Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Budget 2013: Despite attempts at compromise, Ford can't claim victory

By: Metro Canada Published on Wed Jan 16 2013

The first thing you have to understand about the Ford administration's 2013 budget for the City of Toronto is that Mayor Rob Ford voted against it.

That sounds weird, I know. It doesn't make much sense that the mayor would vote against a budget he had endorsed as one of the greatest municipal budgets in Toronto's history — a budget built over the course of the year by his closely-aligned allies on council. But that's what he did when he decided on Tuesday to support a wildcard motion by Coun. Giorgio Mammoliti that suggested the city enact a property tax freeze in 2013, based on the figment that the city could make up the lost revenue with a floating waterfront casino.

Which brings me to the second thing you have to understand about the Ford administration's third budget: There was consideration of a casino boat.

I'm not sure where the casino boat idea came from, but Mammoliti seemed confident that the province of British Columbia had a floating casino for sale and that, if Toronto were to buy the vessel and park it on our shores, it would generate about $500 million in municipal revenue this year. This revenue, he said, would allow City Hall to forgo any inflationary property tax increase for 2013.

In other words, don't look to the taxpayers. Look to the casino boat.

Of course, any rational person would take one look at Mammoliti's bizarre motion to dismantle the city's revenue plans for 2013 and replace them with a roulette barge or whatever and immediately dismiss it. Which is why it was so shocking – even three years into the Ford administration, where once-shocking things are now kind of routine – that the mayor came out in support of Mammoliti's motion.

Ford's vote had immediate shockwaves. Right-leaning councillors who serve on Ford's executive committee weren't happy. Coun. Denzil Minnan-Wong immediately made some pointed comments to the press, while budget chief Mike Del Grande stewed over the perceived slight. Ford's press secretary tried to throw water on the situation, indicating that Ford voted in favour of the surprise motion to freeze taxes only because he's an “open-minded” kind of person. “If council had wanted the zero per cent he would have went out and found the money.”

But that's way easier said that done. Diverting from the plan to increase property tax revenue in 2013 would have cut at least $46 million out of the city's operating budget. That's bigger than the entire budget for the City Planning department, and almost as much as the city spends on the Economic Development & Culture budget line in an entire year. It's also about equal to the year-over-year revenue that was brought in by the Vehicle Registration Tax. It's a huge chunk of change – not the kind of money you find over the course of an afternoon, and not the kind of money you find without severe and drastic program cuts.

But that's what the mayor voted for.

The third thing you have to understand about the Ford administration's budget is that, compared to last year's budget, it can stand as both a success and a failure. It depends on how you look at it.

Last year, Ford went into the budget meeting with a never-say-die attitude, bucking notions of compromise and ready to stick to his guns over planned cuts to services, despite enormous public outcry. Councillors ended up walking all over him, launching a coordinated plan to reverse about $20 million in planned service reductions. Ford's administration looked weak — nearly irrelevant.

Things went better this year. First, the budget wasn't nearly as contentious. That's partially because the mayor's court cases have proven more entertaining than budget deliberations, but it's also because the process simply wasn't as cutthroat. Ford also surprised many when he approached items in this budget in the spirit of compromise. It was a new side of the mayor and his team, who in the past have opted for brute force over finesse when trying to move their agenda through council.

From that angle, the budget was a partial victory for the mayor. Ford prevented a repeat of the 2012 organized insurrection and kept most of the core principles embedded in the budget intact. No one monkeyed with surplus money or moved to reverse the priority to rapidly pay down debt.

Last year, the mayor stuck to his principles and was roundly defeated. This year, the mayor compromised those same principles, revealing as much when he showed his desire to scrap big pieces of his budget in favour of Mammoliti's tax freeze. But even as a compromiser, Ford still lost.

This post was originally published at on 2013-01-16T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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