Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Toronto city council: Expect lies, rhetoric and grandstanding at budget meeting

Published on Wed Jan 29 2014

Today marks the beginning of Toronto City Council’s debate on the city’s 2014 operating and capital budgets. If it’s anything like other budget debates under the Ford administration, it’s going to be a bit of a mess.

The budget, which isn’t even balanced, will be rewritten on the floor of council while Mayor Rob Ford stews in his seat. The drama will be increased by Ford’s recent troubles with scandal — which have led to his being stripped of many of his powers — and a bunch of councillors who seem enamoured with anti-tax rhetoric and resistant to the notion that stuff costs money.

You can watch the proceedings live at city hall or via live stream. I’ll be live tweeting a bunch of it. Here’s what to expect:

Lies and misdirection: ’tis the season for making stuff up. Expect a lot of untruths, especially from Ford. He’s bound to give a speech in which he claims councillors agreed in January 2013 to limit the 2014 residential property tax increase to 1.75 per cent. He’s never produced any evidence to back up this claim and council records show nothing to support it. In fact, city finance staff forecast a 2 per cent increase in their January 2013 budget outlook.

The truth gets even murkier with Ford’s suggestion that council also agreed in January that this 1.75 per cent figure would include a 0.5 per cent increase for the Scarborough subway plan — a subway plan that didn’t even exist until months later.

Expect some of the old standards as well. Like baseless boasts about saving the city a billion dollars. Or recently debunked suggestions that the city has way too many supervisors per employee. Or claims that the Scarborough Subway was necessary because the planned LRT would have gotten in the way of traffic.

Trumped-up anti-tax rhetoric: We’re going to hear a bunch of numbers bandied about today as councillors fight for various amounts of property tax revenue. Perspective is important, That 1.75 per cent residential property tax increase that Ford wants? That works out to an extra $44.37 on the average tax bill compared to last year. The 2.2 per cent favoured by Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly? That works out to about $55.03.

So the difference between the two plans impacts the average household to the tune of $10.66 per year. Or 88 cents per month. Or three cents a day. I’d never make light of those who live on a fixed income or struggle in poverty, but I’d suggest that three cents isn’t going to be the difference between economic success and total financial ruin.

Not that it matters. The mayor and his allies will act like this is a matter of life and death, and that any tax levy in excess of whatever arbitrary number they favour is tantamount to robbery.

Unsustainable practices: The Ford administration is fond of saying that they got rid of the unsustainable budget practices of the previous administration. It’s another misleading statement. Yes, under Ford council no longer uses prior-year surplus money to balance their budgets, but they do use prior-year surplus money to boost their reserve funds, and then they use those reserve funds to balance their budgets.

It’s fair to say the Ford administration has decreased the city’s reliance on surplus money — primarily because they’ve had big land transfer tax windfalls to rely on and haven’t bothered to fund the TTC — but it’s inaccurate to say they’ve eliminated unsustainable budget practices completely. That’s especially true this year, where a gaggle of councillors have decided to say to heck with sustainability and roll the dice on revenue that might show up.

Expect more of that in the council debate, with unsustainable practices championed because they can temporarily lower taxes and allow funding for a subway with dubious justification. That this strategy and this subway will put us into a big budget hole for 2015 — where we'll still need to figure out how to fund storm reserves and make up for the loss of significant provincial funds — will be beside the point.

Sustainability, I guess, doesn't really matter in an election year.

Grandstanding: Ford says he has a secret plan to save the city $50-million. Why a secret plan, and not a public plan or a plan that maybe could have been vetted by his appointed executive committee? His reasons for that are also secret, but may have something to do with hurt feelings — Ford thinks he was stabbed in the back by his council colleagues.

It should be obvious, but for the record: Ford definitely does not a secret list have $50-million in workable savings. He probably doesn’t even have $1-million. And if he did, there is the question of why he didn’t bring any of these savings to our attention during his first three budgets. What was the hold up?

I doubt he’ll tell us. Instead, expect a long speech followed by a bunch of votes in which the mayor loses by wide margins. Ford will call it leadership. I’ll call it yet another city budget revised and passed while the guy who was supposed to be in charge watched uselessly from the sidelines.

This post was originally published at on 2014-01-29T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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