Who's in Charge Here?
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Who’s in Charge Here?

City council has passed its 2013 budget. Maybe next year they can tackle our actual problems.

Photo by {a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/sandraherber/7780468346/"}Sandra Herber{/a} from the {a href="http://www.flickr.com/groups/torontoist"}Torontoist Flickr Pool{/a}.

It’s hard to know how to refer to the document that is the 2013 budget. It is some sort of altered beast: neither total slash-and-burn, nor a recipe for healthy growth. Something no one is entirely happy with, or completely disappointed in.

Quite possibly, this budget is the perfect campaign vehicle for Rob Ford, with its mish-mash of added funding for the arts, the fire department, and children’s nutrition programs, combined with spending cuts in other areas and another unhelpfully constrained tax increase. Keeping the lefty tax-and-spend “piranhas” at bay, as the mayor claimed at a post-vote press conference. Compromise! Consensus!

The fact is, this year’s budget further internalizes the mayor and other conservatives’ baleful view of taxes, spending, and debt. Even with today’s addition of some $12 million of funding (some of which is provincial money), it is still a numbers-before-people budget. It is the soulless calculation of a chartered accountant obsessed with achieving an ever-higher credit rating at the expense of everything else. For what, exactly? Bragging rights?

And so, in order to keep to our fiscally conservative talking points, the Toronto Botanical Garden will need to scramble for $60,000. Public Health won’t get $104,000 in AIDS and drug prevention programs, and an attempt to eliminate drop-in fees for children at indoor pools went nowhere. We haven’t begun to address a worsening shortage in daycare spaces (today’s addition of 264 spots notwithstanding), and we’ll have fewer shelter bed nights this year than last.

Many of those proposals are similar to ones that were adopted last year, when a coalition of centrist councillors worked with those on council’s left to overturn many of Ford’s proposed budget changes. This year, though some initiatives did pass, they were notably smaller in scope. In the vacuum of leadership created by Mayor Ford’s legal problems, a coherent opposition failed to materialize even when he made conciliatory but ultimately puny gestures of fiscal magnanimity over the past week. Most councillors were content to settle for a grab-bag of haphazard add-ons, all high profile and politically popular, instead of coalescing into a force to fully counter the mayor’s worst small government instincts.

I heap most of my scorn on the TTC chair Karen Stintz. The goodwill she generated earlier this term, for wrestling the transit file from the mayor’s destructive clutches, should be entirely gone now. She stood silently by during this budget cycle as funding was flat-lined and fares went up five cents. Oh sure, capital spending continues apace with subway and LRT lines under construction, new subway cars making their appearance, and with articulated buses on the horizon. But existing streetcars, buses, and subways remain packed to the rafters during peak hours and beyond. Ridership numbers continue to break records but the services groans under the additional strain.

Stintz and a majority of her colleagues even swatted away a motion to add $5 million to the TTC budget to enhance service. Insignificant, I guess. Should we be expecting some sort of windfall in 2014? Where will it come from? Sudden senior levels of government interest in transit? A splurge of campaign year generosity from city council? A rejection based on little more than hopes and prayers, to use the budget chief’s phrase.

This is a council that wouldn’t budge from a 2 per cent property tax increase this year—well below the rate of inflation—following a below-inflation increase last year and an outright freeze the year before that. But 2014 is going to be like Christmas! Next year we’ll totally deal with congestion, OK?

Rather than step up and assume control of the City’s governance, a solid majority on council decided instead to mirror the uncertainty surrounding the mayor right now. It was a game of leadership hot potato. No, I don’t want to take charge. You take charge. No, you take charge. No, you. Battling to a standstill, any forward progress bogged down in entrenched indecision.

Not to worry, folks. Next year will be better. Next year’s always better.