The battle lines were quickly drawn Thursday at Toronto City Hall, where hundreds of residents sat through hours of depositions for the chance to give Mayor Rob Ford a piece of their minds about possible cuts to municipal services.
In the main meeting room, the crowd hissed loudly at any mention of trimming funding for public libraries or selling the city zoo, and bristled at Ford’s promise to extend the session “right through the night.” It was as if to say: “Do your worst, and so will we.”
While Ford repeatedly characterized residents as “taxpayers,” reminding them that he sees trimming services as the lesser evil, it was apparent that the view shared by the majority of those in attendance could not have been more opposing.
“I’ve never looked at services that could be cut. I’m looking at services that definitely have to be saved,” Wallace Simpson, a 67-year-old community housing tenant, told The Huffington Post during the lunch break. “I think we should save it all.”
Against the backdrop of a municipal financial dilemma that officials say puts Toronto on track for a $774 million budget deficit in 2012, the conflict highlights the depth of the ideological chasm that is dividing many cash-strapped cities in North America. In a desperate bid to balance the books, leaders are being forced to choose between hiking taxes and cutting services--and either one risks pitting them against some of their most impassioned constituents.
As David Amborski, a municipal finance expert at Ryerson University, explains, unlike other levels of government, “Municipalities are required by provincial law in all provinces not to budget for deficits, so they actually have to have a balanced operating budget.”
Making matters more complicated, cities are also on the hook for a slew of provincially mandated services like public health and housing, which means the axe can only fall on politically sensitive things like libraries, parks and arts programs.
“Those are visible services,” says Trent University economics professor and local government expert Harry Kitchen. “People scream and shout as soon as you touch them.”
But the alternative isn’t necessarily less painful. Though Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi pushed through a 4.4 per cent property tax hike for 2012 and opened the door to increases of more than 5 per cent in 2013 and 2014 with relatively little fuss, critics were incensed when council voted in June to add any unexpected tax breaks handed down by the province to city coffers.
And past experience in that city shows that when it comes to taxes, the debate can turn uglier still.
In 2008, hundreds of residents turned up at Calgary City Hall to voice their discontent over a proposal to increase property taxes by as much as 9.6 per cent per year over three years. (The proposal was later revised, and the tax hike approved by council was considerably lower.)
As for Ford, his experiment in public discourse seems to have tested the limits of his opposition.
The marathon session, which stretched nearly 23 hours and set a new Toronto record, was peppered with all manner of outbursts and presentation styles (one deputant even made use of a puppet), as residents made their cases for preserving whatever they hold dear.
The extent to which their voices will be heard, however, remains to be seen.
“Just having a public meeting and allowing people to speak doesn’t mean they’re going to respond to what people have to say,” says Amborski. “The question is, how will these submissions be received by Ford and his Executive Committee--and that’s a political question.”