Councillor Josh Matlow

Toronto Star Editorial- New mayor, same old budget games

One day it was there, the next day it was gone.

Before Torontonians could figure out whether the 10-cent TTC fare hike announced by Mayor Rob Ford on Monday was a painful necessity or the price of living in a city headed by a car-friendly administration, the increase was reversed.

“We have been working over the last 24 hours to find the money to avoid a fare increase,” said TTC chair Karen Stintz a day later. “I’m pleased to say that we have found a way.”

Transit users, while relieved, can be forgiven for being bewildered that a $24-million hole in the TTC budget could be plugged so easily. Taxpayers are left wondering whether any of the spending figures made public this week are reliable.

Neither Stintz nor Ford could explain where the savings to rescue transit riders will come from.

Some of the money — about $8 million — will be shifted from the police budget to the TTC. Police Chief Bill Blair discovered, after a meeting with Ford, that he could pare his spending plans after all. The remaining $16 million will be pulled together from “various sources” and “yet-to-be-determined efficiencies,” according to Stintz.

Councillor Josh Matlow, riffing off Ford’s campaign slogan, “Stop the Gravy Train,” observed that the mayor must have found “magical gravy.”

If this week’s transit episode was designed to show that city hall is under tough new management, it failed. What it demonstrated is that budget-making in the country’s largest city is still a number-juggling exercise that has little to do with real savings or services.

Nor is there anything new about such tactics. Last year, as the city budget was about to be finalized, mayor David Miller announced that thanks to an accounting “variance” the city had an unexpected surplus of $100 million. In 2008, after threatening to raise recreation permit fees by 21 per cent, the city reduced its anticipated welfare caseload – sparing hockey teams, soccer leagues and swim clubs from onerous charges to use city facilities.

Every year in recent memory, Toronto’s bureaucrats, prodded by the mayor, have come up with feats of financial wizardry — draining a reserve nobody knew about, wresting a last-minute bailout from the province — to balance the budget.

This makes it impossible to follow the money or to hold the mayor and council accountable for municipal spending. It breeds public cynicism and anger.

Ford skilfully exploited these sentiments to win last year’s mayoralty race. Now he appears to be resorting to the very tactics he denounced. Why announce a TTC increase if he knew how to forestall? Why can’t he or any of his associates provide a list of the cuts they’ll make to hold the line on transit fares?

It’s unfortunate that Ford kicked off his first budget this way. Torontonians voted for fiscal discipline last October. The mayor has been begun by improvising his way out of a tough decision.

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