As the budget crunch approaches, those calling for program cuts out of ideological reflex become less distinguishable from those advocating austerity out of pragmatism. And everyone lays claim to "efficiency."
The budget committee, more or less committed to public programs, could certainly benefit from an opportunity to defend its priorities - and prove that a bleeding heart doesn't imply a mushy head.
Enter, with timing so auspicious as to almost be suspicious, the user-fees-for-all bluster of the Toronto Board of Trade and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. In a deputation to the joint meeting of the budget advisory and policy and finance committees on Thursday, February 16, Glen Grunwald of the TBOT argued for outsourcing of city services and an increase in user fees.
He said this provides citizens with the greatest "efficiency" (not that any of their members would stand to benefit, of course) but failed to instill confidence when Mayor David Miller, glowering through the presentation, informed him that the budget figures he cited in his deputation were greatly inflated.
"We must have been looking at gross and not net," his companion whispered, just audible to the microphone.
"We must have been looking at gross and not net," Grunwald repeated confidently. You don't say.
"And are you aware," continued Miller, building steam, "that most of [the $9 million budget increase] is for childcare services needed by our residents who have the least just so they can go to work?"
"We believe," replied Grunwald, staying on message, "that with the financial situation, there's maybe a need for another tough look."
"And you believe, with a straight face, that we haven't done that?" retorted Miller, before stalking away in irritation.
The mantle was then taken up by Tasha Kheiriddin of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, who railed against the 46 per cent budget increase for the office of city manager Shirley Hoy, until Councillor Joe Mihevc informed her the increase was actually 4 per cent. "I would at least expect you folks to be able to read a financial document," he said.
And the TTC hike? According to the CTF, it didn't go far enough. "As much as possible [should be paid by riders]," she said, asserting that a decrease in property tax would offset the hike - despite the fact homeowners are less likely to take transit and that rising fares mean falling ridership. With 80 per cent of the operating budget covered by fares, "as much as possible" could come to mean just that -- one man riding the TTC paying $1.1 billion a ride.
Kheiriddin also decried council for making "clean and beautiful city' initiatives a priority, and continuing to fund cultural programs which "give money to businesses when you should be lowering taxes to encourage growth," (but handouts were somehow preferred for parents, over subsidized daycare.)
After deputations, Budget Committee's Shelley Carroll reflected on such bitter medicine. "At a time when we're having problems with crime and keeping youth off the street, to suggest we should turn our backs on culture is ludicrous," she said. "Our problems now are because we've turned our backs."
In a brief scrum held as the proceedings continued in council chambers, Miller responded to the calls for "efficiency." "In terms of most services, we're one of the most efficient cities in North America," he said.
Both responses are sound, but are service advocates still letting the terms of debate be set elsewhere? As long as the debate is allowed to remain at "You're not efficient" against "Yes, we are," the crowd shouting the former will have the offensive. No one wants to spend too much money: what's at contention is not lowest cost, but best services. What's hiding behind the various inflections of "efficiency" is what kind of city we want.
If council bid out every city service, it might result in lower immediate costs. Reducing council to the administrative body through which private service-delivery fiefdoms communicate with each other might cut overhead. But what is the cost to democracy when services are no longer provided by those with a mandate to represent constituents, but by those with a responsibility to keep a contract?
Full cost accounting of any budgetary vision would mean frank public discussions of the symbolic and emotional realities of this city alongside the concrete ones. Those most obsessed with "efficiency" would have to square up on what they're really saying. And by the same token, stated priorities like a "clean and beautiful city' would also be up for scrutiny.
It won't be the vision of simple efficiency alone that shakes that renewed funding loose from the province. A well-oiled machine is impressive, but a creative and engaged public is genuinely moving.