Mayor David Miller must be smarting from some of the barbs hurled his way lately by the local media. Several veteran political commentators have all but called the city's chief magistrate inept for counting too much on senior government largesse to get Toronto out of its budget predicament. What happens when the Liberals at Queen's Park don't come through with all the bucks you need?, the critics legitimately ask. Enough, they say, of making nice with a premier who's got so many fiscal problems of his own that the cash crisis in Canada's biggest city hardly figures into his thinking. Get mad, they advise. Give Dalton McGuinty a piece of your mind.
And then start looking for more programs and services to cut from Toronto's nearly $7-billion operating budget so you don't look like a total fool when that big Ontario treasury cheque you're expecting before the end of the month doesn't materialize.
Hell, one nostalgic City Hall scribe went so far as to long for the days when former mayor Melvin Douglas Lastman could be counted to throw public temper tantrums calling premiers liars. Such antics never did much to improve the city's financial circumstances.
But if the mayor has been stung by the recent criticism, the welts are certainly not showing. This week he hosted a groundbreaking meeting of GTA mayors and regional chairs, joined McGuinty and Prime Minister Paul Martin to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the subway and sat in on hearings that gave concerned citizens a chance to sound off on the city's spending priorities in the presence of council's budget and planning and priorities committees.
"We're close," Miller says of his stated goal of presenting council with an operating budget that will limit the increase in residential property taxes to 3 per cent this year while protecting core service levels and redirecting funds to needy social and cultural programs that haven't seen much money for a while.
And, yes, provincial dollars, lots of them, are still the key to making everything come together when council meets for seven days near the end of April to determine how big the tax bill will be for property owners this year.
"They understand that we're not asking for a bailout," Miller says of the Queen's Park Grits. "We're only asking for them to honour their obligations. We're not even asking them to honour all of their obligations."
Just a return to once-agreed-upon principles for sharing the cost of daycare, public health and hostel services could put about $65 million back into the city's hands this year. That's more than halfway to the $120 million in provincial assistance the city was seeking from McGuinty and company when this budget exercise began back in January.
Queen's Park has already given City Hall the means to get about $27 million by allowing the city to levy half the tax rate of residential properties on commercial sites. What happens when you make a down payment on a promised share of the gas tax, hand over some Toronto-generated gaming revenue, harmonize the rate of business education taxes across the GTA and defer a $20-million payment on an old amalgamation loan? The next thing you know, the Ontario Liberals are being praised for doing their duty to the provincial capital.
"I can't really give details right now," Miller says, "but we're having fruitful discussions with the province. I think they understand our challenges and are trying to find a way within their financial framework to support our request. We won't get everything we want, but it appears we will be OK."
It won't be enough to avoid raising TTC fares by at least a dime later this year. And the fees charged for some non-recreational programs and the cost of various municipal permits will go up some. But there's as much as $90 million to be had in dividends and interest on the $980 "note" the city gave Toronto Hydro when it became a public utility. And there's also the $26-million GST rebate the city recently got from the feds.
Add it all up and it starts to seem plausible that the additional $33 million the city will raise with a 3 per cent hike in residential property taxes (businesses will be dinged with a 1.5 per cent increase) might just be enough to see the municipal corporation through the end of the year.
This may help explain why some councillors are privately floating the prospect of raising residential property taxes by 4 per cent (business by 2 per cent) so more programs and services can be enhanced. But Miller isn't one of them.
"I don't want to see that," he says. "The kind of budget I see this council passing is socially progressive but fiscally responsible."
Start messing with that balance by proposing tax increases over the level a decent majority of councillors found acceptable back when the number crunching began and a delicate political coalition could quickly come apart. Worse, the final budget debate three weeks from now could turn into a donnybrook.
If that happens, the sensitive folks at Queen's Park, still busy finalizing a 2004 budget of their own, will take one look at the melee and Miller will wish he hadn't tried to accomplish his feat without a net. Never mind that his increasingly confident demeanour makes it clear the mayor still doesn't think he needs one.