348 Torontonians are registered to tell the Budget Committee what they think of the 2012 budget proposal. We'll be tracking what they say as the two-day meeting unfolds.
7:34 PM: Math time. We are on the deputant registered at number 84. A few up until this point haven’t shown up, but a few further down the list (those with disabilities or children) spoke, so we’ve had about that many deputants speak. The first two (from the Board of Trade and Toronto Real Estate Board) were in favour of cutting taxes further. Just about everyone else has spoken out against the cuts. (Until now, with this deputant, who wants to talk about fluoridation.) And with that, we are signing off for the night. Back tomorrow for day two!
7:23 PM: Among the wifi hotspots currently active in Committee Room 1: BathingInGravy and Fordpocalypse.
6:52 PM: “Come talk to me after, I’ll help you out.” Doug Ford to a deputant in his ward, after she finishes speaking about her concerns regarding a local student nutrition program. (The suggestion is he will help out of his own pocket, not shunt City money that way.) Groans of “oh, come on!” from others in the room. His concern seems genuine, but it also strikes just about everyone else in the room as startlingly unfair, playing favourites. It’s the Ford understanding of governance in a nutshell: individual constituent concerns garner real and immediate care, and often personal generosity, but broader policies that might rely on the same principles have far less of an effect.
6:48 PM: Back from the dinner break. First order of business: as depuations resume in Committee Room 1, #TOpoliday gift giving gets underway in Committee Room 2, which has been set aside for overflow. Started by City Hall blogger (and occasional Torontoist guest contributor) David Hains, the secret Santa swap was devised to as a fun bit of bonding for anyone who follows the #TOpoli hashtag on Twitter. Amongst the gifts exchanged (rules: value must be lest thatn $15, and handmade presents were encouraged) was this custom version of “Who Is It?” featuring all the members of city council:
5:31 PM: Food Share exective director Debbie Field: if this budget proposal goes through, she says to councillors, “you will be the first jurisdiction I know of that has cut student nutrition programs in Canada… Between 12,000–18,000 children will get less food because of you.”
5:14 PM: Del Grande Del Grande chastizes deputants for going overtime, says when they don’t get through the whole list of registered duputants and there’s a lot of complaining tomorrow, it’ll be their (the overtime speakers’) fault. (Note: this is false. At an average of 5 minutes, 348 deputants = 29 hours of deputations. 21 hours were scheduled.)
4:39 PM: New tally! We have just passed deputant number 40 on the list—though a few more spoke, due to allowing those who are disabled or with children to give their presentations early. Overwhelming opposition to cuts, multiple calls to reinstate VRT. The difference between Del Grande’s chairing style and Doug Ford’s is palpable; Del Grande is failing to create anything like an atmosphere of enthusiasm for this show of civic engagement. (Then again, he doesn’t seem to be trying, either.)
4:17 PM: Up to deputant 38, library union president Maureen O’Reilly. “You will not balance the budget,” she says, “by limiting the number of DVDs available at the library.” Laying of City staff “will only drive the economy of Toronto to the brink,” she goes on, saying it is a road to increased economic hardship. City workers are taxpayers too, and support local businesses, and create economic wealth for the city overall.
3:41 PM: Erin Geroge makes her deputation with her six-month-old baby gurgling on her lap. They are on 16 separate waiting lists for child care, and she is deeply worried about potential cuts to child care services.
3:40 PM: Shocker of the day: “Folks, I hate to ruin the party but I’m letting the boss take over now,” says Doug Ford, handing the meeting back over to Del Grande, and some in the room say “awwwwww!”—sincerely.
2:44 PM: Sidenote: Doug Ford, who has been relieving budget chair Mike Del Grande and chairing the meeting since we came bck from lunch, is much more genial. He makes jokes (even with CUPE leaders), is flexible on a few seconds of time here and there. An improvement.
2:32 PM: Mark Fegurson, president of CUPE 415, says these budget cuts will be “devastating” and that the fact that councillors were able, in previous budgets, to close budget gaps of a similar size to this year’s without major cuts indicates that this budget process has gone awry.
2:07 PM: Now up is Fred Hahn, president of CUPE Ontario. Calls the budget an exercise in ironies: “even the Board of Trade says we need to talk about [lack of] revenue,” he says, and we mark World AIDS day while the City proposes cutting funding to AIDS programming. “You can pretend you are lowering taxes, but the reality for most families is that they will spend more in fees,” he contends, and the City shouldn’t try to balance its books by outsourcing jobs to the private sector, which will pay minimum wage and undermine income levels across the board.
2:04 PM: Just finished speaking: Sue Edworthy, deputant 20. She describes herself as a home owner, taxpayer, and member o the arts community. She tells the committee she would have much rather seen them retain the Vehicle Registration Tax, skip the property tax freeze, increase development charges rather than make cuts. Doug Ford grumbles.
1:48 PM: “I would not welcome more fulsome debate at council if councillors do not have a firm grasp of what they’re talking about.” Janice Etter, president of the newly-formed Montgomery INNovators group. She is concerned about potential museum closures, and more generally, about the way the City is going about deciding what to cut back. “We don’t know what the rules of the game are,” she tells the committee.
1:42 PM: Just back from the lunch break and Mary T. Hynes made her deputation. After telling councillors she was distributing to each of them a report—”Countdown to Zero” by the Wellesley Institute—showing how the budget could be balanced without service cuts. And then she went on:
12:29 PM: And…Doug Ford, who has been chairing the meeting in Mike Del Grande’s absence, calls the lunch break right before Yelly Granny. She’ll be first up at 1:30 p.m.
12:19 PM: A staffer comes over to the media table, tells press budget chief Del Grande is available outside for questions. In the scrub he says not taking many notes so far because he hasn’t heard many suggestions for fixing the budget gaps. Cooincidentally or not this scrum is timed for two minutes before #yellygranny is up to speak. Press out of committee room. Also while he speaks Claire Hopkinson, executive director of the Toronto Arts Council gives her deputation, speaking againsts cuts to the arts.
11:44 AM: Budget chair Mike Del Grande to Angelina Vaz, representing WoodGreen Community Services: “I think the elephant in the room is that everyone is saying ‘don’t touch this’. But nobody is saying…what it is specifically we should do” instead. An ongoing refrain of his for months at these meetings. Everybody drink! (Note: several deputants have suggested bringing the VRT back.)
11:22 AM: In response some councillors (for instance, Doug Ford) are now asking Campey about Social Planning Toronto’s own organizational budget, their salary levels, etc. Here is a copy of the map Campey showed in his presentation:
11:13 AM: John Campey, executive director of Social Planning Toronto, speaking against social programming cuts, shows map that pegs location-specific cuts (for instance, of specific shelters or pools) relative to low-income neighbourhoods. Says cuts are disproportionately concentrated in neighbourhoods that can least afford them. Campey is especially concerned about the future of the Hardship Fund, which helps offset medical costs for individuals receiving social assistance.
10:56 AM: Tally so far: seven deputants, three representing organizatons and four speaking as individuals. Two in favour of tax cuts, five in favour of preserving services.
10:49 AM: Listening to this budget debate is like watching people discuss “should we build this statue in the park, or should we feed the poor? It’s egregious… The budget of the City of Toronto exceeds the budget of the poorest 100 countries in the world. It’s almost the size of Belgium’s budget—and Belgium has an airforce.” 71-year-old Seaton House resident. He adds that residents “affectionately” call it “Satan House,” and that it shouldn’t exist.
10:41 AM: “This time, this year you’ve given me one hell of a present for Christmas.” Tom Howett, a resident of Birchmount, a City-run residence for men over 55. Birchmount is one of three City-run residences that is slated for closure according to the draft 2012 budget.
10:20 AM: Elisha Corbin-Param is deputant four. He is here to speak about the services provided by St. Stephen’s Community House. “I am here to ask you to please make these [community] grants a priority.” And earlier: “They don’t give up on people at St. Stephen’s.”
10:16 AM: Deputant 3 is Carol Sahian of the Toronto Seniors Forum. She is worried about the impact cuts will have on seniors’ ability to live independently in the city.
10:09 AM: “Do you not think that individual homeowners…could spend $6,000 better than putting it in the coffers of irresponsible government?” Doug Ford, questioning Silver. Boos from deputants and a couple of councillors. Doug Ford also suggests first time home buyers should be exempt from the Land Transfer Tax. In fact, they are.
9:58 AM: Second deputant: president of the Toronto Real Estate Board, Richard Silver. He is saying Ford hasn’t yet fulfilled the promise on which Torontonians elected him—repealing unfair taxes like the land transfer tax. He says those who pay it are bearing an “unfair share” of the tax burden. This is a losing proposition. Current cuts total about $80 million. Land transfer tax brings in more than $300 million.
9:45 AM: We begin. Very first on the list: Carol Wilding, CEO of Toronto Board of Trade. She is “very encouraged that the mayor is now facing up to our fiscal realities.” Calls budget a paradigm shift, opposes uses budget surpluses to balance the books.
9:43 AM: Math! At an average of five minutes each (3 minutes to speak, plus a couple of questions), getting though the 348 deputants will take 29 hours. Scheduled meeting time: 21 hours.
9:39 AM: Budget chair Mike Del Grande is getting things underway by announcing that persons with disabilities and those who brought young children with them will be bumped to the top of the speakers list. Also, he reminds us that deputations have been limited to three minutes instead of the usual five, and questions from councillors have also been curtailed, to one minute each. Reason? “There wouldn’t be enough time” to hear from everyone and keep to the scheduled meeting time. Similarly, anyone on the speakers list who doesn’t get a chance to speak by 9:30 p.m. tomorrow—the scheduled end of the meeting—will be asked instead to submit their comments in writing.
9:37 AM: The first thing that happens to us once we find a seat at the meeting: a representative of the Toronto Real Estate Board hands us a press release. Title: Public Support for Land Transfer Tax Repeal is Resillient. Given the reistance to cuts currently under consideration—cuts necessitated in large part by the repeal of the much smaller Vehicle Registration Tax, this may be a minority position.