Cooked books

Suddenly there's a surplus and talk of tax freeze with election year looming

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Surprise, surprise! After increasing property taxes by almost 10 per cent over the past 24 months, city councillors are now talking about a tax freeze in 2003. Have Toronto’s financial fortunes suddenly turned from bad to good? Have senior levels of government seen the light and started writing humongous cheques payable to the city treasury?

Nope. But 2003 is an election year hereabouts. And, by hook or by crook, our municipal politicians are going to do what it takes to make themselves look good in the eyes of the local electorate. It’s enough to make people sick. Even some councillors.

“Every year should be just as important as any other year,” says Jane Pitfield, the Ward 26 (Don Valley West) rep. “It’s exactly this kind of thinking that makes taxpayers very suspicious of politicians. And who can blame them?”

Earlier this year, Pitfield battled hammer and tongs to keep the 2002 property tax increase in line with the rate of inflation. She pointed out that there are all manner of cash reserves (in the $800-million range) and big departmental surpluses that could easily have been used to fund services and programs without raiding homeowners’ pocketbooks. But her admonishments were largely ignored, and a 4.3 per cent tax hike was eventually passed on to residential ratepayers, who’d already been stung with a 5 per cent increase in 2001.

“It’s troubling to note that this time last year the city administration was projecting a $10-million deficit,” Pitfield, a member of council’s budget committee, recalls. “But, lo and behold, we ended up with a $29-million surplus. And, just last week, that surplus was adjusted to $34.6-million.”

By her accounting, that money could have been used to reduce this year’s tax increase to less than 1 per cent. And even if taxes had been raised to reflect cost-of-living increases, there still would have been about $10 million available to up the city’s subsidy to the Toronto Transit Commission.

“You’ve got to ask the questions,” Pitfield maintains. “Why are we not budgeting more accurately and why are we getting these surpluses? It’s not good business when priority services like the TTC are suffering.”

Some councillors did see the logic of Pitfield’s reasoning and raised the issue with Mayor Mel Lastman’s office and senior staff when the 2002 operating budget debate was in full swing back in March. “I was told to back off and leave well enough alone,” says one politician. “The word I got was, this year’s tax increase was defensible, and by approving it the groundwork would be laid for a tax freeze — or even a tax decrease — in 2003. Now, that’s what I call cynical politics.”

Two councillors did seize upon some of Pitfield’s principles to work an 11th-hour budget compromise that cut the property tax increase to 4.3 per cent from 4.6 per cent while restoring a handful of programs. Alas, David Miller and David Soknacki earned Lastman’s eternal enmity when they brokered the deal without fully involving him and his lapdog budget chief, councillor David Shiner.

As punishment, Miller and Soknacki will be excluded next week from influential chair positions on standing committees and commissions for the last half of the current council term. Lastman dictates who gets these plums, with strategic input from deputy mayor Case Ootes and acolyte councillor Betty Disero, key members of council’s so-called striking committee.

Soknacki had been assured he’d become chair of the administration committee come the end of May. But that position now appears likely to go to councillor Paul Sutherland. Meanwhile, Miller — one of the most knowledgeable politicians around when it comes to transit — will be denied the opportunity to be TTC chair when Disero is awarded the job because Lastman has fallen out with Brian Ashton, the current chair.

“If you’re competent and advance the interests of the people of Toronto, you’re pushed out of your position,” Miller argues on Ashton’s behalf. “But if you slavishly play by the mayor’s rules — even if it results in mismanagement and corruption — you’re rewarded.” Miller says it’s all too apparent that committees and commissions are being loaded with Lastman loyalists so a tax freeze can be pushed through council next year with a minimum of opposition.

On the face of it, a tax freeze isn’t a bad thing. “But everything has a price,” Miller advises. “The price the city has paid for Mel’s zero tax increase during his first term in office is formidable.”

A united council led by a mayor capable of building coalitions among politicians with varying philosophical points of view might be able to put the city back on the right track. But the way Lastman is going about things, in the latter stages of a three-year term rife with scandal and increasingly bitter infighting, does not bode well for Toronto’s future.

If there’s anything positive in all of this, it’s the increasing number of councillors from across the ideological spectrum who are starting to voice their objections to the mayor’s exclusionary non-leadership style.

“You’ve really got to look for talent on council and seek out opportunities that will allow people to use their talents,” says councillor Lorenzo Berardinetti. He’s ending his 18-month term as chair of the administration committee and will leave municipal politics next year to run as a Liberal candidate in the provincial election.

“These positions should be awarded on the basis of merit and with fairness in mind,” insists the the Ward 37 (Scarborough Centre) councillor, who’s something of a contrarian member of the striking committee.

But fairness and merit are not in play at City Hall these days. And that’s why diverse groups of councillors have been meeting all week to plot strategies intended to expose the toadyism of the striking committee’s rubber-stamp charade when it’s played out in the council chamber next week.

For example, why should the likes of Ootes and Shiner be allowed to retain their high-profile positions when other councillors are required to step aside to make way for Lastman loyalists? Why is Disero being recommended for TTC chair when she’s shown little interest in transit while serving as chair of the works committee for the past year and a half? And how is it that Brad Duguid can go from chairing the community service committee to heading the works committee — even though he has no experience there?

It’s all about blind obedience, something that should have no place in any democratic city government, but especially not in this one. Tax freeze or no tax freeze.

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