APRIL 17-18 The policy and finance committee, council's powerful executive committee, will conduct its final budget review at City Hall. It's an open meeting, so get on down there. To make a deputation on April 17 call 416-392-9151.
APRIL 23-26 The budget bomb will drop at the next full council meeting. Pack a lunch and settle into the council chamber for windy speeches, temper tantrums, slags and lots of sobbing. Progressive councillors will need all the support they can get to save city services from the axe.
despite the eleventh-hour cash
from Mike Harris, Toronto's long-term public finances are not sustainable and the budget scenario is no better than it was two months ago, when senior city staff broke the bad news.
The $125 million in one-time money the Tories announced yesterday is basically the result of a quid pro quo between Mayor Mel and Harris, not any progressive city-building plan.
This is exactly what the Tories wanted. The budget advisory committee completed its dirty work, slashing city services, and Mel got his reward money from Harris to maintain a single-digit (5 per cent) tax increase.
But for the moment, all the budget cuts stay. Instead of giving Harris the finger and refusing to slash public services, the budget committee has proposed a shocking list of cuts to the health and welfare of the city.
If the cuts totalling $137 million fly -- and the way things are shaping up, nearly all of them will -- Toronto will no longer be able to credibly consider itself a progressive metropolis.
"(Normally) if (the budget committee) wants to have a budget that is acceptable to most of the councillors, it has to include a group of things that will protect city services," says councillor Olivia Chow. "But this year I don't think there is any awareness of that."
Indeed, only a retrograde city council would cut basic health programs like dental care for the poor and deny funding for support for new parents in the aftermath of the inquest into baby Jordan Heikamp's tragic death.
If this budget passes, the public will have no reason to trust that this council will deliver on any of its progressive platitudes in the future.
Take the $4 million that council approved last summer to jump-start the city's long-overdue environmental plan. After going through the budget- committee grinder, the total the city is now committing to reducing smog and completing the phase-out of pesticide use on public property, among other things, is an appalling $50,000.
"The environmental plan is close to dead," says Toronto Environmental Alliance executive director Lois Corbett.
And what about all that hot air last fall at council about diverting Toronto's waste from landfill? In the current budget proposal, the city will not be diverting 80,000 tons of organic waste from restaurants and greengrocers, weekly recycling collection has been deferred to 2002, and free multi-bins for schools and daycares have been cut.
Add to this TTC fare hikes and service cuts, user fees, reduced hours at ice rinks, pools and libraries, and this city is not a fun place to be any more.
But just so you don't think I'm being a total "nabob of negativism" here, while the teeth of poor children will be left to rot, our top cops have managed to wring an additional $16.5 million from the public purse for an impressive 3-per-cent increase this year, bringing their total budget up to a staggering $573.8 million.
And while treasurer Wanda Liczyk maintains there are "significant deficiencies" in the city's reserve funds, which shouldn't be raided to shore up cuts to services or cut taxes, the cops will also have access to an additional $5 million from reserve funds -- just in case they blow through their budget. (If you're wondering, the total price tag for providing dental care for 32,000 low-income children and seniors is $5.2 million.)
Despite the havoc $137 million in cuts will wreak on our poorest citizens, councillors have been largely preoccupied with the other part of the $305-million budget shortfall equation -- the tax increase for homeowners.
Not a single penny of this provincial money will go toward restoring city services.
"We're not going to get away from the cuts that are being proposed in terms of the magnitude," says deputy mayor Case Ootes.
Ootes and Lastman bristle when money they rightly insist the province owes the city is referred to as a "bailout." But do they really believe they'll get anything but scraps as long as the Harris Tories are in power?
Of the $125 million the city got, $50 million is earmarked for transportation improvements -- but not public transit. (Toronto remains the only major city in North America that doesn't get funding for public transit from senior levels of government.)
The other $75 million from Harris is the result of reshuffling money the city pays to, or gets back from, the province.
"I know that the (Tory) government wants to continue talking about smart growth and the transportation crisis that we have in this city. They want to address that," says Ootes. "The question then arises, how does that translate into alleviating the financial problems we have? So there's a willingness to talk. But I'd hate to preclude any possible positive outcome by saying that that's not possible with this government. I hope it is."
Isn't it abundantly clear by now that the Tories aren't listening? Why not do everything in your power to save city services until we get a new government at Queen's Park? Why won't the mayor support a budget plan that inflicts the least pain on the city's most vulnerable?
Council's progressives have proposed a short-term plan that wouldn't sacrifice city services.
The major parts of the plan tabled in February by councillors Chow, David Miller, Joe Pantalone and Anne Johnston call for:
a 5-per-cent tax increase.
mortgaging Metro Hall (which the city intends to sell off anyway)
redirecting money from the employee-related liabilities fund
reducing cash payments on capital projects, and
cutting the police budget.
Chow disagrees with Liczyk's contention that the reserve coffers are bare. She points out that there is already over $166 million in the city's employee-related liabilities reserve fund and that the city can afford to divert at least part of the additional $80 million in OMERS savings the city intends to store away in the fund this year (that's apparently on top of their usual $40 million-plus contribution).
"If we don't want to wreck the city, this is the amount we can find," says Chow, adding, "If people want to inflict pain, they can choose to do so. They don't have to."
Before the budget horror show goes to the full city council, it must first be signed off by the powerful policy and finance committee. The three lefty members are pushing to save city services. But the rest could use some coaxing to stop the cuts. So give them a call.
WHAT'S ON THE CHOPPING BLOCK
The over $130 million in cuts to city services proposed by the budget advisory committee include:
- Dental care for poor children and seniors. - Early parenting programs for 1,500 families with children up to age six - Prenatal classes - Child nutrition program - Creation of 2,000 new childcare spaces - Free multi-recycling bins for schools and daycares - Recommendation for 1,000 new hostel beds over a three-year period. - Money to collect and process 80,000 tons of organic waste from restaurants and greengrocers - Service cuts on 77TTC routes (and a 10-cent fare increase) - Council-approved funding for environmental plan cut from $4 mikllion to $50,000 - Weekly recycling collection deferred until January 2002 - Toronto Public Library to purchase 45,000 fewer books - 293 library hours to be cut per week, affecting 26 branches - Pool and ice rink hours cut from 12 to 10 weeks per year -Permit fees for stadiums, parks, pools, sports fields and gymnasiums to increase by 15 per cent - New recreation user fee for instructional programs is $35 -City grants program cut $2 million