Citizen Centred Services Cluster “A”, the soft services, as they’re called. Affordable Housing, Shelter, Children’s Services, Long-Term Care, Employment, Economic Development and Culture, Parks, Forests and Recreation. The stuff political campaigns are rarely waged on except for vague promises and unctuous homilies.

The budget chair, Councillor Gary Crawford, was questioning some line items in the Shelter, Support and Housing Administration budget, wondering why conference attendance costs would be higher this year than was spent last year. The SSHA General Manager (Phillip Abrahams, I believe it was, although I’m not entirely certain) robbingpetersaid that due to the excessively cold winter last year, money intended to pay for conference expenses was instead used for extra motel rooms to provide additional shelter space. Robbing Peter to pay Paul, as was said on more than one occasion during the meeting.

Why the budget chief, overseeing the task of piecing together an $11+ billion operating budget, felt it necessary to be rooting through a mere thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, is beyond me. Actually no, not really. I know why this budget chief is doing it. At the behest of the mayor’s office, like the mayor’s office before it, that is trying to govern on the premise of a flimsy campaign platform. Essentially, the city has a spending not a revenue problem. One man’s gravy is another guy’s marbling.

So the budget chief spends his time asking about conference costs and travel expenses, “the pencils and erasers strategy”, to give the appearance that there’s waste in the corporation if we’re willing to roll up our sleeves and dig down deep enough. How much exactly? Millions, probably. Enough to keep talk of new revenue tools at bay and any property tax rate increase at or below the rate of inflation.

That’s why these Citizen Centred Services are called ‘soft’. They’re so easy to squeeze. auditThere’s not much political pushback from children, the homeless, the frail and elderly, and the shiftless bureaucrats who administer to them. A penny here, a nickel there. It’s not so much about savings as it is appearances.

Ironically, where there are significant savings to be had, the Toronto Police Services, hardly a peep comes their way during the budget process. Over a billion dollars in 2016 and, despite a KPMG report on the table suggesting where costs can be reduced, we’re told we shouldn’t expect that to happen for maybe 3 years. It is a big organization. Change occurs slowly. And everyone nods knowingly as the police chief points out, not incorrectly, that his service is the biggest provider of health care in the city.

That’s what happens when a city operates on the cheap with the social, “soft” services like mental health. Just ask Sammy Yatim. Oh right. You can’t. The police shot him.

If you’re not prepared to have an honest conversation with the residents of this city but are still intent on promising them the moon bloodfromastone– SmartTrack! 53 kilometres! 22 stations! 7 years! — something’s got to give. And it’s not going to be your big ticket items. Your transit “legacy”. The unassailable police services. Pretty much anything car or driving related.

That Poverty Reduction Strategy, which is very much dependent on the soundness of many of these Cluster “A” Citizen Centred Services, becomes merely feel-good, photo-op friendly aspirational. A nice-to-have. Put it on the Wish List. Largely unfunded.

The mayor will try to keep it cobbled together, of course. Proclaim that increased spending on public transit, kids under 12 ride for free!, is part of that strategy. And he won’t be entirely wrong. It’ll only be a mini-measure, a token gesture, a PR scramble.

It’s entirely probable that there will be a late-in-the-game, on the council floor revelation of found money too. Just like during the 2012 budget process where $19 million suddenly appeared to shore up some services that were facing the axe. That too will be merely a gesture, flaunted as proof positive that there are savings to be had if you just look hard enough. New revenue tools? Who needs them. prexerciseAbove the rate of inflation property tax rate hikes? Only if you’re a tax-and-spender.

Another budget cycle finished, the same tired message delivered. There’s always more fat to trim, with certain politically expedient exceptions, of course. We already tax the residents of this city too much. Those delivering soft citizen centred services to the most vulnerable in this city need to keep working harder and smarter because some choices are easier to make than others for elected officials who promise up simple solutions to the complex problem of keeping a thousand pieces moving continually, effectively and fairly.

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2016 Budget Launch

So yesterday, led by the new city manager, Peter Wallace, staff delivered its 2016 Preliminary Budget presentation at a special meeting of the Budget Committee. My impressions? lookoverthatwayYou’ll have to find out here at Torontoist. While you’re at it, give a read to Neville Park and Sarah Niedoba and Catherine McIntyre. Rather hear words than read them? Brian Kelcey talks about the 2016 budget with Matt Galloway on Metro Morning.

While city staff seemed to be offering up the opportunity to finally have an adult conversation about the kind of city we want to have, and how we’re going to pay for that, early signs coming from the mayor’s office and the point people on his team are not encouraging. Budget Chair Gary Crawford pushed a paper clip motion at committee to see if they can find enough coins under the cushions at City Hall to pay for various initiatives. “Council can make investments and still keep increases at [the] rate of inflation,” Crawford insisted at a press conference after the budget presentation. No, it can’t. That’s pure budgetary fiction.

Councillor Justin Di Ciano, a member of the budget committee, perhaps summed up this approach best and emptiest when he essentially strung together meaningless words and spun a meaningless anecdote for 2 minutes, absolutely devoid of any substance, and echoing Mayor Tory’s campaign chant of ‘prudence’. These people, the mayor’s people, are zealously determined not to have any sort of serious conversation about the direction the city has to go.

The reality on the ground may have other ideas. Mayor Tory (and other so-called ‘fiscal conservatives’ on city council) may have finally painted themselves into too tight a corner. Things cost money. That money has to come from somewhere. Empty rhetoric has been tapped dry. Big investments and ever shrinking revenue sources simply don’t add up.

Councillor Gord Perks begins the conversation this city needs to start having.

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