What better way to stop someone from crying wolf than to shoot the wolf and get it right out of the bloody picture? This seems to be the plan of attack the Ontario Liberals have decided on in the never-ending mission to quiet all the budgetary whining that emanates from City Hall at this time year after year, mayor after mayor.
The word coming out of Queen's Park these days is that Premier Dalton McGuinty and his municipal affairs minister, John Gerretsen, are ready to write the folks at 100 Queen West a cheque for the $72 million and change the province has so far failed to provide as its yearly share of the programs and services it demands the city make available for the local population.
"That's the single biggest hole in the budget right now," says Mayor David Miller as his council's budget advisory committee goes through the city's $7-billion spending plan looking for ways to pay for everything without boosting residential property taxes more than the 3 per cent the chief magistrate considers politically defensible.
Miller shouldn't be too surprised if the province opts to fill a few other holes in the budget as well - just to show that it really is sensitive to the unique fiscal needs of a provincial capital that also happens to be the country's biggest city.
You can't have the mayor of Toronto going on about how homeless shelters and ambulance stations might have to be shut down because Queen's Park hasn't coughed up enough dough and not make some kind of a response. Even if it is interpreted as a blink in the game of who-pays-how-much-for-what brinkmanship that the city and the province seem to be perpetually engaged in.
But it has nothing to do with brinkmanship, Miller says of the spectre that pink slips may have to be handed out to almost 300 welfare workers and as many as 125 paramedics. "They're the facts. It's the truth."
But the real truth is, the layoffs and closures won't happen this year. McGuinty and Gerretsen will show up with sacks of money at the last minute for what will supposedly be the very last time. The Grits are about to load a new City Of Toronto Act into their legislative gun and fire it at the mangy beast that's always lurking outside the doors of City Hall.
Apparently, the Liberals are considering giving the city a wide range of taxing powers that would allow it to raise money from civic surcharges on all manner of goods and services, from hotel rooms to gasoline. Those road tolls Miller mused about during the 2003 election? The city could suddenly have the authority to impose them without having to run up University Avenue to get the province's permission.
"There's good news on the horizon [about] revenue streams that are going to start to flow," the mayor says of City Of Toronto Act negotiations that have so far been the domain of municipal and provincial bureaucrats. "There's been great progress with the province, but we're not quite there yet."
Some political sources suggest city reps have been surprised at how much new authority the province has put on the table in hopes of getting Toronto politicians off its back in the years ahead.
"They definitely are offering the city quite a lot," one well-connected insider says. Adds another, "There's almost a sense the city is kind of balking at taking on all the authority. It's a bit like telling a teenager you can have these new responsibilities, but now you've got to pay for your own food. It takes some time to get the head around the potential consequences."
In other words, the City Of Toronto Act stands to be groundbreaking legislation when it's passed by the end of this year, as McGuinty has promised.
As one Liberal MPP from Toronto confided this week, "There's a genuine desire on the provincial government's part to give the city the tools it needs to meet its financial obligations" without running to the province all the time. According to another source, even government MPPs who aren't always sympathetic to Toronto's woes are generally supportive of the new legislation.
"It's going to make city councillors much more accountable for the spending decisions they make," the political veteran suggests. "It will no longer be so easy to blame the provincial government when money's short."
Well, not the provincial Liberal government anyway. Miller still takes pains to point out that it was Mike Harris and his deposed Tory administration - not McGuinty - who "put the premier and me in a very difficult position" when they amalgamated Toronto into a megacity seven years ago and immediately began downloading the cost of provincial services onto the local property tax base.
There couldn't be a better time politically to start undoing that damage. In spite of all the rhetoric flowing between City Hall and Queen's Park, Miller has a good relationship with the premier, who wants to put his personal stamp on the new City Of Toronto Act before he goes to the polls again in 2007.
Neither does it hurt that John Tory, leader of the official opposition Conservatives, is a Torontonian and former mayoral candidate who has an intimate understanding of the city's problems and considerable respect for its chief magistrate. Likewise, Ontario NDP boss Howard Hampton should be a strong ally in getting legislation passed that will meet the city's needs going into the 2006 municipal budget.
Ah, yes, 2006. A civic election year with the wolf gone from the door could certainly provide Miller and members of city council with an intriguing challenge.