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’.
No. Mayor John Tory’s first kick at the can was all about, what did he repeatedly call it? “The largest investment in service improvements in recent history.”
And credit where credit’s due.
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.
— unmesmerizedly submitted by Cityslikr