If David Shiner were a poker player, he'd be the new guy sitting with his back to the mirrored wall, perfectly reflecting an image of his pitiful hand to the sharpie across the table. Then Shiner would have the misfortune to bluff.Bluffing is exactly what the city's budget chief was doing this week when he called a halt to his bean-counting committee meeting to declare there will be no municipal budget this year unless Premier Ernie Eves and his Tory elves hustle right down to City Hall with $95 million in cash. Then the politicians waiting there can limit a residential property tax increase to just 3 per cent in this most wonderful of election years.
"We have done a terrific job here in this city," said the councillor who fancies himself the interim mayor now that His Melness has been put out to pasture and deputy Case Ootes has been passed over as his possible successor.
Shiner's committee (and he'll be sure that you know it's his committee) has spent six months cutting away at city expenditures. And now the $6.4 billion operating budget is "solid." Impenetrable.
"We've made the cuts, we've managed our books," said the man with the abacus. "Now we're left with closing libraries and pulling firefighters out of service."
Since absolutely no one on council is prepared to "tear up the framework of this city," it's time the gamblers up at Queen's Park threw in their hands and gave the folks at 100 Queen West their money. Because if they don't, the budget chief will hold his breath and turn blue.
"I've never been in a more difficult situation," Shiner lamented Tuesday. "I didn't want to do this."
Of course he didn't. The problem is, there are a lot of Conservative government MPPs up the road who don't need a mirror to figure out that Shiner's just having them on. And they enjoy a good chuckle when the budget chief says his "no money, no budget" stance is really a "high-stakes showdown" with the province.
"They've got the Common Sense Revolutionaries still in there, and a good chunk of them -- even from Toronto -- say, "Well, Toronto really isn't cutting,'" said councillor David Soknacki, a budget committee member.
Alas, Shiner lends credence to such suspicions with statements that can easily be interpreted as evidence that the operating budget really is padded. For example, almost immediately after insisting, "We've cut more than enough," the budget chief let loose with this little gem:
"We have found an additional 10 million dollars' worth of savings already, so we could have reduced our tax increase from 3 to 2 per cent. But I can go with a 3 per cent tax increase if we get slightly less from the province."
Just to make sure everybody within earshot got the message, Shiner added, "We're prepared to put that money on the table if we have to, to avoid more than a 3 per cent tax increase."
What a brilliant piece of brinkmanship!
"You can already hear the province saying, "Hey, wait a minute. You're using our money to make yourselves the hero. Obviously, you don't need it,'" said one source close to the budget deliberations.
Deputy mayor Ootes as much as admitted that Shiner's confessions of extra cash will affect the size of the financial handout the province decides to give the city -- hopefully at the conclusion of a Tory cabinet meeting today.
"We don't expect it will be the full amount we requested, but we expect that there will be some money," Mel Lastman's frustrated deputy said. "The question is how much or how little."
It won't be the first time this week Ootes goes away disappointed. The federal Liberal budget unveiled by Finance Minister John Manley turned out to be pretty much a bust for Toronto. Ootes was on hand as Lastman heaped scorn on the governing party's latest spending plans.
"There's a government that I don't think knows what the hell they're doing," the mayor fumed. The $3 billion the Grits committed to municipal infrastructure improvements across the country is "nothing for anybody," according to Lastman. Probably less than nothing, considering the money will be dispensed over the course of the next 10 years.
"There's a lot of nice words, but nice words get you nothing," the mayor said. "We need more. We need a heck of a lot more. Toronto alone needs billions."
The very same Tories the city is now counting on for financial assistance were similarly unimpressed with the federal budget.
"It's not helping our ability to help Toronto," said Janet Ecker, the provincial minister of finance.
And Toronto hasn't exactly been helping itself. Well-placed sources say a serious rift has developed between Shiner and the deputy mayor. The budget chief has been increasingly dismissive of Ootes in recent weeks, and the two men have exchanged angry words on several occasions.
"The monkey business David is using to get the budget to a 3 per cent tax increase is not the kind of stuff you want to build a long-term financial plan around," one budget insider said. "Case is concerned more for the long term, while Shiner is saying, "Gee whiz, see what I can do?' Things have been tense."
That tension is unlikely to go away when the budget, augmented by whatever amount the Conservative cabinet ultimately agrees to, goes to a full council for debate and final approval next week. It's a civic election year, and ward councillors hoping for re-election in a political environment tainted by the MFP scandal and other questions of administrative competence will be fighting to shore up their reputations on the home front.
The situation is complicated by growing expectations that Eves will call a provincial election for early May. You can be sure Toronto issues are already fading from a Tory consciousness suddenly awash in a sea of suburban and rural concerns. In Ottawa, meanwhile, the federal Liberals are almost completely overwhelmed by party leadership matters and won't get refocused on running the country until after Paul Martin finally becomes prime minister and says it's OK.
In other words, all three levels of government are running at cross purposes in their pursuit of electoral survival. And until things are decided at the appropriate ballot boxes, there's not much hope of channelling any collective energy into real nation-building. For now, everybody's just doing what it takes to get by.
That doesn't mean there's not some cause for hope. With or without sufficient provincial aid, councillors will use "fancy short-term accounting principles" to keep the property tax hike at a supposedly tolerable 3 per cent. The municipal election campaign will then start to take shape, with city spending -- past, present and future -- a critical factor in every facet of the debate.
The November 10 municipal election, and the mayoral vote in particular, will be the key to redefining the city's relationship with both senior levels of government. Without strong, intelligent and determined leadership at City Hall, it won't matter what happens up the ladder.
"We all serve the same taxpayers," Shiner said in a moment of enlightenment. So stop playing games with the same old deck of cards. Or at least throw a blanket over the mirror until you get a new deck.