When this hits the streets on April 12, the budget committee will be wrapping up its operating budget. Do you care? Or perhaps the question is, did anyone ask if you care?
The budget was released March 26. Public deputations were held March 29. People had two days to hear about the budget, pore over enough paper to bury several small children, realize that the "2007 budget process" link on the budget Web page leads to a document showing incorrect dates for public deputations, make a lucky guess upon finding the correct dates on where consultations were being held and find someone to cover their shift so they could sit through a whole day of deputations just to talk for five minutes and be ignored, or, if lucky, contradicted.
Seems that having us pull up a seat was a tertiary concern. In keeping with its lobbying strategy, the city's budget presentation was biased toward showing the extent to which the provincial government is screwing Toronto.
And, if you speak acronym, the shtupping was plain to see. The CM and DCM-CFO found that Toronto's budget was within OMBI and MPMP bounds, and that a 2 per cent increase in ABC's RBFBs is acceptable, driven as they are by COLA, EMS and OW COA. I know a lot of you were pulling for COTA, but, well, that's just the way the FYIO does whatever the hell it is an FYIO does.
I made one of those up, by the way.
The interstitial English was this: the province isn't giving us enough money. Pay no attention to the police budget behind the curtain. And wade not into finances, for there be dragons dragons lacking sufficient vowels.
Let's be clear: Ontario is Toronto's deadbeat dad. This city is painfully efficient. It's relying on property tax to fund a $7.8 billion operating budget, a third of which goes toward the cost of administration of provincially mandated programs like Ontario Works.
So, faced with sticky negotiations with an indifferent stratum of senior bureaucrats, do you turn your public budget process into jargon-laden propaganda? Or do you open up the discussion and hope to motivate a consensus movement against the province? The budget committee fears, likely justifiably, that the province would be turned off by a cacophony of community activists.
But despite the provincial holdback, budget choices were being made. One of these, not well received during public deputations, was the elimination of over 50,000 "budgeted bed nights" in shelters, likely equalling about 150 beds. City staff say bed usage went down last year; the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee says it went up.
"You're projecting fewer shelter nights, and that's not the reality we're working with," says social service activist Ann Fitzpatrick during the consultations.
Councillor Maria Augimeri takes umbrage. "But you do realize you're advocating putting more on the property tax base?"
Is she? Maybe Fitzpatrick wouldn't have to if people were let in on this process from the start. Maybe frontline activists are suggesting that budgets are political documents. Maybe they're suggesting that a $33.2 million increase for the police was a bit loopy especially when the highest crime category is "youth crime."
Budget members are quick to point out that the province opened new courthouses, requiring the city to fund new courthouse officers to the tune of $3 million from police dollars. Oh, that other $30.2 million? Well, council was on a roll. And the chief does this thing with his eyebrows when he gets mad, so....
Police budget submissions being the bare and turgid things they are, it's hard to say which items are necessary, so let's stick with the court cops for now. The irony is that Ontario isn't fulfilling its legal obligations: it's legislatively required to fund half of social service administration but has capped its ante. It's at around one-third now, and that will drop as costs rise.
So here's a question. Can't we just tell the province to fuck off? I leave it to staff to translate that into the proper bureaucratese, but the gist is, Um, no. Staff your own damn courts.
I run my "strategy" past Councillor Gord Perks.
"We have to be careful," he says. "They have a huge impact on our budget, and we have very little on theirs. They could bankrupt us in a second."
Isn't this all the more reason to open the budget up to public scrutiny? Wouldn't people apply political pressure if they felt like the city budget were theirs?
"For that to work," he tells me, "we'd need to make sure everyone from you to OCAP (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty) was on message."
"On message?" On side would probably be enough. And anyway, OCAP already hates the province. If council members ante up with a few shelter beds, they just might be surprised.