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Privatizing Toronto: The Hosers of "Hogtown" and the Budget

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ROB FORD
CP File

When I was in high school, I used to watch SCTV. It was a sketch comedy show that happened in this made-up TV station in the fictional town of Melonville. Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis created two particular characters that gained a lot of attention: Bob and Doug Mackenzie. They represented everything stereotypically Canadian (or maybe what became stereotypically Canadian?): toques, beer, donuts and, of course, back bacon. For better or worse these "hosers" became part of the cultural zeitgeist. I laughed at them as much as anyone else, and played their comedy record repeatedly.

I'm in my 40s now, and high school is a distant memory. Yet these days it feels like I've ended up a citizen of Melonville rather than Toronto. Instead of Bob and Doug Mackenzie, we've got Rob and Doug Ford. You see my city is facing, like, a budget crisis, eh? What Rob and Doug are sayin' is that we're short about $775 million. That's a whole bunch of two-fours, or smokes, or daycare spaces, or library branches, or public transit, or, like, whatever, eh? The only response I can muster is the nervous chuckle of a man facing inevitable doom.

I attended one of the recent consultation sessions on how to address this issue. It really came down to what services we should contract to the private sector versus what services we should eliminate. Faced with the fiscal challenge of providing services a community wants, government should back away, freeze or lower our taxes, and let the private sector charge us instead. King Harpernicus is not only firmly rooted in Ottawa, his dukes (dupes?) are in charge of Toronto as well.

The deficit referred to is in the operating budget -- money that is spent to continue providing various services for citizens. The $775 million deficit represents roughly 9 per cent of the overall operating budget for the City of Toronto in 2011. About 40 per cent of the revenues to fund the operating budget ($3.6 billion) is funded from property taxes. While it is the biggest part of the revenue pie, it isn't the majority. Sixty per cent of the revenues come from other sources like user fees (think transit fares) and the Ontario government (about $1.9 billion of our provincial taxes).

Where the debate should be focused is on the costs and benefits of each service as part of the overall operating budget. For example, according to the documents posted at www.toronto.ca/budget2011 the Toronto Police Service costs us roughly $1 billion annually, but so does Shelter, Support and Housing Administration (think public housing). Fire Services cost us $371.5 million, roughly as much as Parks Forestry, and Recreation or Children's Services (think daycare). Some of these services the city is required to provide as directed by the provincial government. Remember that $1.9 billion? Where does that go? Is it a fair amount for what has to be provided?

Of course, Rob and Doug won't engage in this debate, or at least they don't seem to be engaged. Instead, we hear a mix of decrees and asinine funding ideas that wouldn't make a real difference to anyone who understands the numbers. The latest is even more corporate sponsorship of public space: auctioning naming rights to TTC stations and public parks are the two that come to mind. Anyone want to pay a billion bucks a year to name subway stations or to slap their logos all over trees and playground equipment?

Given their love of professional sports, I'm surprised that the Hosers of Hogtown haven't cottoned on to the marketing geniuses at NASCAR for inspiration. The amount of logo space on police cars, ambulances, environmental and other city vehicles is extensive. The uniforms of these personnel also offer plenty of advertising space -- NASCAR drivers feature a minimum of 20 logos at any one time. Imagine Johnson and Johnson brands on emergency response personnel, or Glad waste disposal products as the presenting sponsor of your garbage and recycling pick-up. Toronto Police Services could be sponsored by brands like Swiffer or Tide ("tough on dirt, tougher on crime"). Parking enforcement officers could dispense coupons with their parking notices to soften the financial blow. Beauty brainstorming, eh?

I'm pretty sure the citizens of Melonville could tell Mayor Tommy Shanks was insane and that Bob and Doug Mackenzie were just a couple of improvising idiots on a TV station. None of them were real, all of them funny. Unfortunately, the Hosers of Hogtown are real. This version of Bob and Doug has me seriously concerned that my city won't be smart enough to survive.

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