Toronto councillors must be starting to think they've got parts in Groundhog Day, the memorable flick in which Bill Murray's character keeps waking up to the same morning over and over and over again. Ever since amalgamation, local pols have been going cap in hand to the province with desperate requests for the financial tools to run Canada's largest municipality.
And every year they've come away from Queen's Park with the same stopgap bailout before the whole exercise goes into replay.
All of this was supposed to stop when Dalton McGuinty's Liberals pulled the plug on eight years of Tory rule in the pink palace.
This time last year, both McGuinty and Mayor David Miller were making a lot of noise about how the city's 2004 budget would be the last council would have to prepare by the seat of its pants.
Well, guess what? When councillors woke up this past Monday morning to experience the "launch" of the 2005 budget "process" by Miller and budget chief David Soknacki, they couldn't help feeling just like weatherman Phil in the Bill Murray film.
Once again the city is confronted with the spectre of another 3 per cent hike in residential property taxes, more service cuts, new program fees and another substantial shortfall (at least $70 million) in funding for provincially mandated programs.
"We have options that enrage all political stripes," says Soknacki.
Yup. The right is up in arms at the thought of another 1.5 per cent jump in taxes on industrial and commercial properties. The left is less than pleased with looming cuts to social programs.
Even the premier has expressed considerable displeasure at talk of a TTC fare increase that he figured would be unnecessary once the province gave Toronto its $92-million share of Ontario gas tax revenue.
But as Soknacki was quick to point out, the city has to find at least $140 million in its $7-billion budget just to cover the cost of inflation next year for programs and services.
And unless the province does something to help the city solve its structural deficit, "we're going to be having déjà vu all over again forever and ever."
Brian Ashton, the councillor for Ward 36 (Scarborough Southwest) and head of council's economic development committee, has had more than his fill of the situation.
"This crisis-management approach to the budget is an absolutely horrible way to run a modern-day city," he says. "We need once and for all to determine if the province is going to correct the financial gap created by the Mike Harris Tories and how much of it is going to be predictable in the future.
"Once we have that information, we can determine whether (the funding) will meet our needs. If it doesn't, programs are going to have to be cut and the quality of service standards will have to be reduced, plain and simple."
Ashton says Miller's talk about a "new deal" for cities from both the provincial and federal governments has created "this big bubble of expectations.
"Unless he can cover the holes with money, this thing's going to deflate very quickly," the councillor warns.
And he thinks the mayor would be wise to "confront this issue in a bold way with the general public" in a state-of-the-city address, so people are aware of the hard decisions that will have to be made if senior levels of government don't stop dragging their feet on matters of municipal funding.
"The sooner the better," Ashton advises, "because the longer you leave it, the closer you get to the edge of the cliff, the more you appear to be whining and the more it appears you're just trying to save yourself."
But Kyle Rae, the councillor for Ward 27 (Toronto Centre-Rosedale), suggests the city could use the courts to make the province live up to its cost-sharing obligations for everything from transit to social services.
"Legislation requires them to pay this, but they're using regulations to avoid it," Rae says of the McGuinty administration, which he claim is riding high on the Tory evisceration of Toronto to provide cuts in provincial income taxes at the expense of health care, education and support for municipalities.
"Why is the Liberal government continuing that legacy?" he asks. "They should be raising taxes back up to the appropriate level for a government that believes in providing services for the people of Ontario."
That's the kind of déjà vu most Torontonians could probably live with - over and over again.