Over the past week, I’ve quickly learned that the City of Toronto’s budget is like a huge jigsaw puzzle that’s missing a few critical pieces.
I arrived at my first city hall budget committee meeting without any documents to review. Because of this year’s expedited timeline, staff worked around the clock and needed a few more hours to prepare this information for us. Later that day, four enormous budget binders with financial details on almost every city department, board and agency arrived at my office.
I wish these documents had been accompanied by a dictionary and thesaurus for all the euphemisms used around city hall. The mayor has said we have to stop the “gravy train.” Then we started looking for “efficiencies” without making “major cuts.” However, “service reductions” were allowed. Most of these words create a lot of political wiggle room and, frankly, each is really entirely subjective.
For several hours each day, my colleagues and I sat through dozens of presentations by senior staff from the many corners of our civic bureaucracy and asked them questions. This part of the process is a combination of thoughtful questioning, advocacy and political grandstanding.
I also spent many hours alone, reading through the budget documents with a pen and highlighter. In fact, one morning I woke up at 2 a.m. thinking about what I had read and considering how deeply this budget impacts every Toronto resident. At 4 a.m., I decided to return to my City Hall office to continue studying.
Like most Torontonians, I read in the newspaper that the TTC was considering hiking fares. Then, after some public outcry, the TTC announced a day later that there wouldn’t be a fare increase after all and millions of dollars would magically appear to offset the lost revenue needed to balance their budget. This money was simply referred to as an “unspecified budget reduction.”
In the past, Rob Ford has suggested that our city’s budget could be balanced by simply cutting waste. He told us Toronto has “a spending problem, not a revenue problem.”
I agree with the mayor that there may well be some wasteful spending at city hall and that large bureaucracies can always be run more efficiently. But the evidence of waste, or perhaps what the bureaucracy has allowed the mayor to see, may be less than what he originally thought. In fact, Mr. Ford now admits some cuts to services and user fee increases will be necessary to balance the 2011 budget.
If the proposed budget in its current form is approved, by 2012, the city’s debt will still be over $3 billion, its surplus funds will have been spent and the gap between balancing the city’s operating budget will still be between $200 million and $300 million.
I’m still open to hearing the mayor’s arguments for how we can cut waste at city hall, but he’ll very soon need to offer real and detailed evidence of the amount of waste he presumes exists.
Rhetoric alone won’t balance this budget.
Josh Matlow is the new councillor for Ward 22, St. Paul’s
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