“So this debt ceiling thing is routine or the end of the world?”
Toronto’s “budget crisis” feels a lot like America’s Debt Ceiling debacle. Our Mayor, and members on council who
do whatever he tells them to vote his way, have told us that Toronto is facing a budget crisis. The Brothers Ford have framed it as if this is the first time Toronto has ever seen a budget shortfall (it’s not), and after hiring an outside consultant to find “efficiencies” (not revenue), told Toronto that we absolutely-must-there’s-no-other-way-unless-you-rob-old-people cut services to balance the budget. And not just any old services. Everything, it seems, was on the table. Libraries. Arts funding. HIV/AIDS and health-care grants. Transit. Social housing. The list goes on.
Suddenly, people were listening. As Edward Keenan put it in his GridTO column:
By looking at every goddamn thing that was not nailed down, the Core Service Review made it about every goddamn thing at once. And then the mayor went and invited everyone with something to say about it to come down to one single meeting. Which means the Heritage Toronto People and the AIDS program people and the library people and the cycling people and the dental health people and the snowplow-loving people and the labour-union people and the—well, all kinds of people who are not usually, necessarily on the same side of things—suddenly found themselves together facing an executive committee that appeared to be prepared to cut everything to plug an 8.5% hole in the proposed budget—a hole made larger by that same executive committee’s recent decisions to cut and freeze various taxes.
Many people were genuinely surprised at the proposals. Rob Ford has claimed for the past year that he was the politician who would listen to taxpayers. He was elected on the premise that there was too must “gravy” at city hall. He campaigned on eliminating wasteful spending on councillor’s lavish parties, costume rentals, expense accounts and free passes. He did not campaign on cutting libraries, arts and community group grants, snow shoveling or water fluoridation. Quite the opposite, in fact. He “guaranteed‘ that there would be no service cuts. None. Zero. Zilch.
344 Torontonians signed up to speak at last week’s Executive Committee meeting — out of passion, fear, or an angry “Can you hear me now? The Mayor, behind the façade of listening to taxpayers, insisted that the meeting would go on, without stopping, until everyone had been heard. It lasted 22-hours, ending in the early hours the next morning.
Only 168 voices were ever heard. Some people couldn’t get to the mic fast enough when their names were called. Others likely weren’t willing or able to commit to such a long wait – even lefty-socialists have jobs and families, despite what Doug Ford thinks. The cynic in me thinks that at least a few must have realized what a sham the whole meeting was and given up to go home. That’s what I would have done. But I’m one, of surely many, Torontonians who feels so jaded so early in Ford’s term that I don’t see the point in talking to those who reject my voice outright – both by email and publically.
I watched about 10 hours of the meeting. And after doing so, it was no more clear whether Toronto does or does not have a budget crisis. What is clear is that Toronto has a Governance crisis.
Good Governance, as defined by Unesco, has 8 basic characteristics: It must be “participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law. It assures that corruption is minimized, the views of minorities are taken into account and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making. It is also responsive to the present and future needs of society.” I haven’t seen a lot of that lately at city hall.
Instead, we’ve been pitted against each other. There are supposedly those of us who use cars, and those of us who don’t. Those of us who work hard and pay taxes, and those of us who work cushy union jobs and, I guess, don’t pay taxes. Those of us who want to run this city properly, efficiently, and let people keep their hard-earned money, and those of us who want to waste it all on expensive labour, big government, sick people, old people, book people, bike people etc. Essentially, there are those of us who are worth listening to, and those of us who aren’t.
At the meeting there were dozens of emotional, conscientious pleas to maintain services. Many who were there felt engaged and proud of their city. But I was most struck by the under-currant of fear and distrust that I heard from most of the speakers.
Deputants, such as Kelly Fry, told the councillors in attendance that she did not believe the numbers. She, and at least one other deputant, called it a manufactured crisis. She also told the committee that, in the past, she watched councillors agonize over cuts, and felt that this council was doing it almost gleefully. Kelly Fry does not trust her city council. And she wasn’t the only one.
Union leaders are angry. Grannies are sarcastically angry. Children cried. Many people said they would pay higher taxes to save city services. Questioning councillors (I’m looking at you Mammolitti and Del Grande) seemed baffled and untrusting.
I believe the role of city council to be governance, not management. That is to say, Council should be thinking about what kind of city Torontonians want to live in, what Torontonians value, and what Torontonians need to live safely and happily, and then direct staff based on these principles (and not ignoring staff reports they don’t like).
In doing this, they need to consider the needs and wants of all Torontonians, not just the ones who suit a political agenda. They need to ensure our roads are safe, and as convenient as they can be for as many people as possible, while recognizing the very real constraints of city planning and infrastructure. They need to consider the economic impact of their decisions, but also the cultural. They need to recognize the difference that exists in the opinions of 2.3 million people, and that “Torontonians” are not a homogeneous group. Not everyone will be happy all the time. But if council has a vision, and that vision truly reflects the city, they will be doing the best they can.
To many people I know, the city is headed in a bad direction. It’s scary. And it’s wrong. City council can do better and we should all hold them to a higher standard.