Budget Chief Councillor David Soknacki uncrosses his legs and stands, his characteristic composure flagging only slightly as he waves out the window in the direction of Queen's Park. "They... ," he begins, then pauses and strides over to the stack of city service binders he's just carried in. "They don't see these binders. And they don't see the faces behind these binders."
Those pages catalogue dozens of city departments and their services, which are subject to belt-tightening because of the $415 million budget shortfall a consequence of the estimated $731 mil in costs shifted to cities by the Harris government. With Dalton McGuinty's current bid to saddle the city with the pension plans of provincial CUPE members working in Toronto, yet another service with labour disputes in tow is in the download queue.
"It's impossible to explain the situation of Toronto," Soknacki tells me, "except to say "Who has, keeps. '"
Of course, TTC riders might disagree. They're going to have to pay more. It's not hard to sympathize with complaints that fares rise (twice, now, in as many years) while service continues to drop. While the TTC, currently hemorrhaging a staggering $2 million a month, added 100 additional buses last year, most folks simply wonder if either of the buses that whizzed by their stop this morning packed to capacity was one of them.
Despite a tentative 7.8 per cent budget increase for the TTC, the largest percentage increase in this year's proposed city budget, an astounding 80 per cent of the system's operating costs are now scooped from the fare box, the rest defrayed by the province.
It used to be 50 per cent.
In other words, the TTC is efficient - frighteningly so.
The problem isn't what pols are doing with our money. One could hardly accuse them of frittering it away on interior designers, after all.
But this does little to assuage the resulting hardship. "Every time you raise fares," says Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler of the Toronto Youth Cabinet, "you make it certain that people cannot go beyond walking distance from their homes."
The stretching and whittling away of all city services, combined with the downloading of costs onto local governments, presents a particular sort of danger. Drastic cuts might provoke widespread outrage, for better or worse. But the current situation threatens the most valuable municipal service of all: memory. Slow decay, imperceptible at first, and impossible to pin down later, leaves no breaking point for people to look back on and say, "This is when it changed. This is how things used to be."
Hyperbole? Maybe not. Core services continue to be funded, but, increasingly only by paring staff. One of the favoured methods for closing the gap is called, appropriately, "gapping." It means that while staff isn't cut from programs, no new staff is hired or at least not enough to properly administer services.
Another source of revenue is the cutting of "non-program costs," composed mostly of payments into the reserve fund for employee benefit claims. While employees won't feel any direct impact, it puts the current benefit regime on shaky ground. Chief financial officer Joseph Pennachetti gravely walks me through a summary of the numbers. "We're paying out more than we contribute [to the fund]," he says. "This is the year of reckoning."
"This has been the first step," Soknacki tells council in a budget briefing. The next step is cutting programs even if property taxes are raised. Pennachetti indicates that privatization of parks services is currently under consideration.
"Will there still be a City Hall?" Soknacki asks me rhetorically. "Yes. Will people still get an ambulance when they call 9-1-1? Yes. But will it take six minutes or 12? And what sort of roads will they get there on?"
While City Hall may not be going anywhere, parts of its character conceivably could be. Many, from within and without, left and right wing, were shocked at the way the TTC fare hike was rammed through.
At the sparsely attended February 8 transit commission meeting, convened on the bare minimum of 24 hours' public notice, Councillor Janet Davis called the decision "premature."
Councillor Jane Pitfield pointed out that the possibility of a fare hike was never even mentioned at the mayor's public budget consultations.
A livid Commissioner Brian Ashton accused members supporting the hike of perpetrating a "sneak attack."
Gord Perks of the Toronto Environmental Alliance argued that "[raising fares] because the province is not funding you is a decision for council, not the TTC." He pointed out that higher ticket prices, which inevitably cause a drop in ridership, undermine the city's Ridership Growth Strategy, the Official Plan and the air quality plan. "Until council says, "No, transit is not as important as other parts of the city,' it is not your place to do this," he told the commission.
TTC chair Howard Moscoe and vice-chair Joe Mihevc both cited the TTC's ongoing monthly loss as the reason for the hasty move. But given that any plan to stop that debt from skyrocketing depends on the province drastically altering its role over the next five years, leveraging public opinion against Queen's Park and the Hill through more public consultation not less may be the city's greatest hope.
And councillors, if any of you worry about the public seeing you at your rawest, don't. In a strange way, the outbursts in council chambers and furtive moments of genuine sadness at the outskirts of committee rooms have brought out the best in many here at Queen and Bay serving to make the connection between the numbers we hate and the things we value crystal clear.
Soknacki touches the binders one more time, almost reverentially. "It's not dollars and cents," he says. "It's quality of life."