There was a definite method to Toronto council's budget madness this year.
Which is why the emphasis was put on using much of the money raised through higher taxes to pay for things voters will recognize as first steps toward reversing the years of municipal decline brought on by amalgamation.
Mayor David Miller's council is hoping targeted cash injections into the parks and recreation budget, the Clean And Beautiful City initiative and the TTC's ridership growth strategy will do more than fibreglass moose stranded on rubbish-strewn street corners.
"These things have got to happen so people can see what they're getting for their money," says Councillor Kyle Rae, who played a key role as a member of council's budget advisory committee in getting money put back into depleted parks and rec programs. In the end, one-third of the tax-increase booty went into the impoverished department's budget.
"In terms of street furniture, flower beds, grass cutting in parks and access to recreation programs, I think people will see a huge difference," the Ward 27 (Toronto Centre-Rosedale) councillor adds. Then there are all the street cleaning, tree-planting and other beautification projects Miller's initiative will undertake. Rae calls it "feeding the vision of a better city."
"I think we're capturing a civic pride and giving it a direction," he says. "The sort of south-of-the-border Republicanism that left us unable to fund our infrastructure and sustain our services is dead," Rae offers.
The city could still go broke if the provincial government doesn't get serious about giving City Hall the ways and means to sustain itself financially.
Still, the mayor expresses confidence that council will be able to limit next year's property tax hike to the same 3 per cent council approved this week. "People get it," Miller says.
Councillor Brian Ashton, a usually reliable Miller ally, was one of 12 ward reps who voted against the operating budget.
He figures council should have taken a stand against the province for refusing to cough up the money for cost-shared programs like social assistance and emergency services. By taking the budgetary knife to those very programs, the city could have made the public truly understand Queen's Park's responsibility.
"The province is like a fiscal donkey," says the councillor from Ward 36 (Scarborough Southwest). "Until you hit it over the head with a 2-by-4 you won't get its attention. I think the public needs to be confronted with the truth."
But Rae argues that the political grief would be much greater if council hadn't taken the steps it took this week to give Toronto a more attractive face.
His only knock on this year's budget is that taxes weren't raised higher so the rate could be reduced for 2006.
"Frankly, there should have been a 5 per cent increase this year," Rae says. "Then the TTC fare increase wouldn't have to happen."