Mayor David Miller should try to enjoy what's left of the summer, because life at City Hall is unlikely to be the source of much pleasure come fall.
We're not just talking about the continuing political fallout from the clumsy sacking of Chief Julian Fantino by a Toronto police services board that has put the "dys" back in "dysfunctional."
Matters could be made even worse by the pressure unionized city workers will bring to the budget process when they try to negotiate a new collective agreement with a municipal administration headed by a labour-friendly mayor. Miller and senior bureaucrats met privately with representatives of CUPE Locals 79 and 416 at a "summit" on Toronto Island last week in the lead-up to full-scale bargaining.
Union executives came away expressing considerable optimism for the employment futures of their nearly 30,000 members. But labour peace will cost more of what the city treasury won't have nearly enough of unless the senior levels of government come through.
How this situation plays out could have a major impact on Miller's political future. If CUPE gets a deal it likes, he's almost certain to come in for criticism from the right. Let the unions walk away from the bargaining table disappointed and they could turn against the mayor in the next municipal election.
"The mayor's relationship with organized labour could be his greatest strength or his greatest political weakness," predicts Councillor Brian Ashton.
Budget chief David Soknacki, too, is aware of Miller's predicament. "Good labour relations are one thing, but telling city employees there's going to be a little less to take home to feed the kids is another. It's going to make for a very interesting fall."
In fact, the Fantino debacle on its own should be overcome in relatively short order, if only because the mayor is blessed with what Ashton calls an "absolutely inarticulate" right-wing opposition.
But the head of council's economic development committee sees trouble ahead and warns the chief magistrate that "one day the old stadium could collapse right around him." The veteran Scarborough politician suggests cracks in the foundation could start to show soon as council begins grappling with the city's 2005 budget.
"The mayor has taken off all his emperor's clothes and lain down in front of both the federal and provincial governments waiting to be showered with money," Ashton says. "If that fails to happen, the city is going to be in a critical financial state next year."
Miller's political stock could take a hard hit if he has to be the frontman for another property tax hike or preside over another round of service and program cuts next spring. If people start grumbling about all the extra money being sucked out of their wallets by the denizens of 100 Queen West, it won't be long before they'll move on to critical comments about other perceived political failings - like the handling of the top cop's contract and the circus that's followed.
"Fantino, in a strange way, became the lightning rod that exposed Miller's leadership weaknesses," Ashton maintains. "I think the mayor's vulnerable."
Even the most inarticulate among the mayor's council critics may be able to exploit that vulnerability.
"I don't know if David's been buying lottery tickets, but I would if I were him," says Soknacki, who would gladly use any Lotto winnings to help erase "nine digits' worth of red ink" from a proposed operating budget inching toward $7 billion for the next fiscal year.
"We're still in a position where credits don't equal debits," the Ward 43 (Scarborough East) councillor says of a funding deficit estimated to be in the $250-million range. That's the crisis Queen's Park and Ottawa are expected to help solve once and for all with gas tax cash and dramatically improved cost-sharing arrangements for public services like transit, affordable housing and childcare. Alas, cheques have been very slow in coming, when they do come at all.
"The problem is not the promises and it's not the good intentions," says Soknacki. Never mind the money the city is hoping to get for 2005. According to the budget chief, "We're still wrestling for the TTC funding that was announced with so much fanfare at the beginning of 2004."
"Miller's on the same road Mel Lastman was on as mayor," Ashton argues. "Miller's driving a better car, but it's starting get a few dents in it. If the feds and the province don't come to his aid, he's going to run out of gas."