Mel's resignation would empower someone new and impress on everyone the depth of the city's crisis mayor mel once said he would be Premier Mike Harris's worst nightmare if the Tories screwed the city.Provincial downloading has screwed Toronto, but Mel has turned out to be our nightmare.
His three-year tax freeze has only made a desperate situation worse. The city faces a whopping $305-million budget shortfall this year alone that will have to be addressed either by a double-digit tax increase or deep service cuts and more user fees, or some combination of all of the above.
Mel's clout is ebbing at the very time we need him to stand up to the province. His constant ranting act has become a tired routine, and the Tories aren't intimidated by it any more. Frankly, the mayor has become a joke. It may be time for him to step down.
His resignation would certainly impress upon everyone the level of the city's crisis. It would also empower a new leader with a mandate to cut a new deal with the province.
This city can't afford another three years of management on the fly. Any bailout Mel secures from the Tories will likely hinge on deep cuts and outright privatization of city services.
That's ultimately what these co-dependent exercises of amalgamation and downloading (the province took education costs and loaded social services and public transit costs onto the city) have been all about. It's no secret that the Tories end-game here is to cut government.
Their shrinking state strategy has been facilitated by the federal Liberals, who in 1993 gave away the power to influence Queen's Park, insisting on non-earmarked block funding to the provinces, their own unique brand of downloading. They refused to develop an urban policy, pretending cities like Toronto have the same needs as Owen Sound or Medicine Hat.
Ottawa has left the TTC in a funding lurch and has done little to stimulate affordable housing. Even the money for the homeless that was promised a year ago by the feds has only recently begun to trickle in.
The large contingent of Toronto Liberal MPs has made absolutely no difference -- our reps have utterly failed to make Toronto's decline a cabinet priority.
This is the situation that's allowed Mel a free hand to run the city according to his own personal political needs. His vote-boosting three-year tax freeze was a fitting complement to the Tories' "common sense" decision to roll seven municipal governments into one.
Mel knew what the Tories knew -- that the bulk of the city's amalgamation savings wouldn't come from simply reducing seven governments to one, but from staff cuts and privatization of city services.
That was clear from the Tory-commissioned report by the consulting firm KPMG, which came out a year before the first megacity election and estimated that "annual gross efficiency savings of amalgamation could be in the order of $148- to $252 million by the year 2000." The report recommended, among other things, staff cuts, contracting out more road maintenance and snow removal, as well as privatizing waste-water treatment facilities and outsourcing garbage collection. The report even suggested privatizing some police functions, including fraud and white-collar crime investigations.
Anybody running for mayor should have been well aware of what the Tories' expectations were. But Mel didn't take on the province at the time.
Instead, he scoffed at mayoral rival Barbara Hall when she called him "irresponsible" for proposing a tax freeze during the 1997 election when nobody knew what the true cost of downloading would be.
Later, when the downloading numbers weren't what Mel had figured, he publicly called Harris a liar and then hit up the premier for a $50-million grant and a $200-million loan.
Some observers have said that bailout did less to help the city than to save Mel's promise. It was left to the Toronto Board of Trade to complain to Harris that heaving social service costs onto the property tax base was a bad deal.
A wise civic leader would have dropped the tax freeze and introduced a modest increase over three years to cushion the blow. But the mayor is now back at Queen's Park with cap in hand at the same time the initial $200-million loan is coming due. As well, the city's infrastructure is aging and in need of repair, its reserves are underfunded and its debt load is ballooning.
Mel contends the city is in dire straits because, while amalgamation saved $130 million, the savings were eaten up by provincial downloading that has left the city with $250 million in new annual costs.
A third of the $305-million budget shortfall this year is for staff wage increases. The rest is earmarked for everything from increased gas and hydro costs to operating community centres and GO Transit. Council-mandated initiatives like restaurant inspections, 55 new firefighters and new TTC routes will cost $42 million.
Harris, harking back to the original KPMG blueprint, now says, "Show me the cuts." The Tories figure there are several hundred million dollars in savings the city hasn't realized.
Actually, Toronto has already cut nearly 2,000 staff and unloaded 8 per cent of its office space in the last three years. City staff have also already identified a further $120 million in cuts to everything from dental services for the poor to library branch closures in order partially address this year's budget shortfall.
But that won't be nearly enough for Harris.
So while Mel's hoping some new provincial greenbacks will bail him out again, he's also appeased the Tories by having budget chief David Shiner trot out a two-year-old report, completed by the mayor's Single City Savings Task Force, that calls for -- you guessed it -- privatizing a long list of city services.
Maybe Shiner should include Mel on that list.
email@example.comResearch assistance by Greg Konstantinidis
MEL'S HIT LIST
Some of the city services that are on the chopping block
Public Health: $10 million
includes $5.2 million cut from dental care for poor children and seniors
pre-natal programs for teenage moms cut
non-mandatory inspections of retirement homes cut
sexual health education cut
Libraries $5 million cut means the closure of 32 branches
Parks and Recreation $24 million cut means 12 pools and 23 community centres will close