Funny thing, but City Council's new budget advisory committee doesn't seem the least bit concerned about finding money to compensate the Toronto Port Authority for its loss of a bridge to the Island Airport. Even David Soknacki, the Scarborough Conservative whom Mayor David Miller picked to be his budget chief, isn't overly worried that the harbourmasters might put undue pressure on the city's finances next year. And he was one of 18 politicians who voted against the mayor last week when the newly elected council withdrew its predecessor's approval of a fixed link between Bathurst and the controversial downtown landing strip.
But the debate that led to council dismantling plans for a 122-metre span of metal across the Western Gap was child's play compared to the challenge it faces preparing the city's 2004 operating budget.
"My goal is to see if we can have a vote on April 30 that brings three-quarters of council within the tent," Soknacki advises me.
It will be a monumental task, considering he and Miller have agreed that a 3 per cent property tax increase is all that can possibly be passed on to local homeowners next year. That hike will raise only a paltry $30 million for an administration that faces a shortfall of almost $350 million on projected operating expenditures well in excess of $6.5 billion.
On Monday, December 8, chief administrative officer Shirley Hoy met with councillors at Exhibition Place to give them an idea of the financial pressures the city faces in the year ahead. And the news was not good.
"Some people have provided staff with their lists of hopes, wishes, aspirations, dreams and so on," Soknacki says. "But nobody's really done any sort of reality check on them yet. Let's just say that what we have right now is a wish list, and not all those wishes are going to come to fruition in 2004."
For example, the police department is asking for $50 million more than the $640 million it got to enforce the law this year. That increase alone would mean a 5 per cent hike in property taxes next year. Tack on the TTC's request for $60 million more (another 6 per cent tax increase) and demands for more money from the library and health boards and it becomes all too clear that City Hall is in one hell of a financial bind. That is, unless Ottawa and the province come through with major infusions of cash.
Miller is putting his trust in the senior levels of governments to provide Toronto with the financial aid it so desperately needs. "I have absolute confidence that they will come through," he said earlier this week. But is a bailout of more than $300 million a reasonable expectation, considering the Liberals at Queen's Park inherited a $5.6 billion deficit from the previous Tory government and the federal Grits are going through a change of leadership?
"We'll have to address that challenge when we face it," the mayor says before conceding that the 2004 operating budget will be "far and away the toughest" he's confronted during almost a decade in municipal politics.
"It's not just a case of pulling the finger of the province," Miller adds. "We have a structural fiscal problem. You can't maintain a government of our size solely on property tax and user fee revenues."
That said, the mayor makes no bones about the fact that Soknacki and his committee will be looking for ways to save money when it starts a series of preliminary meetings tomorrow.
"We have to find efficiencies," Miller says. "There's no question that city services have to be run efficiently."
With that in mind, the city will embark on a series of town hall meetings early in the new year to get a sense of the public's priorities before the official budget preparation process is launched in late January.
"We want to bring the people in at the beginning instead of the end," the mayor says.
It will be interesting to see how the budget committee deals with all this input in light of the fact that its membership cuts right across the political spectrum. Soknacki's two vice-chairs are NDP councillor Joe Mihevc and Jane Pitfield, a middle-of-the-road conservative with considerable budget committee experience on two previous councils.
This threesome is joined by downtown lefty Kyle Rae, right-wing Etobicoan Peter Milczyn and centrist newcomers Shelley Carroll of North York and Sylvia Watson, the former city solicitor, from High Park.
"In previous budget committees you almost felt a little bit of a sadistic delight in raking different departments over the coals," Mihevc observes. "It was anti-government government."
But he senses that adversarial approach is now in the past. And, like the mayor, he's confident the province will come through to keep the city up and running for another year until a new funding arrangement can be worked out based on the city getting a portion of the gasoline tax and other cost-sharing programs.
"There's a little bit of magic that's got to happen this year," Mihevc suggests.
That would suit Kyle Rae just fine.
"I've heard that this year is going to be awful," he says. "But I've heard that every year since I was elected in 1991, so I'm not going to jump on the 'woe is me' bandwagon."
Hopefully, Rae will still be talking tough four months from now.