After the mayor's new "revenue tools" passed last week, I panicked briefly. What would I write about once city council was no longer synonymous with "tax-subsidized argument about taxes"?
Not to worry, though. The months of siege and oft-illegible stratagems of both left and right have guaranteed repetition of the fight.
Next year, much of the same: a debate over billboard taxes. The year after, over raising the land transfer tax, each time accompanied by the obligatory ontological wankfest over what words like "efficiency" really mean.
And after Monday's (October 29) brief introduction at committee of the proposed 2008 capital budget, conservative commentators were already demanding CFO Joe Pennachetti how the city can dare to borrow money for capital projects.
Anti-taxers wonder aloud pointedly if he is "preparing" for a property tax increase. Never mind that every large organization builds on some form of credit, financial or otherwise.
At the outset of the land transfer tax debate, the Toronto Real Estate Board decried that the tax drew on a "minority" of Torontonians to pay for the majority of services.
Implicit in their objection was an admission: comfortable folks with masses of disposable income are in the minority, they haven't been paying their way, and they aren't likely to until compelled to do so. Thanks for the analysis, TREB. Who needs Marx?
Council's neo-liberal enclave hopes to distract from the recent micro-revolution with a redoubling of this strategy. Scuttling new taxes, it's become apparent, is secondary; the primary goal is to make any victory for Mayor David Miller hard fought and equivocal, each conflict drawing more energy than its resolution provides.
In fact, for all the decrying of debates over taxes, the right-wingers are precisely the ones working to make sure that's all there is for the next three years. Their ideal situation would be to see Miller worn down by wars of attrition over piddling new rivulets of revenue, his allies paralyzed at a citywide policy level and the city of Toronto become the budget committee of Toronto.
Now, for the record, there's a lot about our tax system that makes me skeptical. Too much public money goes toward automobile infrastructure and policing quick fixes, and there's such staggering unearned corporate wealth that I'm not sure what it is I'm subsidizing - services or CEO salaries.
So there's every reason for tax resistance to rise on principle - but it should fall on principle as well. If a particular service can be delivered in a way that doesn't require our money-hogging postwar municipal infrastructure, why can't we ask for it?
The main point being, why have we allowed council's right wing to dominate the discourse on efficiency? They can talk all they want about "smaller government" - only a massive bureaucracy can administer privatized service contracts on the sort of scale they desire. (And just rail against that tax trough all you like - you'll need it when you start paying for profit on top of service.) The only real difference I can imagine under Mayor Karen Stintz would be that we'd be paying lawyers to water the plants.
Too much of council business already goes on in secret due to litigation or negotiation of inflexible corporate contracts. Remember, staff felt the street furniture contract, to be sufficiently attractive, had to last decades. So now, for 20 years, very little about a basic facet of public infrastructure will be discussed in public.
It seems there are two halves to building an alternative: The first began with council's tax vote, which, Miller and allies hope, will be supplemented by provincial funding. It will, in time. But not enough. The second task is to prepare Toronto for independence, from both the province and the private sector, and, if you'll permit me a moment of agreement with the right-wingers, that can't be done solely from the revenue side.
It needs accompanying changes in the structure and processes of government.
I should point out - no one else is - that city managers under Miller have made some of the deepest cuts to administration costs since amalgamation. Any further cuts within the current context would affect necessary services. But is that unavoidable, or is there something to be gained from more flexible, responsive service delivery?
"We need to do better planning in this city," said Councillor Adam Vaughan during a break in last week's council debate. "I can't cut police service and expect it to be safer, but I believe you can build neighbourhoods that require less policing to be safe. I believe you can build neighbourhoods that require less operating subsidy to help transit move. All these issues are on the table now."
Vaughan says this requires "being imaginative" about service delivery, which registers just below right-wingers' "finding efficiencies" on the rhetoric-o-meter, but acknowledges that there's more to the balance sheet than money alone. Dangerous ground to tread when public services are under outright attack - but then, as we see, so is the ground already held.
As the budget process for this year ramps up in the coming weeks, join me in travelling into this new landscape.