So since this budget has been launched some people I run into have been asking me some general questions about it. It's easy to get details confused by hearing snippets in the news here and there, so if you need to catch up this question and answer segment with an imaginary Ford supporter is for you.
So I heard about this budget and it doesn’t sound that bad. After all, with a few cuts the $774 million deficit is taken care of. That’s good right?
The $774 was never the real number, it was the opening budgetary pressure. As this Wellesely Institute chart shows, this opening pressure is similar to the number for each of the past five years. The difference is that the previous administration chose not to publicize the opening number because they didn’t want to alarm the public. This administration chose a different approach for strategic purposes.
|From the Budget Committee via the Wellesley Institute Countdown to Zero Report|
Well the Miller years used lots of scare tactics too, like threatening to mothball the Sheppard subway line.
OK, this ‘but Miller did it’ argument is pretty intellectually shallow. Weren’t those the tactics Ford decried in the campaign? Miller was wrong to use those tactics and so is Ford.
But the point is, the Ford proposal balances the budget. We can all be proud of that.
I suppose. That’s a pretty low standard though; the city is legally required to balance its operating budget each year and has always done so.
OK, point taken. But the Mayor said he found $355 million in savings and efficiencies. That’s impressive.
It might be if it was true. The Mayor gets that number by adding up all his service cuts, layoffs, unfilled vacancies and projected budget adjustments. It’s the latter that is crucial. The ‘savings and efficiencies’- service cuts, really- total $88 million and the balance ($267 million) are adjustments to previous budget estimates.
That is, they aren’t real savings at all. They are either more accurate (downward) budget projections or service cuts.
That sounds a bit different. But Ford inherited an awful mess and clearly he’s doing the best anyone can expect.
Rob Ford inherited a $346 million surplus from David Miller. As Edward Keenan explains nicely in this piece, Ford used the surplus last year to pass tax break goodies. He cancelled the $60 vehicle registration tax that generates $60 million, and froze property taxes and TTC fares. Since the latter two need to rise with inflation to have the same value, these were decreases in real terms. If those items rose with inflation and the VRT was kept, they would have generated $300 million over two budgets.
Not only that, but Ford is balancing this year’s budget with an extra $83 million leftover from last year’s surplus. What it adds up to is a healthy financial cushion that Miller had built up and Ford took advantage of in a one-time binge last year without planning for this year.
Put another way, Matt Elliott has a chart on the subject. Everyone likes pictures.
Well at least Ford is making those necessary cuts that Miller was afraid to do. That takes courage and conviction.
Also keep in mind that thing about ‘no service cuts...guaranteed.’ To break that promise requires- how shall we say- moral flexibility. But further to the point, these cuts are not necessary. After inflation-level increases on property taxes and TTC fares the budget generates a $139 million surplus while the total cuts are $88 million. So Ford could keep his zero service cuts promise (aside from the Urban Affairs library) and still have a surplus to put in reserves.
OK, but Ford also promised to avoid touching those one time unsustainable surpluses to fund the city’s business, and that’s what he’s saying here.
It’s curious how he uses that argument to justify the service cuts he wants but neglected it when funding his tax cuts, isn’t it?
Oh, and in that same budget last year, Speaker Frances Nunziata was instructed by the Ford Team to forbid any mention of planning for this budget. So all of this ‘planning and prudence’ rhetoric is a bit rich.
Point taken. But the cuts aren’t all that bad. I mean earlier we were talking about closing libraries or bus routes full time and shutting down tons of wading pools, but it’s only a handful.
Ah yes, the ‘well this could have been worse’ argument, ably analyzed by Cityslikr over at his blog. First of all, I guess how bad the cuts are depends on who you are. If you’re a minimum wage worker who relies on the already crowded Dufferin and Finch buses you’ll be paying more for what will somehow be worse in time and crowding. That 'well this could have been worse' argument probably doesn't feel that great. Or if you live near one of those libraries that have 12 hours cut a week, that might be some quality time reading to your son or daughter that you lose. And while no libraries will be shut down like last year, 20,000 hours will be cut which is the equivalent to the 9 smallest libraries closing full-time. Not only that but there will be 150 fewer staff members compared to last year, a number that the chief librarian has referred to as unsafe for current programming levels. Or there’s the wheel trans service if you have dialysis, the wading and swimming pools, the nutrition programs that serve 14,049 kids, the drug prevention programs...
I get it, I get it. And my heart bleeds for all these cuts, it really does, but shouldn’t a lot of those be the province’s responsibility? I mean, we’re just doing what’s right for Toronto.
Yeah, that’s a fair argument to make. Things like certain pools should be covered by the school board and social programs like shelters for the homeless should be funded by the province. That’s a debate worth having. For now, I’d feel more comfortable maintaining those programs while negotiating with the province. Our primary responsibility is to our citizens, not our budget.
I wouldn’t quite phrase it that way, but agree to disagree. But one thing that really gets me going is this property tax hike. And the TTC too. This is awful, and I can’t believe Ford broke his promise.
Not quite- Ford never promised no tax increases. As Dylan Reid explained a couple years ago in a must-read Spacing article, property taxes are only an increase in real terms when they go above the rate of inflation. And 2.5% is a reasonable estimate for the rate (in fact last year was an unusually high 2.9%). As for the TTC fare increase, between labour, fuel and infrastructure maintenance, the TTC’s budget increases above the rate of inflation each year and this really can’t be controlled. A 10 cent fare increase just maintains the inflation rate and if we wanted flat fares we would have to triple the proposed TTC cuts. It’s unfortunate that service has to be cut while enacting a fare increase, and that’s something that I strongly disagree with. Based on this Grid interview with the TTC’s Chris Upfold, I’m guessing some TTC brass do too.
Well I support the Ford layoffs. I mean, that’s something that’s long overdue. We have more employees than at amalgamation and a lot of them are deadwood. Good riddance.
Any large bureaucracy- including the private sector- has de-motivated or underused employees that could move on. But make no mistake, these layoffs will have an impact on service. In particular, the Fire department is already running behind expected times by two minutes, street cleaning will be impacted although that was a campaign priority of Ford and parks will see a dramatic reduction. For more, read Matt Elliott’s post debunking the idea that the city has an out-of-control employee count across the board.
Well according to Ford’s presentation 54% of the growth since amalgamation belongs to Police, EMS and Fire. So there’s redundancies there.
It’s a lot harder than it seems. The fire department has dangerously low levels, with fewer employed than at amalgamation. EMS has increased their headcount by 150 the past 13 years but their response times are poor. The overwhelming amount of this growth has come from the police department (the budget has almost doubled in this time period), which Ford proved unable to cut this year. It’s with good reason too; the province mandates a certain level of police officers and provides money for each position. With 85% of the budget tied up in labour costs, it’s impossible to make a dent in the budget without impacting the front lines. When Bill Blair said he would have to fire 1,000 officers (just under 20% of the force) to meet Ford’s arbitrary 10% target, he wasn’t kidding.
OK, but at least Ford is doing what he can. He leads by example, cutting his own office budget and all those silly little perks councillors get.
That’s true, he has cut his office budget. But when we get down to this level, it’s really just symbolism. It’s nice to take a close and critical eye at each budget line but with an operating budget close to $10 billion cutting snacks for councillors is pretty meaningless.
OK wiseguy, what bright ideas do you have?
Well Jack Diamond of Diamond + Schmitt Architects has a nice column in the Globe arguing for re-zoning parking lots to encourage better planning and improving economic development. It’s something that would give more developers more flexibility, make land more valuable and discourage car dependence (which also means decreasing congestion).
Toronto has a much lower rate for development charges than other areas $9,000 compared to $29,000 in Oakville, for instance. This is due to how the provincial formula is calculated which I’m going to investigate in a future piece, mainly because I don't get it. But it sounds like there’s room to change it there.
Also, that deluxe leaf pickup and windrow clearing sounds suspiciously like gravy.
But mainly, we need to look at alternative revenue sources in conjunction with the province, ensure they upload the services they promised to and push hard on 50/50 subsidies for TTC operations like we used to have.
OK, so let me get this straight. Rob Ford inherited a massive surplus last year, spent it all on tax cuts while not allowing people to talk about next year, has another smaller surplus this year that would still cover all services but insists on not touching it this time while having service cuts or eliminating entire programs for the TTC, libraries, the arts, programs for children, youth, seniors, the homeless, people with AIDS and HIV, 2300 fewer city workers, less street cleaning and snow clearing and dramatically decreased budgets to all city departments except the police and planning?
Where can I learn more about the budget and how can I participate?
The city website is a great place to start. This has all of the documents you need to go through. In particular, make your way through the analyst notes on the 2012 operating budget. If you want to compare to previous years, just change the year in the address bar.
Also, go to the budget meetings on Wednesday and Thursday at City Hall. There should be lots of people there from 9:30 AM- 9:30 PM both days. Sign up here by Tuesday at 4:00 to make a deputation by e-mailing the address in the top right. If you do so, direct your remarks towards Chin Lee, Michelle Berardinetti, Frank Di Giorgio and John Parker. These are the more moderate councillors who are relatively open-minded.
Also, follow the #topoli hashtag on Twitter, Matt Elliott’s blog Ford For Toronto, Cityslikr’s All Fired Up in the Big Smoke blog, the Openfile, Torontoist and Spacing coverage and the reporters from the four dailies. There’s some other great blogs and columns out there, but I can’t list everything.
Also, e-mail or call your councillor- you can find out who they are here. Ask them questions, develop a more informed opinion, offer suggestions. (You can check out how they vote by looking at Matt Elliott's awesome scorecard here.) In particular, speak with councillors' Executive Assistants. They can offer really good suggestions for what you can do and any one of them worth their salt should get back within 24 hours. If you want to speak on specific issues within the budget, they can point you in the right direction.
For particular issues, some councillors are more helpful than others. A quick rundown:
General budget questions: Shelley Carroll and Gord Perks probably have the best understanding of the budget's intricacies on Council. Both answer Twitter questions regularly (@shelleycarroll and @gordperks) and are approachable and accessible at City Hall.
Arts: Recently swing vote Gloria Lindsay Luby introduced a 20,000 strong arts petition at council and Jaye Robinson (@jayerobinson), another crucial swing vote, is also a supporter. Most any defense of arts programs for council votes needs them behind it.
Wading Pools and Pools: Swing votes Josh Matlow (@joshmatlow) and James Pasternak (@jamespasternak) were both vocal in support of funding for TDSB pools as trustees, Matlow saying that confronting the issue motivated him to run for council.
Children's Nutrition Programs, other programs for children: Janet Davis (@janet_davis) and Kristyn Wong-Tam (@kristynwongtam) are both on top of these issues, Davis in particular. Josh Matlow and Michelle Berardinetti (@councillorMB) are the point people defending the Toronto Youth Cabinet.
Libraries: Libraries will probably have a lot of changes in their reductions between now and the final budget. For now, library board member Jaye Robinson will play a key role. She's a defender of libraries and also a supporter of increased corporate sponsorship.
TTC: This impacts pretty much everyone, so it makes sense to focus on your region. If you live in North York, tell swing vote James Pasternak how you feel about the Finch bus whereas if you live in midtown contact swing vote Josh Colle to discuss the Eglinton service. If you need background, get in touch with opposition Councillor Joe Mihevc, who I'm sure would be happy to share his thoughts on the TTC and who to speak to.
Layoffs: Ask your local councillor how this will impact services in the area and what strategies are being used to maintain service.
With that, I hope you understand the budget slightly better.
More questions? Criticisms? Leave a comment.
More questions? Criticisms? Leave a comment.