Sunday, August 12, 2007

Circling the Drain

When I started this blog a few weeks ago I thought it was going to be a collection of minor annoyances about Toronto and its loopy governance. Little did I know that I chose Toronto's equivalent of the fall of Rome to begin my smarty pants observations.

The Toronto $575 million budget shortfall (which nobody saw coming apparently because we're now all in shock throwing together a Plan B of hasty program and service cuts like we're throwing together a pot luck dinner for unexpected guests) keeps spinning out of control.

On Friday Mayor Miller announced a round of cuts - $34 million this year, $83 million next year. The announcement wasn't made by our elected Mayor or councillors, nor were the cuts apparently thought through by any of them. That duty fell on Shirley Hoy, Toronto's city manager. There's democratic leadership.

And the cuts? Closing community centres on Mondays, stranding thousands of single moms and low income families and disrupting their work schedules. Closing libraries on Sundays - wouldn't want people getting smarter if you can save a couple of bucks.

We were also warned that city hall will stop answering the phone. You mean they actually have phones? I called three times last week and each time was touch-toned into the dumpster. Not even an answering machine or "please hold". Straight to hang up.

Most of the cancelled programs involved making Toronto clean and livable: garbage collection, litter, trees, parks, grass cutting. All things that will let the voters see the city in decline.

The one that got me to show how petulant and mean-spirited the mayor has become over his tax hike rejection - the City will not be picking up old Christmas trees in December. The Grinch would be so proud.

The 2006 Toronto Budget Document identifies where most of the city's money is spent:

"The 2006 Approved Operating Budget is detailed by major expenditure and revenue category. Salaries and Benefits, which total $3.517 billion or 46 per cent of the gross expenditure, represented the largest expenditure category. Emergency services (Fire, Police and EMS) and TTC alone totalled $1.932 billion which approximated 55 per cent of the total salary and benefit budget."

There you are. It is impossible to make any kind of dent in our budget without seriously looking at salaries. And I'm not someone who begrudges the mayor or city councillors their salaries. There's not enough money there to make any difference so why bother with the symbolic?

What they need is a line by line review of plans, programs and policies and see if we really need them to keep this city clean and functioning - not some clumsy, hatchet-wielding, 11th hour "that'll teach you" slash and burn to make the voters feel the pain.

City council and the Mayor have to sit in open session and put every item on the table and sharpen their pencils. No sacred cows, no vote getters, no ideological hobby horses that cost a bundle and go nowhere - just good fiscal policy. And if they can't do it they shouldn't run next time for a job they can't do.

Oh, and they should stop whining to get someone else to pay. Make your best deal with the province and the feds, and then raise the rest. Pass tax hikes, but just make sure you raise it on the backs of the people who can afford it - like the developers of the booming condo market and land transfer tax.

Jacking up property taxes blindly across the board only feeds the spending beast and doesn't encourage a culture of savings.

Find something to sell - there's a point when you have to realize you can't raise enough to get out of debt, and our city's debt of $507 million now costs about $200 million a year to service - our 2nd biggest expenditure.


Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that no one is interested in saving money - not the TTC, not the police, not council nor the mayor. They're only interested in finding more so they can keep spending the same way.