In the effort to reduce a budget shortfall of $774 million in the City of Toronto, we may find that the city our forebears worked so hard to create will be drained of its essence. After promising in the 2010 mayoral election that taxes would be cut and services would generally be left alone -- that tired old lie that an often gullible electorate ate up, yet again -- Rob Ford will finally have his chance to highlight the 'gravy' that so characterized his successful campaign bid.
Recently, City Manager Joe Pennachetti released the core service review to the Executive Committee. It built upon the 200 recommendations from the private consulting firm KPMG and whittled it down to 69 core cost-saving ventures that the city could pursue. Pennachetti has no expectation that all of the cuts proposed will be executed, knowing that a proposal to (among other things) cut daycare services, library hours and branches, and bus routes; privatize or sell off farms and zoos; and eliminate arts grants, environmental services, and city basics like snow removal would be met with plenty of opposition from councillors and their constituents.
However, lest we think a member of Ford Nation is relishing the thought of slashing city services, Pennachetti is quick to add that "we're not getting our jollies from this," adding "it's fine for people to say no, but what are the other alternatives?"
And inevitably, this is the typical retort from Pennachetti and his cohorts. "If we don't do this, what should we do instead?" they muse. For starters, having a mayor that adds to the problem is unhelpful. In order to keep some election promises (knowing full well he would be breaking others soon enough), Ford cut two taxes that could go a long way towards reducing the budget shortfall.
As Royson James argued in the Toronto Star, "We have a mayor who killed a vehicle tax source that delivered $64 million a year and plans to kill a land transfer tax that nets up to $250 million annually."
The worst part of it -- and there is a worst part of it -- as James argues, is that Ford has sunk "the city into a divisive debate that, even if every recommendation were approved, gets us just $100 million this year."
Gutting the city of cherished, potentially life-saving services (in the case of fire fighters) -- cutting taxes that would mean service cuts could be lessened -- all to save $100 million of a $774 million deficit. So much damage, and so little to show for it.
The problem is that the vats of waste that Ford reported were drowning this city in ever-increasing deficits just don't seem to exist. As a mayoral candidate, Rob Ford promised the people of Toronto that waste was threatening to engulf the city: Fat amounting to $2 billion could be found and cut easily without resorting to increased taxes or cuts to beloved city services.
And enough people believed him that candidate Ford became Mayor Ford, charged with the task of eliminating the $774 million 2012 budget shortfall. Only when firmly ensconced in the halls of power did Ford and his brother Doug discover that -- gasp! -- the 'gravy' was not as apparent as he would have hoped. Finding $2 billion worth of gravy was always laughable, but in light of recent events, it seems downright terrifying that he could have been so grossly misinformed. Or so willing to blatantly lie.
In looking for a bright side, Chris Selley argued in the National Post that some of the proposed cuts were worthwhile, and even long overdue. I would disagree with Selley that just because the private sector has been shown in other locations to be able to run some services (like zoos, arenas, and daycares) does not mean they are good at it, or even that private-sector services are intrinsically better.
But I would agree with him that cutting the ridiculous custom we have of paying police officers to guard construction crews performing often routine infrastructure maintenance would be beneficial. As Selley writes, this "costs the city more than $5-million a year, [and] it all gets passed down to taxpayers. This is absurd," he adds, and "it has always been absurd. Frankly, it's amazing police officers even consent to the indignity."
But city services, in a very real way, are what make a city worth living in. They can define how we see ourselves, and how we interact with the people around us. They can teach us; protect us; help us navigate the streets; and allow us make the city cleaner, safer, and more vibrant.
Without them, we cease to fully be citizens: we become merely taxpayers.