To Cut Or Not To Cut

December 9, 2011

I don’t think it’s too unreasonable or cynical to call this week’s public deputations before the budget committee political theatre. Deputants stepped into the spotlight to deliver their lines in defence of certain items or programs, or why cuts needed to be enacted (although, to be fair, the number of the latter could be counted on one hand that was missing a finger). Budget committee members performed the role of an attentive and, occasionally, interactive audience, listening to the players strut and fret before them. Visiting councillors acted as the play’s chorus, commenting on and interjecting with the action as it unfolded, filling in any expositional gaps in the narrative that arose.

If you believe in the power of theatre to change things, then all of that is a legitimate and necessary part of the process; something bigger and more compelling than simply a game of pretend.

To dismiss it as little more than an empty show, the mere appearance of listening to the public – that whole open and transparent business – diminishes both the deputants and, frankly, the Ford Administration. Write them off as blundering buffoons at your and the city’s peril. There was much more at work here than simply trying to seem engaged while having every intention to just ram the 2012 budget untouched through to council next month.

The key plotline in all this from Team Ford’s perspective was to get the public, an overwhelming majority of it hostile, everybody knew that would be the case, to come in, plead their case for their cause to be spared the axe and respond by simply asking, well, how are we to pay for it? The city has a spending problem, remember? That’s why we find ourselves in this current fiscal mess.

So heavy praise or sage nods toward anyone coming forward to offer up suggestions of paying higher user fees to save pools, programs, libraries. See? This is what we’re talking about. Thinking outside the box. If you want all these ‘nice to haves’, Toronto, you’re going to have to pay for them not the city.

Ignore the hulking presence lurking just off stage, the buried child. The family secret no one in charge really wants to talk about. That none of this is necessary. No individual sacrifice needed. A collective tweak here and there and everything would be OK even in these dark economic times. There is absolutely no reason we had to start chopping off limbs and tossing weight overboard to stay afloat. If there was any type of crisis it was one of leadership. They didn’t appear to know what they were doing. That, or they were hiding their true intentions.

Only when deputants pointed out this fact, that things weren’t at all like the budget committee claimed they were, did the conflict start. They were met with pure bile and mocking obstreperousness. Raise taxes? Is that all you got? What special interest do you represent? We want real solutions. Solutions that meet our very narrow definition of acceptable responses. Cuts or increased user fees. The only two options. So contestant, I mean, deputant, will it be what’s behind door #1 or door #2?

Clearly having felt they lost the momentum or upper hand after the first day, the mayor’s designated hit men were dispatched to beat back deputants who tried veering off the preferred path. Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti made an early morning, Snidely Whiplash appearance. Councillor Frances Nunziata brought her best Cruella DeVil impression, piping a single note. Gone was solicitous Councillor Doug Ford. Replaced by his braying alter ego. Budget Chief Mike Del Grande was, well, pretty much the same. Grumpy, grim and easy to revert to hectoring mode.

While perfectly happy to hear someone offer to pay higher user fees to stave off cuts, they would not so much as entertain anyone saying they’d accept a tax hike. The fairly regular demand to reinstall the Vehicle Registration Tax was also a non-starter. If there was a method set up that allowed individuals to voluntarily pay a higher tax, hey, have it. There’s one born every minute, right?

How are you going to pay for the service you’re here to defend, was the constant refrain, and no, you can’t say raise taxes. We’re already taxes to death, haven’t you heard?

It was with that approach, however, the fatal flaw was exposed. No one would come right out and say, feed hungry kids? Where the hell’s their parents? Should the city really be in the business of lending out books for free? Culture? What’s culture ever done for us?

That would’ve been the honest route to go. Instead, they pleaded poor. We don’t have the money. Where’s the money going to come from to pay for that? Our hands are tied. We have no choice.

We have a revenue problem.

Ooops.

See, this whole thing, this whole charade was predicated on the campaign claim of Rob Ford that the city had a spending problem not a revenue problem. We didn’t need to increase revenues. We just needed to tighten our belts. Stop spending beyond our means. There was plenty of extraneous stuff we could jettison and nobody would notice. Gravy.

That’s what they call the reveal. Anti-climactic to those of us who been watching and criticizing as this enterprise developed but, I guess, something of a surprise twist to those who didn’t. Not much to cut or excise without people noticing. As the KPMG Core Services Review laid out way back in Act Two, there was a dearth of fat to trim. The city wasn’t a spendthrift. It was revenue starved. That’s what needed to be dealt with.

In fact, not only was the city not looking at a terrifying three-quarters of a billion dollar hole this year, they had something of a modest surplus. It could’ve been bigger had we properly tended to our revenue sources but still, we had a surplus. Big enough to cancel all the cuts and shoe away a little money for a rainy day.

And when the budget chief and his vice-chair quickly went public almost immediately after deputations ended to assure everyone they had heard loud and clear that children’s nutritional programs were to be left alone and pulled them off the table, the gig was up. We did have a choice, it turned out. Across the board cuts were completely arbitrary. You want to feed hungry kids in this city? OK. We can do that. All you had to do was ask.

Of course, they will try and take that pound of flesh from somewhere else. A library, maybe? The TTC remains under very serious threat of rollbacks above and beyond the normal degree perpetrated by neglect by the other levels of government in this country. Community centres and arts funding still have guns pointed to their heads. The treacherous villains of this piece aren’t going to roll over and die that easily.

But the thing to remember is, they blinked. They were forced to come clean about what they were really up to. Austerity was always optional, never compulsory. A choice was made not enforced upon them. In the face of sustained public pressure, they conceded. Just on this one point, mind you. They didn’t throw in their cards. What we witnessed was a tactical retreat on one front. The curtain’s come down but only for intermission. The play continues.

They are on the run, however, having conceded the moral high ground of selfless duty righting previous fiscal wrongs. I mean, the same person who claimed to be only looking out for the little guy lunged at vulnerable children for chrissakes. There’s really no going back on that. The mask slipped. We all saw it.

They will try to continue to play the role of sound fiscal managers. It’s just that we now know that’s what they’re doing, playing a role. They’re not who they claim to be. So, let’s stop pretending they are.

dramatically submitted by Cityslikr


Budget Proposal Goes Public

March 3, 2010

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