When Toronto voters helped overthrow the Ontario Conservatives last October by electing 19 Liberal MPPs to represent them in a new provincial government, there were high expectations that the city would finally have a sympathetic ear at Queen's Park. And when eight of those newly elected Toronto Grits found themselves sitting around Premier Dalton McGuinty's cabinet table, hope that the province's down-on-its-financial-luck capital would get the attention it so desperately needs soared even higher.
But six months after the Liberal sweep, Toronto is still struggling to be heard inside the legislature building. And those hometown parliamentarians who were supposed to give voice to the city's legitimate needs? They've been all but silent.
"Memories are short, huh?" muses David Soknacki, the Ward 43 (Scarborough East) councillor who does double duty as the city's budget chief. For much of the past four months, Soknacki and Mayor David Miller have been doing their damnedest to remind the province of the fiscal mess Toronto was left in by the punitive policies the Tories imposed on it. It's a mess the campaigning Liberals not long ago pledged to clean up. But like most of their election promises, a new funding agreement has been assigned a much lower priority in the face of a $5.6-billion provincial deficit. And nary a whimper of protest has been heard from the 19 local MPPS.
In fact, the government's Toronto caucus has yet to meet to discuss anything related to the needs of the city - never mind this year's $344-million municipal operating budget shortfall and council's request for a provincial subsidy in the $120-million range.
"I'm not convinced that there's a big difference between the red (Liberal), blue (Conservative) and orange (NDP) teams once they get elected," Soknacki says. "I think that's a fact of life."
He notes that with the exceptions of former councillors Brad Duguid and Lorenzo Berardinetti - who now sit in the legislature as Grit MPPs for Scarborough Centre and Scarborough Southwest - there's been no meaningful communication with local Liberals.
"We're especially disappointed that there's not stronger support at the cabinet table," Soknacki adds, singling out Education Minister Gerard Kennedy and Health Minister George Smitherman for special mention.
"I can understand their perspective that a dollar for the city is a dollar not spent on education or health care. At the same time, I hope they can appreciate that $9 billion in income taxes from Toronto goes to the senior levels of government. It's not like we want a great deal of money in the context of those numbers, or a lot more than the tools to do our job."
Last year, the Tories came through with an emergency subsidy of $64 million to help City Hall limit its 2003 residential property tax increase to 3 per cent. According to the budget chief and finance department staff, the city needs about twice that amount this year to keep Miller's pledge of a maximum 3 per cent hike in the mill rate without making major cuts to public services and programs.
Soknacki insists the city's 2004 cash request to Queen's Park is not unreasonable. He says the city's budget pressures would be relieved if Liberals came through with the same level of support the Eves government provided last year while honouring legislated cost-sharing agreements for social services, child care and hostels and deferring a $20-million payment on an amalgamation-related loan. Then the two parties could begin negotiating a new fiscal relationship so Toronto doesn't face the same money crisis year after year.
"I'm into this up to my eyeballs," says Brad Duguid, parliamentary secretary to Municipal Affairs Minister John Gerretsen. "I've been far from silent on the issue, but I've had to fight my battles internally." He's just as quick, though, to point out that "the dollars aren't there to do everything the city is asking" of the province. Still, he points to an announcement by finance minister Greg Sorbara allowing the city to increase property taxes on business by half the amount City Hall requested as evidence the province is cognizant of Toronto's needs.
But Soknacki says council is expecting more support from the 19 mute Liberal MPPs. With this in mind, the budget committee and the mayor's office are jointly preparing a campaign that will see individual councillors make contact with supposedly friendly Grit politicians from their parts of the city in a bid to end their silence.
We wish them luck.