In what is best described as Kafkaesque theatre, for the last two days Toronto city council debated the capital, operating, water, and waste budgets for 2011. Things got weird right off the bat, with a head-spinning exchange between Councillor Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s) and Rob Ford, in which a simple yes-or-no question led into a rabbit’s hole of non sequiturs. Like one of those pull-string children’s toys that come loaded with a few pre-recorded phrases, Rob Ford seems incapable of conversing in anything but the broken-record mash-up of his campaign slogans.
All of this would be funny if it wasn’t so decidedly unfunny.
Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park) introduced a motion calling for a minor increase in the property tax rate (by 0.155% on residential and 0.052% on non-residential properties), which would have generated enough money to save the TTC bus routes being cut, maintain the library board’s budget, and fight the bedbug infestation in the city, with a chunk of change left over. The increase would have amounted to roughly four to nine dollars, based on average property values.
Sounds reasonable, no?
The motion lost 18-27, but not before councillors had a chance to debate this service-saving tax increase. Councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) called attention to the subjectivity in everyone’s estimation of the service cuts in question, saying that while Ford may consider a proposed cut to be minor, the residents affected by the cut may well experience it as major.
Councillor Karen Stintz (Ward 16, Eglinton-Lawrence) countered that “the people of Toronto said that what is equally important to them is that we demonstrate a symbolic shift in how we do our business. And what the people of Toronto have also said is: ‘You know what? I actually would like the opportunity to decide where I spend my nine dollars. Cause, quite frankly, you guys have had that chance for the past seven years, and we haven’t been all that impressed with the results.’”
Perhaps Torontonians could pool their four or five or nine dollars together, invest it, and then in a hundred years they’d be in a postion to buy their own bus.
Stintz was right about one thing: what was really on the table here was the symbolic shift, and not necessarily anything resembling sound city budgeting. Ford said he wanted to freeze property taxes no matter what, so they froze property taxes no matter what.
In a particularly embarrassing display, Ford was the only councillor to vote against a 100% provincially funded, one-time transfer of funds to the City “in the amount of $100,000 as part of the Provincial Government’s response to ongoing elevated rates of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and infectious syphilis in Toronto” [PDF]. When asked about his dissenting vote, Ford said that even though this was provincial money, it was still the taxpayers’ money, and, you know, respect for taxpayers…or something. (Where does Ford think most of the money comes from for the operations at City Hall? Should we just cancel everything? Is the ultimate respect for taxpayers not taxing them at all?)
In another head-scratcher, the city’s Ombudsman was denied increased staff while three million dollars was earmarked for consultants whose jobs will be to comb through the city’s finances over the next year to find fat to trim—which seems a bit like using gravy to find gravy.
Perks put forward another motion, this time to set aside that same amount of money and allocate it to the TTC, the Urban Affairs Library, the Ombudsman, and a few other programs. One might say that in highlighting what three million could buy if the City didn’t wastefully spend it on consultants looking for wasteful spending, Perks basically did the job of said consultants. The motion lost 17-28.
But perhaps the strangest twist was when the Speaker, Frances Nunziata (Ward 11,York South-Weston) ruled that it was out of order to mention anything at all regarding the 2012 budget—including the projections for 2012 that were included as part of the analysts’ notes on the 2011 budget that council was in the middle of debating. The rationale, as provided by Rob Ford on Wednesday: “We’re talking about 2011 and that’s before us, and that’s the proper procedures before council. … I’m only focused on 2011.” It was unclear whether this was because Ford believes the world will end in 2012, doing away with budget woes forevermore.
Focusing on 2011 is all well and good, but it’s madness to deny that one should be thinking a bit further ahead when dealing with budgetary matters. In fact, multi-year budgeting has been something the right at City Hall has been calling for, for years. The City’s finances are not like an Etch A Sketch that is shaken clean each year, and it would befit our councillors to act like it.