Just a quick slapdash entry after deputations on the 2013 budget wrapped up this afternoon. Hopefully it will appear entirely different from my regular slapdash efforts.
Mike Del Grande. Councillor Mike Del Grande. Budget Chief Mike Del Grande.
Mike Del Grande, Mike DelGrande, MikeDelGrande, mikedelgrande…
Despite listening to over 200 deputants, none of whom I heard demand their taxes be cut, and a litany of the usual suspect downtown lefty councillors suggesting their constituents would prefer a better city over lower taxes, our budget chief doesn’t buy any of that nonsense. People don’t like paying taxes. End of story. Let’s move on.
How does our budget chief know this? By a rigorous examination of a solid, evidence based study, OK? Voluntary repayment of the Vehicle Registration Tax back to the city. All these people, coming down to plead their case in front of the Budget Committee year after year, all the bleeding hearts the likes of Councillor Janet Davis meets in her ward, all saying they would happily pay more in tax. Well? Where are they, the budget chief wonders. Certainly not filling the city coffers out of the goodness of their hearts, let him tell you.
Now, I don’t have a car, thus don’t pay the VRT but if I did and didn’t have to pay the VRT because the Ford Administration is averse to that kind of revenue generation, the last place I would be returning that money saved is to a City Hall run by a gang of far right, anti-government ideologues. All taxes are evil, as far as the likes of Councillor Doug Ford is concerned. Yeah… sure. Here’s my rebate, Mr. Budget Chief. Please do something nice with it, OK?
Instead, I know a couple people who have diligently used the $60 they saved when renewing their car sticker and donated it to places hurt by recent city cuts – i.e. the library. So, the budget chief’s certainty that people don’t like paying taxes based on a lack of returns back to the city is based on, what do you call it, an inadequate sampling? Nonsense? Pure and utter bullshit?
On top of which, taxation really only works as a collective enterprise. Elective participation in handing over one’s hard earned cash doesn’t tend to fill the coffers like a compulsory obligation. It only fully functions if we’re all in it together, contributing. Some more, some less but none voluntarily.
I’d like to think my willingness to pay taxes is based on an absolute selflessness. That I am constitutionally more inclined to help out the ‘widows and orphans’ than our budget chief is. But that wouldn’t be entirely true.
From an unequivocally selfish perspective, I want to pay more for better transit (which I don’t depend on), for fewer people forced to live on the streets (I have a house), for free recreational programs (which I’ve never taken) because it means the lives of other people (mostly who I don’t know but share this city with) are made just a little bit better, a little more liveable, their prospects of a better life just a little brighter. Why does that matter to me? The possibility of them being able to contribute more significantly and positively will make this a better city for me to live in.
And I can’t do that single-handedly, giving back my VRT or making some other voluntary contribution to the likes of Mike Del Grande. Taxation only works en masse. Everybody pitching in what they can.
It’s disheartening that the person in charge of spending billions and billions of dollars annually either doesn’t realize it or doesn’t believe it.
Lucas Costello gave his first public deputation last Thursday in Committee Room #1 in front of the Budget Committee. Watch it here. (h/t to Jonathan Goldsbie for tracking it down. Begins at the 58’ 10”.) Today, Mr. Costello offers a post-mortem of the proceedings.
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You can fight City Hall. Seriously.
As Cityslikr stated here last week, the public deputations process is political theatre. However, as was seen with the decision to “save” student nutrition programs, when deputants come in heavy (I’ll explain how in just a second) and can paint pro-cuts/Team Ford councillors as miserly penny-pinchers intent on taking food from the mouths of babes in order that car drivers continue to be subsidized, engaged citizens can make an impact. Standing back away from the fight, allows all those mystical Tim Horton’s voters to inform the mayor’s decision making.
Some thoughts upon my first ever deputation and how to make it even better next time.
In person if you can. (Rogers livestreaming for the monthly council meetings and other committees deemed important if you can’t.) I attended the two all night Executive Committee meetings earlier this year. Being there in person also increases the likelihood of meeting some like-minded folks in Committee Room 2.
– Pick your battle
Do you have a particular program in mind that you want to save? Or are you just outraged with the fiscal mismanagement and shell games this current administration has been playing with our city’s budget, programs, transit, shelters, daycares, etc.
If the former, find out what other similar programs exist within the amalgamated city. I guarantee you there’s a parent/citizens/advocacy group in every corner of Toronto that’s feeling the same way. Some councillors assume that we Torontonians do not think of the city as a whole and try to exploit that division for political gain. I disagree with that line of thinking, and I imagine if you’re wanting to give a deputation, you probably do to.
If it’s just a general, overarching disenchantment with the direction Mayor Ford is taking the city, approach your friends who you consider good speakers and try to submit your deputation requests via e-mail at the same time. This way you’ll have a cluster of people speaking to the same issue back-to-back, or one person stating grievances, the next person offering solutions, the next grievances, and so on.
– Prepping your deputation
Anecdotes, are great, and hey, they worked to kill the Jarvis bike lanes but you my fellow deputant are going to show up with statistics, numbers, and dollar amounts.
Why? Because we are in the middle of a battle for control of the narrative. So many false dollar amounts and tax percentages have been flying around during the budget process, it’s easy to get confused. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if some councillors are still telling their residents that a 34% tax increase is looming if we don’t hack away services and bring city workers into line. Such an egregiously false figure is not on the table and never was.
Get in touch with your local councillor to find out what services, shelters, daycares, bus routes etc are up for closure, delays, shortened service. This might help to personalize your deputation a bit more.
Oh, your councillor says these cuts are necessary? Well, you’ve been watching previous deputations throughout the year, right? So that means you know which councillors in your surrounding area may be more amenable to helping you fight the good fight. All councillor e-mail contacts are available at toronto.ca. Over at Ford For Toronto, Matt Elliott has a helpful primer for you to check out what each councillor have been up to.
He’s not alone. There are many great resources out there in the City Hall watching world. Aside from Elliott, there’s David Hains at The Clamshell and Edward Keenan of the Grid, Hamutal Dotan and the Torontoist gang to name a few. Email them with questions and check out their Twitter accounts. You’ll find them pretty good at responding to queries. Along with them, many of us nerds are engaged in a 140 character (or less) battle in the #TOpoli #TOcouncil searches. Join in. Give a holler.
Check, check, and re-check your numbers. An eloquently delivered, well thought out presentation can ultimately be undermined by one councillor fixating on one incorrect number, amount or percentage. Stupid, right? But that’s how it goes.
And finally, no Hitler references. Ever. No. Ever. Never. Ever.
Welcome to the the-a-tuh! I didn’t really rehearse my deputation, and wish I had. Even if you can’t corral a couple of friends into deputing, try to run it by a sympathetic ear in order to a) time it; and b) to find out what points need clarification. I could have shaved 30 seconds off mine had I done this.
Come deputation day(s)…
City Hall releases the full list of deputants the day of the committee meeting. Not exactly schedule friendly I know, but, if you have your own small child, bring them as it will be an educational experience and you just might get bumped to the top of the list!
– Visual Aids
There’s a way to hook up a laptop to the committee room projector but depending on how cagey the chair of the committee is they may use any set up time against your deputation time, meaning 3 minutes has suddenly dwindled to 2’ 30”. So unless you have a tech savvy friend guaranteed to be by your side as a power point presenter, go old school. Keep visual aids basic and easy to use. The projector may come in handy to help highlight one important point or even frame your deputation. Had I thought ahead, I would have just printed out the question that Edward Keenan put forward last week, “How are we making Toronto a better city?” Simple, effective and cheap.
– The deputation
You’ve rehearsed it, so it’s going to be awesome, don’t worry. Be brave and have fun. Yes, it will be a bit unnerving to have a bunch of angry (mostly white) dudes (and one or two ladies) staring at you, yawning, falling asleep, shaking their head, glowering etc, but don’t worry. That’s what they are paid to do. It’s their job to make you feel as uncomfortable as possible if they disagree, oh wait…that’s not right. They’re supposed to be supportive of public input, aren’t they?
Well, such pushback is one thing that rehearsal might not prepare you for, so heads up!
– The question(s)
This is actually the fun part, where the magic happens! Some of your elected officials not persuaded by the arguments you just put forth, if they don’t simply ignore you, will sometimes take personal shots or try to undermine your well prepared and thoughtful deputation with irrelevant and bizarre questions. This isn’t a trial, so I would say feel free to answer the dumber questions with a question in return. (For example: Do you drive? Reply: I do/don’t but do you take the bus?)
However, since you’ve been watching past committee meetings, you probably have an idea who these councillors are. Some have a real knack for running down the clock so that their question actually ends up being a statement. In this situation, I think you’re fully within your right to anticipate the question and give your answer. You may be called belligerent but that’s neither here nor there. In the truncated versions these more high profile public deputations sessions become, there’s only one minute for questions, so feel free to get in as many salient points as possible. Also, councillors may try to say things like, “I just want a yes or no answer” (kind of gives you insight into the lack of scope some councillors have at times). Again, I say feel free to reply with a question.
Remember, you are not on trial. City councillors are public servants. You are the public.
There are also those councillors who have your back, and will offer up softball questions which can give you room for more questions or, if you’re so inclined, make direct statements at specific councillors.
Be warned though, varying reactions may occur!
That’s it. You, my fellow traveler, have completed your first deputation. However, the work is not done. We are going to go through this budgeting process under the Ford administration at least two more times with our public services under constant threat. So tell your friends in all corners of the city why it’s not only vital that they take the time to depute but also exciting and invigorating. Yes, you can make a difference. Chances are if they are your friend, they share interests similar to yours and have insights that you won’t. The more often we get different people, from different neighbourhoods giving public deputations (or just generally speaking out), the more cracks we can put in this idea of it being just “the usual suspects” at City Hall.
Because remember, the ‘usual suspects’ are simply an engaged citizenry concerned with the welfare of the city they live in. That’s you, right? So what are you waiting for? Step up, be brave and have fun.
Let’s forget that number ever existed. As explained by Hamutal Dotan in the Torontoist on Monday, it was little more than an accounting trick, the roughest of estimates in order to begin the yearly budget process. Routine practice, in other words, never intended by anyone other than Team Ford to be taken seriously as a number that truly had to be wrestled, Jacob or Hercules-like, into submission down to a zero balance.
258 is more like it.
$258 million is really the number that has to be tamed. In terms of a $9+ billion budget, almost a rounding error. 2.8666666% to be more exact. Nothing a proper and modest increase in revenues wouldn’t easily handle. And no, a 2.5% property tax increase is neither proper nor modest especially coming a year after a property tax freeze. A 2.5% property tax increase is, in fact, improper and irresponsible, unnecessarily limiting the city’s ability to meet its budgetary demands. It just gives the appearance of being fiscally prudent.
Which is what this entire budget process has been all about: appearances. The big scary 774 number was simply being used to give the appearance of a budget precipitously close to the brink of disaster, out of control spending run amok. The ugly stick used to beat us into fearful submission of an oncoming train wreck if we don’t pull up hard on the brakes. Ballast needs to be tossed over for the city to stay afloat. Fasten your seat belts, folks. We’re in for a very, very bumpy ride ahead. (How’s that for your trifecta of trains, planes and hot air balloons analogies?)
Then, come Monday, and staff delivers a budget presentation that’s not as dire or drastic as feared. Tax hikes aren’t as big and brutal as the numbers that were being floated beforehand, and please, look away from the proposed user fees. Cuts weren’t as deep as they could’ve been. Look, folks. We had 105 wading pools we could’ve cut. We only axed 5! There were 59 outdoor pools on the chopping block. We pardoned 57. Library branch closures? Pshaw. We only want to ‘adjust’ hours. If you don’t count dialysis patients, we didn’t lay a glove on WheelTrans.
Oh yeah. It’s bad, folks. But it could’ve been a whole lot worse. Like our friend David Hains at The Clamshell said after the meeting, it’s like the schoolyard bully who threatens kids with both a beating and taking their lunch money. When he only takes the lunch money, it almost feels like a relief. It could’ve been a whole lot worse.
This doing great battle with a great big number also gives the appearance of tough choices being made by tough politicians. “It’s too bad the rest of the world doesn’t have the courage to do what we are doing today, ” Budget Chief Del Grande said, while refraining from beating his chest and grunting triumphantly. The few, the proud, the brave politicians, going where angels fear to tread, to slay an imaginary number. It’s a budgetary fish story. You should’ve seen it, guys. It was really this big. Budget Chief as Baron Munchausen.
In reality, there are no tough choices on offer here. Filling a hole deliberately made larger – although nowhere near as large as you claim — by your own fiscal imprudence on the backs of those most dependent on the services the city provides can hardly be called ‘tough’ or brave or novel. That’s what right wing politicians do. Nothing to see here, folks. Just business as usual.
Perhaps most egregious in this opportunistic touting of misleading numbers is its ingraining into the political discourse the idea that the city’s near broke, and only a monumental display of austerity can bring it back from the brink. It’d be hunky dory to be environmentally minded. Wouldn’t it be great to provide affordable daycare? World class transit? You betcha. If only we could afford it.
“Nice to haves” as the mayor likes to refer to them. Those things that elevate a city from a mere functioning, nuts and bolts, utilitarian place to live to one people flock to, from all over the world because of the endless opportunities on offer. That’s the gravy our mayor, his team and the city staff have targeted. The building blocks to a truly liveable, equitable and great city. Unaffordable, we’re being told, the root cause to our out of control spending. Somehow the building of a better city can only come after we dismantle it, pool by pool, library book by library book, bus route by bus route.
Sorry, folks. Our hands are tied. Numbers don’t lie.