you just know things are going to get messy at City Hall when councillors start comparing municipal operating budgets to pizzas.As councillor Rob Ford sees it, the $6.4-billion deluxe that Toronto's chief administrative officer delivered to the peckish politicians at the big booth at 100 Queen West on Tuesday was not the pie he thought they'd ordered.
"We've got a pepperoni and mushroom pizza here, but you've taken away the mushrooms and added anchovies and olives," the pride and joy of Ward 2 (Etobicoke North) gasped when Shirley Hoy plopped the baked wonder down on council's table.
This was Ford's way of complaining that the financial plan Hoy has come up with for 2002 is too rich. It actually proposes an almost 2 per cent spending increase to keep pace with inflation. That will require a residential property tax hike of nearly 5 per cent this year.
Doesn't anybody realize that "anchovies are more expensive than mushrooms"? Ford complained. And olives are a completely unnecessary garnish.
Others at the council table were compelled to take a different view. What they saw before them was a dry slab of crust with some watery tomato paste smeared on it. No toppings at all. These famished councillors cried out for more. I heard "green peppers," for sure. And what sounded like "ham and pineapple." But there was a lot of noise in the room as the pols all tried to get their orders in before the maitre d'administration headed back to the kitchen.
Unfortunately, nobody seems to have any idea what Hoy and council's budget committee might cook up by the time the 2002 spending guidelines are scheduled to be ready for council's final approval in early March. City services are supposed to be maintained and protected. And everyone's being counselled to feel as safe and secure as they've ever felt in the Big City. But how council attains these lofty goals will be a matter of heated debate in the weeks ahead.
Mayor Mel Lastman himself conceded that the document "is a work-in- progress." And one made all the more difficult, of course, because provincial legislation won't allow the city to pass tax increases on to the owners of industrial and commercial property.
"This council has done more than any council in the history of this city, with all those handicaps and the province telling us what to do," Lastman claimed. He said the property tax increase could be limited to less than 2 per cent this year if Queen's Park would make business pay its fair share for municipal operations.
"The homeowners should revolt," the mayor declared. "The homeowners should say, "We've had enough.'"
Alas, both Lastman and the council he's rumoured to lead have something of a credibility problem when it comes to taking swipes at the provincial and federal governments this budget season. The pall cast over City Hall by the MFP computer leasing scandal continues to hang there, as does the controversy surrounding the almost $300 million spent on outside consultants since the new city of Toronto came into existence just four years ago. And the so-called "Path to Excellence" that Hoy ordered the civic administration to travel in a bid to restore the public's confidence won't undo overnight all the damage done by departed bureaucrats.
In fact, Hoy seemed to ignore her own call for transparency in the budget process during her presentation to council. For starters, the $6.4 billion in operating expenditures proposed for this year does not include any increase in wages for municipal workers. Never mind that most union contracts with the city expired on December 31.
"The city clearly has set the guidelines down that we are headed for a confrontation," said Brian Cochrane, president of CUPE local 416, representing the city's outside workers. "It's not a confrontation that we want, but that seems to be where the city is headed."
There is growing suspicion among both unionists and non-unionists that the city is out to create a climate of labour strife that will either force a strike or allow "management" to lock out its employees. A strike or lockout can save the municipality many millions if it goes on long enough. But there's also growing fear that any interruption in city services will be used as a political excuse to begin the privatization of those services. Nothing Hoy, Lastman or budget chief David Shiner said on Tuesday did anything to alleviate that worry.
"It's premature," the CAO said when reporters asked her why there was no accounting for staff salary increases in her budget presentation. "I'll be very happy to talk about that in two months time," Hoy advised.
Shiner was a little more forthcoming. "We can't afford any major wage settlements," the councillor for Ward 24 (Willowdale) said.
After all, a 1 per cent increase in wages for the city's unionized employees would cost about $25 million. To raise that much money, council would have to hike residential property taxes 2.5 per cent on top of the $1,829 the owner of a Toronto home with an assessed value of $261,000 is already paying annually. Toronto Firefighters Association president Jim Lee says his members are looking for something "well in excess" of a 3 per cent raise this year. And why shouldn't they? City councillors got a 3 per cent raise starting January 1. You can see where this is all leading.
But staff salaries aren't the only things that haven't been factored into the proposed 4.8 per cent property tax hike. Toronto's $7.2-million share for World Youth Day celebrations this summer isn't included in the calculations. Nor is the $25 million in capital and operating costs for post-September 11 emergency planning initiatives.
In other words, the tax increase could easily hit 10 per cent unless cuts are made elsewhere or new sources of revenue are suddenly found. And neither Queen's Park nor Ottawa is rushing this way with bales of money.
"There is a significant gap between what the city of Toronto can afford and what it needs to function," Hoy said.
Shiner's assessment was similar but much more ominous in terms of what lies ahead for council.
"We are not able to afford everything we want and are no longer in a position to afford everything we have," he argued.
This should make for quite the pizza. With or without anchovies.