November 29, 2011
The greatest government budget in the history of mankind — Toronto’s mayor says so – is a deceitful document built on exaggerations and failed promises.
It proposes to increase taxes and fees, cut municipal services and lay off staff — in direct contravention of what Mayor Rob Ford guaranteed voters a year ago.
After a summer of turmoil — a fiscal crisis created as a pretext to privatize unionized jobs, reduce the size of government and devalue the importance of grants to vulnerable groups and citizens — the proposed cuts are not nearly as draconian as feared.
Alas, the mayor has already extracted his pound of flesh. Make that half a pound. Garbage collection is being privatized, in part. Arts grants will lose 10 per cent funding, though not be eliminated. Transit is being diminished. The workforce is shrinking, though not nearly as fast as the impossible rate Ford promised.
As it turns out, Toronto can pay its bills. The claims of budget Armageddon were inflated to apocalyptic levels to scare city staffers into chopping off their digits and sacrificing our children.
In essence, city councillors now will fight each other for the next two months over budget scraps. It’s a carefully orchestrated crab-barrelling exercise where councillors pit one valuable service against another, instead of holding a reasonable debate on whether or not citizens can afford the service.
The 2012 budget puts a lie to the claim that the city is a fiscal basket case, ready to be put in a straitjacket by the IMF.
Consider this: After all the hullabaloo about Toronto going broke, the budget launched Monday promises to deliver a $139 million surplus.
Yes, $139 million is being set aside even as councillors must now haggle over a way to keep five wading pools and two outdoor pools open at a cost of $157,000; or allow barely mobile dialysis patients to stay on Wheel-Trans at a cost of $5 million.
In one bizarre budget moment Monday, staff and the mayor patted themselves on the back for generating $30 million from a TTC ridership increase. Then, they moved to slash 62 bus and streetcar routes to save $15 million. And, as a “thank you” to transit users, hiked fares 10 cent a ticket for a $30 million grab.
To add insult to injury, they forced the TTC to chop $1.1 billion in capital projects.
And this is the greatest budget ever created — unheard of in the annals of government.
The 2012 budget exercise is instructive for the 14 new city councillors. They hold the balance of power to determine what services are actually cut and which are spared the budget axe. They’ve observed all the budget tricks financial staff and city mayors have mastered in attempting to cut hated programs and spare sacred cows.
Trick one: Present the fiscal shortfall at frightening levels, talk about huge tax hikes, scare the bureaucracy into offering up cuts. Remember how the shortfall was supposed to be $774 million, as late as two weeks ago?
Trick two: Hide revenue projections, assessment growth, new-found cash, provincial grants and secret reserve funds until the last minute — thus forcing the politicians and staff to squeeze as much savings as possible. This means, of course, that finance staff — this minute — have money hidden away in undisclosed accounts.
Trick three: Bamboozle with big-money numbers and moving totals. Since insisting the budget hole was $774 million, the administration has — abracadabra! — found $54 million in “fringe benefits liabilities — TTC solvency relief;” chopped $28 million off the amount set aside for wage settlements; and found a further $48 million in debt service relief.
There’s money everywhere — except where the mayor doesn’t want it.
Royson James usually appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org