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? You’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.
Yesterday’s 2015 budget launch left me feeling a little discombobulated. That sense you get after watching a magician try and pull the wool over your eyes for a couple hours. Flim-flammed, bamboozled even.
It was different than the budgetary voodoo Rob Ford attempted while he was mayor. Trust me, folks. This won’t hurt a bit. Those aren’t service cuts. We call them ‘adjustments’.
Both public transit and Shelter, Support and Housing (or, at least, shelter and support) received nice bumps in spending, the TTC especially so. It will see service restored to 2010 levels. “Stabilizing of transit,” City Manager Joe Pennachetti called it. A step forward in order to be running on the spot.
In total, it’s about a $1.8 billion increase in spending from last year’s operating budget, leaving some to call it ‘left-leaning’.
But here’s the thing. It’s not immediately obvious where the money is coming from to pay for that spending. In order to balance the operating side of the budget (which, I’ll remind everyone again, it is provincially mandated for municipalities to balance their operating budgets), the city has to come up with the revenue to the penny. $11.4 billion spent. $11.4 billion must be found in revenue.
This staff recommended budget proposes a below-the-rate-of-inflation property tax increase. So it doesn’t cover the inflation-adjusted cost of the delivering of services and programs. That means, in effect, a reduction in the money available for those services and programs. (Here, let Councillor Gord Perks explain it for you. Or Neville Park. Or Alex Mazer.)
Not to mention Mayor Tory’s directive to departments to find 2% efficiencies and city staff’s demand that department’s also ‘absorb the inflation’. This, despite the fact, that the city manager, as he was heading for the exit last spring before mayor-elect John Tory convinced him to stay for one more budget cycle a few months later, told us there was no more gravy to be found, no more fat to be trimmed. Apparently, retirement wasn’t the only thing Mr. Pennachetti reconsidered.
It’s a little of the ol’ robbing Peter to pay Paul. You want improved transit and more shelter space? Well somebody’s got to pay for it, and don’t expect it to be property owners. The pie got bigger but the slices became a little more uneven.
While the budget was a little tax-shy, let’s call it, it certainly embraced user fees. There’s an increase of $14 million in unidentified ones in the document right now. Plus, a good chunk of the TTC improvements this year will be covered by the proposed fare increase, one campaign pledge Mayor Tory seemed comfortable breaking.
On the other hand, drivers are getting the Gardiner Expressway repaired 8 years earlier than scheduled to the tune of nearly half a billion dollars in the capital budget with nary a word about having to chip in a little more to cover the costs. The roughly $60 million the Vehicle Registration Tax once brought into city coffers multiplied by those 8 years would’ve more than covered those costs. Apparently some users are more preferred than others, even in John Tory’s Toronto.
A couple glaring holes still stand between the city and a truly balanced budget. There’s the $86 million one, created when the province decided to end the practice of pooling payments to Toronto to help pay for many mandated social services. Not to worry, the city’s Chief Financial Officer, Robert Rossini, excitedly told us yesterday, a big announcement was coming, talks had been very productive with the province about settling that amount. Everything’s under control.
Turns out, the big announcement seems to be a $200 million line of credit extended to the city from Queen’s Park, including market rate interest charges. Or what some of us might consider a deferred tax increase or user fee. Line up that can so we can kick it down the road a bit.
The other shoe dangling there, waiting to drop is the police budget. While the staff recommending a flatlining of it — I know, I know. That kind of thing always happens. And by always, I mean almost never – the city and the Toronto Police Services are currently negotiating a new collective agreement which almost always results in pay increases for the police. Budget Chair Gary Crawford assures us that money has been set aside for that contingency. How much? He won’t say. (Why would he as it might tip the city’s hand in terms of the ongoing negotiations.)
But as Ben Spurr pointed out in NOW, over the past 10 years, the police budget has gone up some $241 million. So it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect at least a $20-$30 million bump this year. But again, don’t worry. Everything’s under control. Even after the $86 million, there’s still over $100 million on that line of credit from the province.
Look. It’s not a terrible, terrible budget. Even Councillor Gord Perks says so. There is a big investment in vital needs of the city. But Mayor Tory is still trying to pretend these things can happen magically, without having to say the word ‘taxes’ above a whisper. He’s putting a glossy patina on the Rob Ford maxim of governance. Sure you can have things. And we can get somebody else to pay for them.
It’s fundamentally dishonest and only serves to put off the inevitable, leaving the mess for somebody else to clean up.
As difficult as it may be to imagine, given the… surreal? wacky? cartoonish? I’ve truly run out of adjectives to describe the performance of this current city council over the course of the last three years… this week’s meeting could well turn out to represent the… pinnacle? nadir? defining moment? of its entire term.
Check out Neville Park’s cheat sheet if you haven’t already for a most excellent and entertaining overview of what will be going on over the course of the next 3 or 4 days. As always, there’s a boat load of important matters to be dealt with including the appointment of the replacement for Doug Holyday as councillor for Ward 3. His letter to his former colleagues insisting they tap his choice of Peter Leon who was ignored last week by Etobicoke-York Community Council when they opted for Chris Stockwell should make that debate more intriguing than it really should be.
That item, of course, along with every other one on council’s agenda will be overshadowed once more by the topic of transit. More specifically the ongoing, drawn out, forever and forever until perpetuity fight over a Scarborough subway. The serial killer of our political scene that just cannot be dispatched.
Yep. It’s back. Just two short weeks ago it seemed like a sure thing too, resuscitated by an infusion of federal cash. But now, with a provincial short fall and the city manager laying out the barest minimum of property tax increases that will be needed for the city to pony up its piece of the funding pie (for a more realistic picture of what we could be paying to build the Scarborough subway, check out David Hains and Hamutal Dotan at Torontoist), not to mention its biggest booster in an ever steepening pot of brewing scandal, a slight pall has been cast over the subway celebrations.
The kicker is, after all the discussion we’ve had on the topic, the monotonous, endless back-and-forth since 2010, there’s still no rational, compelling reason to replace the proposed Scarborough LRT with a subway in either of its current alignments. The case to do so has remained in its under-developed embryonic state. An a priori argument, of sorts, stating a subway is the best option for Scarborough because, well, subways are the best. World class. First class.
It’s a heaping dose of head shake, bulging with a bloated sense of entitlement and misplaced resentment, encouraged mightily by excruciating political calculation at all three levels of government.
As Matt Elliott pointed out in his column yesterday, the cost of building this Scarborough subway is going to put an undue strain on the city’s budget for decades to come, threatening other programs and services as well as other transit infrastructure builds, many of them a much higher priority than a subway in Scarborough. Any member of city council who votes in favour of proceeding with this project is doing so out of nothing more than pure self-interest. They are signalling a willingness to jeopardize the city’s best interests for the sake of scoring cheap political points.
That’s what this vote comes down to. It will define their term in office. Let’s be sure to judge them accordingly.