Well, well. It is budget time in old Toronto town again. I reserved my five minutes of fury, to add my small voice to the shrieks and wails of the suffering masses. I reserved it for the evening session, January 12, where there is not such a crowd and I have more chance of being noticed.
I was in an even bitchier mood than usual because I have an arthritis flareup going on. It is worse than the usual winter onset knee pain. It has got my back hurting too and I am walking stooped over. I am getting to be a cranky old man. All I need now is a cane to whack the table with.
They are getting to know me. I seem always to be first or second on the list, even though I put off making my RSVP so I would be further down.
The first speaker on the list had some sort of fan club among the left committee members. I do not know any particular reason, she was just the typical single mom with three kids and unhappy with daycare. But she was a hard act to follow.
So my name was called and I hobbled over to the mike. "Welcome back" they said. I kept a cool demeanor toward them. I delivered the speaking notes I had scribbled on the street car.Hi. There is not much I can really say in 3 minutes.
(The chair said "five minutes". Oh, joy)There is not even that much I can say in a few pages but you have my written submission. I just handed it to your secretary. I do not think it will get read very well by you. But I am also putting it on my web site. Stuff I put up there is starting to get read.
There is no point to me getting into the complexities of budgets. I make only these simple points;
That the crunch that has been coming since the amalgamation is obviously starting to bite.
Infrastructure is falling apart. You have no more rabbits to pull out of your hat to keep things going.
You are starting to make plans and commitments with money you do not have. You are still not willing to get your heads around the need to increase revenues.
Your budget problem is the result of a governance problem. The city government is incapable of making good decisions and formulating sound policies and planning.
What is needed is a thorough overhaul of government in Toronto. You should be passing that up the line to the executive.
But as I said, I am not here to talk about the complexities of urban governance.
I will just scream a bit from my own self interest. I live on ODSP and I ride TTC a lot.
I am a big supporter of TTC riders.
I am not so big a fan of poverty strategies. They tend to be what social agencies are interested in, which is not necessarily what the interests of low income people is.
I certainly have no time for regressive taxes, like on movie tickets, or road tolls.. You at least understand the concept of regressive and progressive taxes, do you?
The biggest single thing you can do right now to help low income people in Toronto is to reduce transit fares.
Don't ask how to pay for it. Taxes are too low in Toronto.
Get a backbone and stand up to the tax cranks. Or I'll put a jinx on you.
( I waggled my jinxy fingers at them and went back to my seat. This caused some of them to chuckle a bit.)
So I watched the rest of the 20 on the list do their thing. A few were questioned by the councillors, why them in particular I do not know. I think most of the self interest people and poverty pimps had done their thing in the daytime session.
But Mayor Tory was there. He sat in the audience and took some notes, then left halfway through. I hope something is sinking in to him. If the "no taxes" idiots are not stood up to, and the city does not start to aggressively fight for the power and revenue it needs, it is kaput. It is all going to start to fall apart.
As usual, one of the clerks came up and got me to sign off on being in the video being made of the hearings. Something new was another one asking me to send them an electronic copy of the written deputation I handed in. The text of it is below this. I also had to write that in some haste. It is hard to be organized when there is so much to write about.
The least popular speaker was right at the end. He was a really fat, slickly dressed business type who wanted to talk about what "we" had thought up as a solution for the housing shortage. Instead of spending $150 000 per unit to build new housing, that same money could make the down payment on five houses. Each could be renovated to create two family suites. "We" could manage all this for just a small fee.
That was actually a bit interesting. It was much like a scheme I have discussed from time to time. It seems to be too logical to actually get done; the city could simply buy houses, put people off the housing wait list in them, and use their rent to cover the mortgage.
But I do not see how any private "we" needs to turn a profit out of it. Or, why the residents should end up owning the property after the mortgage. Mister suit had to report back to his "we" that he had been blanked by the budget committee.
So, I headed home through the freezing cold. I reflected on the city I had adopted. I liked the reasonable attitude of Torontonians in one way. Unlike where I am from, they do not look like you like you should be killed because you are not able to be in full time employment.
But the other side of this "niceness" is an inability to stand up for anything. All this budget problem comes ultimately from the amalgamation back in 1997. I cannot imagine the Alberta government getting away with doing that to Calgary and Edmonton.
I cannot imagine any city west of the Kenora putting up with the attitude the province has toward Toronto, the total crap handed to it. For the economic center and largest city in the country, T.O. has a strange sort of self confidence problem. It wants to remain a "creation of the province".
But here is what I handed in. I even ran off copies for all seven of the committee members. LIke I can afford toner cartridges more than the city.
It is hard to think of just what to say in three minutes. Or even what to put into this written submission which I will hand to your clerk. I expect it to be read and thought about before the budget goes to the executive, and then read and thought about some more once this annual storm and fury budget process is out of the way.
I will comment on specific items only in passing. Obviously, the city does not have enough revenues to do what it is obligated to do. A large part of the blame for this seems to be with the local establishment, famously unable to see past this afternoon, let alone tomorrow.
There seems to be a deliberate plan to break the city financially, much on the lines of what has been done to some municipalities in the states. This purpose is proceeding, as the financial problems are now becoming a crisis. There are no more rabbits to pull out of the hat.
People are now up to admitting that the city has a revenue crisis, not a spending crisis. It is like this is an amazing flash of insight. There is talk now of the need to expand the city's revenues. Alas, this is usually framed it terms of the "toolbox" given to the city by the provincial government. Most of the tools in this toolbox should be thrown back into Auntie Wynne's face.
People in government should be able to understand the concept of regressive and progressive taxation. Progressive taxation is when those who have more money pay more. Regressive is when those with less income pay more tax proportional to their income. Things like vehicle registration taxes, gas taxes, road tolls, and so on are regressive taxes. The ones related to cars can be justified only if directed to a fund for improving public transit.
Some measures, such as taxes on movie tickets and tobacco, are abominable. In some of these taxes, most of what they collect will go in the cost of collecting them. They would really do little except create resentment about intrusive government, which is probably their real purpose.
As for real measures to raise revenues, the immediate need is to raise property taxes and some types of tax on business; development charges, property transfer tax, and so on. The property tax right now is also regressive, weighing much more heavily on low income rental housing. That must change. Right now property taxes in Toronto are among the lowest in the GTA, as are housing prices.
The inevitable bullroar of the privileged at being made to pay their full share, must be stood up to. They have gotten a cheap ride for long enough at the expense of the less fortunate. A system of rebates for property taxes should be introduced for people who fall into hardship. Many municipalities have a system of keeping distressed people in their homes by putting their property into an escrow until it is sold.
So it is not too hard to solve the city's immediate budget problem. But on the longer term, infrastructure is still not being kept in repair and up to date. Yet higher levels of government should not and will not bail out the city while it refuses to maximize its own revenues.
The city should not let itself be dependent on higher levels of government. Toronto should be aggressively seeking to expand its powers and revenues in every possible way. People are finally starting to talk seriously about an income tax. Toronto should have all the taxing powers of a province.
In fact, this long suppressed discussion about why a huge entity like the city is so much under the thumb of the province, needs to break out into the open. There is no reason why Toronto should have to go to the province to get its governance systems changed, or to get money to run the transit system.
This is not a very radical idea. Most of the world's major cities in democracies are run that way. It makes everything a lot more efficient and fair. It is peculiar that, rather than seeking the powers and revenues for the city appropriate to its size and importance, most of the local establishment seem to want it to give back power.
Now, this topic is not really something for the budget committee. I suppose it could be dealt with by the government management committee, but that only seems to deal with minor administrative adjustments. There is no real pathway that a public demand for serious governmental reform could take.
Not that there is any great public movement, anyway. Demands for more power for Toronto seem not quite underground, but a big gunshy.
I could try to make a deputation to governance, but what I say will probably attract less attention than at this committee, during the budget dramatics. My core message is that you have a budget problem because you have a governance problem.
The Toronto government is incapable of making good decisions. Even when the right decision get made, it usually gets reversed. The best example of this is the effort, supported by a clear majority of the public, to build a light rail transit system. This keeps getting trumped by this "subways or nothing" tendency which is connected to the "cars first" lobby.
There is little being done to reverse the disastrous effect of amalgamation, even though it could easily be done. There is a need to restructure council more like a parliamentary system, and to facilitate development of political parties. Lack of such a structure, appropriate to a democratic polity of this size and complexity, is why governance in Toronto is so rudderless and easily manipulated by special interests.
This is what parties do; build public support for a program, and then carry through the program. Who is hostile to the idea of political parties in large cities is hostile to democracy. But that seems to be the big problem in Toronto; a political class which is really hostile to democracy. Why that is, how it developed, I really do not know.
From the right of the spectrum across to the left, there is this unwillingness to involve the public in decision making. The biggest example of this contempt for the public are these deputations. Politics is supposed to be done by an elite. The public is supposed to be kept disempowered.
In a time of rampaging predatory capitalism, this is ominous for Toronto's future. Governments which are vulnerable to being hamstrung and forced into untenable financial situations are under threat. We see in many cites in the United States, Detroit being the biggest example, of local governments being driven into insolvency and financial dictatorships imposed on them.
"Austerity" is then imposed upon them, and public assets, bought by public taxes, looted. Seeing the determination to block any effort to solve the city's financial problems in a rational way, I wonder if Toronto is being set up for the same treatment.
That the city is not allowed to run deficits and thus has no debts, gives it some protection. But now the city is starting all these capital projects without knowing how it will pay for them. The city is vulnerable because of its "creature of the province" status. The Queen of Queen's park, a devotee of neoliberalism, would probably like an excuse to impose a caretaker on Toronto and strip it down.
If she would sell off Ontario hydro she would do something like that. Mean Mike did things almost as outrageous to Toronto and got re-elected. The dislike of Toronto by other parts of Ontario seems to be about cognitive misattribution, but can be used to cover such attacks on Toronto.
Consequences of failing to deal with the developing financial crisis may not be as grim as that. They will disproportionately harm low income people like me. It will accelerate the city's economic decline, especially if there are some economic disruptions, as is very likely.
But to sum up my stream of thought, the fiscal crisis is now starting to bite. The untenability of the present governance structure is hitting home. The disempowerment of Toronto citizens and the arrogance of the local establishment is having its effect. You have a fiscal crisis because you have a governance incapacity because you have a democracy deficit.
What this committee needs to communicate up the line to the executive committee and the full council is this; the immediate problems will be handled only by a sharp increase in revenues, which must come from property and commercial taxes. These taxes also need to be restructured to make them progressive.
Then you need to look expeditiously at new revenue tools, meaning serious revenue tools, meaning especially an income tax.
And finally, it needs to be knocked back to the executive that there is a need for serious governmental reform in Toronto, and a committee to look specifically into it, and invite ideas about it. At the core of you fiscal problem is the city governments inability to make decisions based on public will and public interest.
And you may notice that my message here is as much for the public as for the budget committee. I do not have much confidence in this message getting anywhere with the kind of city council we have. Change is going to have to come from outside; hopefully from a mobilized public.
What will cause the Toronto public to get motivated, I do not know, but I will do what I can, including write pieces like this.
Build local power!