I must admit, for a reporter, it can be frustrating to have nothing much to complain about. (I blame society.)
Those aligned with council’s unofficial opposition may have experienced a similar crisis when the budget committee proposed a modest property tax hike, keeping most departments under their control to a 0 per cent increase, and a balanced budget. It seemed all council’s right wing could kvetch about was the fact that there was so little about which to kvetch.
But now, suddenly, things have unravelled rather badly.
Revelations this week that staff had planned on quietly ramping permit fees for rec centres and rinks by an average of 21 per cent, netting $2 million, is stoking a councillor rebellion against the budget. Expect to hear ongoing dissection of who knew what when. So is the budget really balanced after all?
But there were already other ripples under the surface – signs the “balanced’’ budget could also come to be the “careful what you wish for” budget. Solvency, said staff in a media briefing, was partially achieved by raiding the social service reserve. And with talk of “economic downturn” (formerly known as “recession”), safety net services may find themselves in dire need of this cash.
Now with the parks problem, the question is where to find the offsets for permit fee hikes, which, it turns out, no one’s willing to stomach.
Hope looms on the horizon: the province’s “one-time’’ funding infusions have become an annual joke that staff seem to think are a permanent fixture. And the review of municipal-provincial cost-sharing is due to be released this year. But what if it isn’t enough. And what to do in the meantime? No one has an appetitie for sercie cuts, and a further tax hike seems unlikely. This doesn’t bode well for the few small comforts in this budget.
Take the possibilities that could come from the fact that, despite a freeze in some departments, the city will hire 12 new planners, six in community planning, the rest divided among heritage, urban design and transportation, perhaps presaging – with grassroots pressure – a transition from the OMB to community consultation and planning of flexible, resilient neighbourhoods.
As budget chief Shelley Carroll put it to me, “People, whether or not they know it, have been asking for it.’’
But many deputations at the budget meeting Tuesday, February 5, addressed arts funding. Over half the 90-odd attendees spoke on behalf of artistic organizations. Most of those groups have a mandate to work with marginalized youth or have recently shifted their focus in that direction.
In particular, a short documentary made by Urban Arts showed just the sort of in-touch, flexible work the city could only get by going outside itself: graffiti mural projects or mobile hiphop production facilities that were actually brought into the community.
Others spoke of similar work done in Weston, Jane-Finch or Regent Park, providing meeting points for disparate communities and training for kids who haven’t excelled anywhere else, and, consequently, relief for city services.
Note that this year, the police department has been quietly kept down to 0 per cent plus salary increases. No one is forecasting the apocalypse. What could happen if 1 or 2 more percentage points were directed toward community arts grants? Deputant after deputant spoke of the difference just another $500,000 for the Toron-to Arts Council would make. Imagine $5 million.
Note also that mid- and upper-level management staff numbers are dropping quickly. When you need to cut costs and want to preserve frontline services, that’s the only way to go.
I predict that in 2009 we’ll look back and find everyone emerged from the Year of Fewer Administrators quite intact, thank you. If the heralded provincial funding should arrive, it may likely fall to the citizenry to make sure there’s no quick return to managerial bloat.
If uploading takes place, it should not be seen as a return to innocence; it’ll be a chance to finally put some power in the hands of communities – to finally start building a strong and sustainable city.
If uploading doesn’t happen, we’ll need to start building a flexible one. But either way, the strategy is, I suspect, much the same.