There's a passivity to Toronto I've never understood, a mélange of stoicism and optimism. The optimism's the dangerous part: though charming in small doses, there's nothing noble about the belief that things will remain as they are.
Development will continue, "Frequent Service" will continue to be a joke with a predictable punchline, and we will forever be separated into several micro-towns, blessed with an endless supply of inconsequential complaints without which we would never talk to neighbours. Things will trundle on in their way, never worsening but, more importantly, never improving.
How awkward then, to find hope and gloom in one budget crisis.
On Friday, August 10, the mayor and city managers announced operating budget cuts: $34 mil for the rest of 2007, and another $49 million on the block in 2008. Effective immediately, community centres will close on Mondays, and 16 libraries on Sundays. There will be reduced parks maintenance, fewer road repairs, less snowplowing. (See box)
The Police Services Board is dragging its heels, starting first (and at long last) with cuts to provincially mandated but unfunded court security. The TTC will mull a ghastly array of options this fall.
Toronto must now not only face its chronic illness, a hollowing out of services long obscured by private development cosmetics, but the question of whether it will commit to its own future.
The $83 mil emergency was, the city argues, the cost of council postponing a new land transfer and car licence tax. But there was already a $570 million shortfall next year, so wouldn't cuts be needed whether the real estate and car licence taxes were passed or not?
Not necessarily, Mayor Miller tells me in a phone call Tuesday, August 14. "At worst," he says, "we would be talking about a difficult budget next year, plus a property tax hike in line with inflation as well as, hopefully, some modest provincial uploading and probably some efficiencies."
One ray of light just might be the fact that the province is now politically freer to offer that "modest uploading," given that smaller municipalities can't complain as readily about the big city not balancing its books.
As well, the body politic is now assimilating the necessity of taxes through a homiopathic dose of funding crisis. "[Some] want to create the idea that you can have an excellent city and excellent public services without paying for them," said Miller at Friday's announcement "and that's never been true."
The mayor once showed up on magazine covers in superhero garb memories all but lost. But Friday there was less diplomatic sheen and more of the off-the-cuff liveliness Miller displays informally, and he was eager to spar with both opponents and reporters.
Asked if he thought it was fair that Torontonians should "pay" through cuts, he curtly turned the question around. "Do I think Torontonians will find it fair to pay the equivalent of one year's property taxes every 15 years when they sell their house in order to maintain their quality of life? Yes."
There's them fancy lawyerin' tricks we were waiting for. But why is the adrenaline kicking in so late?
"Hindsight's an interesting thing," mused Miller. "[Chief Financial Officer] Joe Pennachetti said pressures would be equivalent to an 18 per cent tax hike. There are members of council who have been elected a long time -- they know what that means. Come on. Members of council knew."
Yes, they probably did. But so far, with budget details hard to find, they've been able to say they didn't. Staff say there will be a detailed breakdown of all cuts released shortly. That didn't stop Denzil Minnan-Wong from protesting to the press about the lack of such on Friday. That's when Adam Vaughan dived into the scrum, calling on Minnan-Wong to justify his assertions that the city needs to trim fat. "There are precise details, but he doesn't want to hear it,' said Vaughan. "And when he hears it, he doesn't like the cut all of a sudden."
Right now we're dealing with that first bloody cough in front of the family. "It's not an apocalypse yet," said Councillor Gord Perks. "The good news is that these are [cuts] we can recover from, but it's crucial that they not become permanent."
But if the Mike Harris years taught us anything, it's that when service levels are brought down, so is the base level for optimism. If things don't change soon, the cut services won't come back. And that's hard for anyone to be stoic about.
for the record
mayor miller talks back to his critics
ON HIS OPPONENTS' TACTICS
"In that vote [to defer the new taxes], people played the worst kind of politics, voting against something they actually hoped would pass. For instance, when we announced the Transit City plan, Denzil Minnan-Wong said, This is great - I love the Don Mills LRT.' Now he's saying there's no money for it. Well, you can't have it every way every time."
ON CHARGES THAT THE CITY IS LIVING BEYOND ITS MEANS
"Some councillors keep saying there's fat in the budget, and they know full well there isn't. We've had 30 value-for-money audits; we've won awards for civil service excellence. It was on the front pages: we need $1.7 billion [from the province.] It's just that people weren't ready to listen. But I don't think there's anything I could have done to make the case clearer."
ON WHETHER THE CURRENT BUDGET CRISIS IS USEFUL IN JUSTIFYING A PROPERTY TAX INCREASE
"That's not how I'm thinking about this. It's not the strategy I would have chosen. There are real consequences for the city [in these cuts]. Events have certainly made it abundantly clear what is at stake. One challenge with property taxes is that they're really inequitable, and that's why I've tried to avoid them."