Monday, 28 November 2011

Merry Budgetmas!

One of the most important days in the Ford administration arrived with Budgetmas 2012. Since Ford insisted on going through the budget line by line (as he should!), I thought I would follow suit by parsing his speech line by line. 

Rob Ford led off with a speech that grounded the authority of the budget in his election mandate and the desires of the public. Here is half of the first three minutes of that speech:
13 months ago I was elected with a very clear mandate: to make respect for taxpayers a core value at City Hall. The people of Toronto have been crystal clear about what they want. First and foremost, they want us to stop the wasteful spending, to reduce city expenses and hold the line on taxes... The 2011 budget process included more public consultation than any previous budget ever has. We continued that consultation over the summer. We held eight public meetings. We heard from over 1200 people at consultation sessions. More than 13,000 people responded to the service review survey. Committees and council held more than 100 hours of debate and heard over 600 deputants.
Ford is right to invoke the nature of his mandate, and certainly respect for taxpayers was part of that. Part of what 'respect' meant, according to his platform was transparency and consultation (campaign promises 7, 10 and 12) and a guarantee that services would not be cut. Those promises were pretty clear, but they're not what we have. Ford cites in-depth public consultation as a validation for the budget, but his version of consultation was only a token gesture.

After all, the committee meetings were designed to limit feedback (and had absurdly low time limits) and the 13,000 responses to the Service Review were dismissed by staunch Ford ally Denzil Minnan-Wong as 'statistically invalid'. This makes sense that he would respond this way, as the results from the survey and deputations were not what they wanted. But when Ford cites consultation as a grounding and validation for and of his budget, that's disrespectful to the vast majority of people who turned up to support the preservation of city services. The backbone of this budget wasn't found in the Ford promises of consultation and transparency, but through misinformation and political gamesmanship, as Hamutal Dotan details in this excellent Torontoist editorital. This spin was present in Ford's speech too.
In fact, folks, for the first time ever we will spend less this year that we did last year. That is unheard of. But that is exactly what the taxpayers demanded and that's what we can deliver with this budget. Through our core service review and modest service level adjustments we have found $355 million in savings this year...that $355 million is more than the amount of one time money we used last year.
As John McGrath points out on Twitter this morning, spending may have went down this year but the taxes collected went up. So pitching this as a great deal for taxpayers really only looks at one side of the equation. And Ford is right that citizens did ask for a halt to city spending, just like on the other side of the equation he promised no service cuts. But he's not right on other items in this statement. 

For instance, the $355 million number he cites is completely fictitious. This number is not arrived at through the core service review and modest service level adjustments, but because conservative staff estimates for various budget lines have been adjusted. The rest of the savings come from $88 million in cuts that people did not demand or are not modest. These include:
  • A deferral of hiring Fire department staff for the year in spite of a new report that indicates the department responds two minutes slower than the standard. Additionally, the fire department has 7 fewer employees than they did at amalgamation.
  • A reduction in service on 62 bus lines, including some of the city's busiest. This includes more crowding and is accompanied by a fare increase and excluding dialysis patients from using Wheel Trans. Hardly the customer service the mayor promised.
  • A reduction of 20,000 library hours (the equivalent of closing 9 libraries full time) and 160 fewer library staff (100 through attrition). Importantly, City Librarian Jane Pyper has indicated firing 60 staff would result in more program reductions or cause safety concerns.  
  • A reduction in street cleaning and snow shoveling. Hardly the clean city Ford made a priority in his campaign. 
  • The elimination of 5 wading pools and 2 outdoor pools that the mayor will not specify. The fact that these won't be specified is the most galling point; it's the way they'll be shut them down to prevent any response from the impacted communities.
  • Eliminating 3 homeless shelters, 58 nutrition programs, more than 100 arts programs, 2-3 AIDS programs, 3 drug prevention programs and the WinterCity programs. 
  • Reducing spending on roads, public health and municipal licensing by more than 5% each. This is basically the stuff that Ford says is integral to a well-functioning city and it is hit hardest. 
This does not include the proposed 2300 fewer city employees which will mean other service decreases. But Ford is firmly proud of this budget, offering it as a respectful and prudent way forward:
We have begun a process that will reduce the size and cost of government to a sustainable level. We made huge strides in re-building our fiscal foundation. Folks, it wasn't easy to get here. 
 Ford points to Miller as the reason why he has to make these tough decisions, but Ford was responsible for last year's budget. Consider that if Ford had kept the Vehicle Registration Tax (after all, he says the city has little money) and implemented an inflation-based tax increase (which would make it a freeze in real terms) then the city would have $250 million more over the past two years. In other words, all of these cuts (plus the Urban Affairs Library) are completely avoidable.

Not only are they avoidable from last year's Rob Ford decisions, they're avoidable this year too. The proposed efficiencies cuts total $88 million (not that phony $355 million number), but they propose not using any of the $138 million surplus. So the surplus could pay for everything- balanced budget FTW!- and the conversation could be about how we plan for the future and which programs are no longer effective.

Instead, as Robyn Doolittle details in this article on background from what every City Hall watcher assumes is Nick Kouvalis, the choice is to scorch the earth of the fiscal foundation to force changes in government. You know, screw those libraries and transit users, we have an ideology! It's also worth remembering that around this time last year Speaker Nunziata forbade mention of this year's budget in deliberations to prevent any planning for it. So to put this on David Miller is pretty rich.

In other words, with the David Miller surplus, maintaining fiscal tools and having a flat, inflation-based budget this would have been one of the easiest budgets since almagamation with plenty of money leftover to pay down more debt and put in reserves.
We were faced with closing over 35 wading pools. Instead, we have closed just 5. And they are underused and require expensive capital improvements. We are leaving over 100 wading pools functional and in operation. We faced the possibility of closing libraries to save money for childcare or emergency services. Instead, we managed to avoid library closures but we need to find efficiencies in the library system. We were faced with the prospect of raising taxes 34% to fill the $774 million hole that we inherited. But we have been able to keep our property tax this year to a manageable 2.5%
I won't belabour this part too much because Cityslikr already covered it in a Torontoist article. But suffice it to say these are false dichotomies presented to make people feel good about closing only 5 wading pools, even though no one really talked about closing 35. And the Ford Team must be financial wizards if they turned a potential 34% increase into 2.5%, even though that was always going to be the number. In other words, nothing about this is based on hard work or tough decisions. It's based on a false choices and an ideology that will invariably choose service cuts over revenue increases, making decisions easy.

It's worth remembering Rob Ford's campaign promises too. (Here was his budget proposal during the campaign)

It promised an $850 million surplus in its first two years (from gravy) and no service cuts. So by Ford's own promises, he has failed to deliver. Instead, he has treated citizens with overwhelming disrespect. He was elected on a platform of a 'voice for the people' yet ignores the feedback they give. He was elected in part because of his non-politician stance, yet he plays semantics to avoid calling cuts what they really are. He promised to offer citizens real choices, but he's only ever offered one, his own. 

Earlier I wrote that budgets are a reflection of who we are. It's true of Rob Ford's administration too. This budget wrongly grounds itself in the popularity and authority of the public, undermines the city's services, frames false choices and ignores promises.

On balance, it's exactly who we thought Rob Ford was. 

1 comment:

  1. Ok, read all the speeches. Now will have to see that what outcome will come about this budgetmas.