Budget Proposal Goes Public

Hey-ho! Off to City Hall we went for day 2 of public deputations for the council’s budget committee’s proposed 2010 operating budget. Hopefully the sparks will fly like they did the previous evening when councilor Paula Fletcher got into it with one of the deputationees and a heckler from the gallery. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!!

Unfortunately upon our arrival, a subdued air hangs over the council chamber. Budget chief Shelley Carroll who is chairing the meeting reads a letter of apology from Councilor Fletcher and then lays down the law to the other councilor’s present about their comportment. This seems to have a chilling effect on the proceedings as the first few deputations come and go with nary a question posed by council.

First up, a representative of a branch of CUPE civic workers with serious questions about transparency. The budget proposal has been drawn up absent public scrutiny and, according to CUPE, contains confidential documents about cuts to staff and services that won’t be released until after the budget has been passed by council in April. For CUPE, this is not participation. It is rear-guard reaction to a done deal.

It’s hard to argue with this point as the afternoon unfolds. What kind of impact will a string of 5 minute presentations before the 7 members of the budget committee and a smattering of other councilors have on the final budget? A cynic might call it little more than an exercise in political theatre. Yet compared to the federal budget coming down at us this week that’s been drawn up in the darkness of a prorogued parliament, these public deputations represent the height of inclusive and participatory democracy.

The comparison is even more apt given what we witnessed during the course of our stay in the chamber’s peanut gallery. Our impression of the proceedings was one of a city council desperately trying to hold together the fraying fabric of the social safety net shredded to pieces by big ticket decisions made at Queen’s Park and in Ottawa. It was no longer a question of attempting to save everyone at risk from falling through the cracks but simply minimizing the number who do.

Child care advocates were out in full force, alarmed by the budget committee’s proposal to end council’s coverage of the rent for child care spaces in Toronto District School Board properties. This would be catastrophic for many low income households, we are told, while also deepening the city’s budget crisis as it would send parents back out of the workforce and onto social welfare rolls. Budget chief Shelley Carroll and councilor Janet Davis tried explaining that their computations were such that only full pay parents would be forced to pay more for their childcare and only then some $2+ per child per day.

Oddly enough (or maybe not) the male councilors present kept silent, asking no questions nor offering any answers on the childcare matter. Or maybe they were still a little gun shy about over-stepping decorum with the budget chief’s instructions still fresh in their minds because they were none too interactive with the other deputations either. Youth at risk programs. Social housing and homelessness. Children’s Aid. Marginalized communities and groups all facing even more dire straits with the inevitable belt tightening that’s in the offing with the proposed budget.

It was unfortunate that we didn’t catch sight of either George Smitherman or Rocco Rossi present while we were there. (Although we will give a shout out to Sonny Yeung, All Fired Up in the Big Smoke’s first Meet A Mayoral Candidate profile, who was dutifully in attendance.) It might’ve been instructive for Mssrs. Smitherman and Rossi to hear firsthand the possible results of their fervent dedication in finding “efficiencies” at City Hall. But this afternoon, clearly, council chamber was not filled with their crowd.

Those folks were out at Monday night’s meeting. Overburdened taxpayers, business owners and radio show host John Tory (doing his schtick from the City Hall rotunda) listeners gave their own deputations, imploring the city to reign in out of control spending or else face capital flight and economic collapse. This was the too much group. Too much was being asked of them to keep the city running. Tuesday afternoon was the too little group. The city was providing too little for them to survive.

This is the balancing act city council’s now attempting to pull off. Appeasing the solid middle and upper classes may lay waste to the growing number of have-nots we share the city with. Caving into the special interests of the less fortunate will send home owners and businesses heading to the hills of more tax friendly jurisdictions. Depending on what tipping point you think we’re poised upon (and every year come budget time, we seem poised on a tipping point) will determine the deputation you want to deliver even if it’s all just for show.

deputationally submitted by Cityslikr

Fun With Numbers

With all the talk of Toronto’s looming economic apocalypse, I decided to submerse myself in a little policy wonking. I hunkered down with both the Toronto Board of Trade’s early February report, The Growing Chasm: An Analysis and Forecast of the City of Toronto’s Finances and a CUPE commissioned paper from economist Hugh Mackenzie entitled, Reality Check: Toronto’s Budget Crunch in Perspective. Two opposing points of view; two tales of two cities.

Now, I am no economic whiz. Numbers, pie charts, graphs and stats tend to make me break out into a cold sweat. Like most of us, I can be baffle-gabbed and hoodwinked when set upon by numerical waves. So in no way should this be taken as a valid economic assessment of these reports. Rather, what blinks before you is a general overview of my impression of them.

Firstly and not surprisingly, the conclusions drawn in both papers reflect the opinions and standpoints held by those who contracted, as it were, the reports. As to be expected, I guess. Still it feels a little, how shall I say, unscientific. But that just may be the nature of the beast when it comes to the field of economics as a whole.

In the Board of Trade’s The Growing Chasm, there is no mistaking whatsoever how we must not tackle the city’s dire financial situation and burgeoning structural operating budget deficit. Of their report’s 34 pages, two (#s 21 & 22) are delivered in dark highlighted boxes. Within those boxes is an impassioned plea against commercial property tax increases. According to this study done by Canada’s largest chamber of commerce, businesses in the 416 area code already bear an unfair tax burden and cannot be expected to carry anymore of the load. If future city councils were to try this than businesses would have no choice but to pick up their stakes and move to more tax friendly locations in the GTA.

To the Board of Trade the actual culprit for City Hall’s runaway spending and growing structural deficit are the wages and benefits that are doled out to municipal employees. Of course in his report done at the behest of the Toronto Civic Employees Union Local 416 of CUPE, Hugh Mackenzie strongly disagrees with that notion. His numbers suggest that employee wages and benefits are perfectly reasonable and that, in fact, Toronto’s recent increase in operating expenditures is 4% lower than the increases in municipal expenditures throughout the rest of Ontario.

Again, I can’t decipher the numbers thrown around in these reports well enough to be able to ascertain who’s massaging what figures or who’s cherry picking what data but I am confident enough to say that the Board of Trade’s report contains a methodological blemish that makes me, at least, suspicious about the veracity of their report. Early on in the Growing Chasm it is suggested that the city’s structural operating budget deficit has been around “since at least the start of the decade”. Sounds a little vague. Surely something this important, this ominous structural operating budget deficit, can be traced back a little more accurately than simply “Since at least the start of the decade”?

No matter. The report then bases all its assertions on the numbers gleaned from the 2002-2008 period. The end number, 2008, is reasonable as it is the last year for which the statistics are available. But why start at 2002? Why not begin right at amalgamation with the birth of the megacity before the structural operating budget deficit reared its ugly head in order to give us a full and complete view of the city’s finances from day one? 2002 seems an arbitrary snapshot as if the Board of Trade needed just that time frame to prove their point. It’s analogous to someone trying to establish the fact that the ancient Romans were poor builders of edifices by pointing out the shoddy condition of the structures from, say, 1945 to the present day.

Or maybe I’m just missing something. Clearly everyone in the mainstream press and the front running candidates for mayor have hopped on (the Toronto) board of Trade. There is a Growing Chasm. City Hall has taken part in an unsustainable spending spree! Cuts must be made! Assets sold! Taxes frozen!! Anything less and we will be going to hell in a hand basket while businesses flee the downtown core to the more amenable environs of 905.

No question. No doubt. And no paying attention to that man over there, Hugh Mackenzie, telling you otherwise.

studiously submitted by Acaphlegmic