If fiscal discussions were physical comedy, events in city finance would be the setup for a pratfall.
Playing the part of the banana peel would be taxes, or as the city prefers, "revenue tools."
Fact is, council locked people out of the budget process, declared a $70 million shortfall, then invited them to a series of meetings to ask how they felt about taxes. Any guesses how that ended?
Consultations are often an uncomfortable reminder that there's nothing inherently democratic about democracy per se. The recent public consultations on how to administer new tax powers granted by the City Of Toronto Act proved that democracy, without a transparent bureaucracy and an educated citizenry, rarely survives encounters with large groups of people.
If only irony were taxable.
You had to feel sorry for Chief Financial Officer Joe Pennachetti at the Harbourfront meeting May 7. Most came to rail against price tags on political projects; the only rejoinder Pennachetti could offer was "That was a council decision."
Shelley Carroll, budget chief, and Denzil Minnan-Wong, gadfly, were also in attendance. Carroll ducked out after 45 minutes, though her staff stayed for the rest.
North York resident and council contender Tony Dickins led the tax revolt. "It's presumed that we want new taxes,' he shouted before demanding a vote on the matter. Insert vociferous boos.
"The perks!' cried one woman, to applause. "You're doing the perks!' Pennachetti's sleeping with Councillor Perks? No councillors are getting passes to the zoo and city-owned golf courses. Just think of the dozens in lost revenue. One bloke asked why councillors got new printers. Another questioned the coffee makers. Indeed. Why give them offices?
When someone started shouting about the cost of the Green Lane landfill (a deal, to be fair, parachuted in by the mayor), the optimist in me entertained the fantasy that this was all a burgeoning simple-living movement: "We'll reduce our waste! We'll drive less so road maintenance costs less!" Did I say optimist? I meant lunatic.
By the third meeting at the North York Civic Centre on May 17, both sides are more organized there are photocopies of the mayor's face and postcards reading, "Where's the mayor?' Conservative leader John Tory is here, and the room is stacked like it's his riding office. The city has brought in public consultation staff to shield financial staff. There's ample question time.
One resident who says he's a consultant offers that he's brought in to do financial "sniff tests' by his private-sector clients, and he's displeased with a similar test of the city's finances.
"When are you going to get off the hobby horse of 'the province owes us a living, the federal government owes us a living?'"
That would never fly, he says, in the corporate world. Really? We see quite a lot of it on the runway what with all the subsidies and tax breaks thrown at the private sector.
But despite the presence of consultants infiltrating City Hall to personally smell the money, no one offers alternatives. "I assure you, you will find there was not a need for a $2 billion increase in your operating budget,' says one man. Suggestions? No. His is a statement of faith.
At the first opportunity, Jonathan Dickins continues the tradition of populist bluster. He tells me councillors make too much. I ask him how much. He has no idea. "You can't give the city new powers when they haven't come across as having their books in order."
He has a point, actually. It's a common theme.
Council progressives need to get out more often. If you've looked through the reports and attended the meetings, then, sure, you know, for instance, that the TTC is one of the most efficient transit systems on the continent. But you're paid to spend 12 hours a day at City Hall knowing that.
The city needs to slow down and listen. The tax warriors need to shut up and listen. And councillors need to spend lots of time explaining what the hell taxes are. One young deputant stands at the North York meeting to say "Taxes are an investment in a society that works.' People shake their heads, laugh. What is it that they think pays for services? The collective golf handicap of privileged North Yorkers?
"We're trying to get the point across to the federal and provincial governments that you just can't fund a city on property taxes," says Pennachetti. "You can't fund cities like it's 1840."
Since none of us were around in 1840, that may require a small history lesson.
At the Harbourfront consultation, one attendee quietly pointed out that in the 1930s the provinces challenged the federal government successfully for a cut of income tax. Back then, they were the most accountable higher level of governance.
Our turn, if we can grow up.