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Cigarettes, icebergs and dark roads: Toronto’s fiscal future boils down to few scary analogies

City manager Peter Wallace has repeatedly said the city is facing a revenue shortfall that cannot be ignored.
City manager Peter Wallace has repeatedly said the city is facing a revenue shortfall that cannot be ignored.

Along with Thanksgiving, Halloween and the feeling of existential dread that comes with the realization that winter is coming, one of my favourite parts of October is attending a spectacularly nerdy budget talk delivered by Toronto’s city manager.

Held by the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance, for years the event has always had the same core message: though, yes, Toronto is a wealthy city with a growing population, city hall’s current budget practices are unsustainable.

For years, the message came from former city manager Joe Pennachetti. After he retired in 2015, Peter Wallace picked up the mantle.

New guy, same message.

At this year’s talk, held last week, Wallace came armed with analogies. A lot of analogies.

First, he described Toronto as a chronic smoker that just won’t quit.

“Doctors will bother people about smoking and suggest that smoking isn’t a good idea,” Wallace said, “and a lot of smokers have the idea that, ‘I’m still here. I was here last year. I’m here this year, and smoking is okay because it hasn’t killed me yet.’ The reality is … these things are risky behaviours, and they might well catch up.”

These risky moves haven’t killed the city’s finances yet, but that’s not to say they won’t.

Next up: the iceberg analogy.

For Wallace, the city’s planned capital expenditures are best represented by a large iceberg depicted on one of his PowerPoint slides. It’s the kind of iceberg that can sink unsinkable ships and ruin Leonardo DiCaprio’s day.

The iceberg represents $29 Billion in unfunded capital needs, much of it needed simply to repair existing transit, housing and other infrastructure.

Wallace’s final analogy put the entire City of Toronto on a dark road.

Because the city only budgets for operating expenses one year a time, there’s little political interest in looking at long-term strategies for the city’s future. In effect, Wallace said, the city is “speeding down a dark gravel road with only our parking lights on.”


Add all Wallace’s analogies together and you get something like this: Toronto is careening down a poorly lit road, hacking up cigarettes, and, oh, what’s that up just ahead? Oh man, it’s an iceberg.

It’s a hell of a scene.

Take it as a warning and a plea to city politicians that they need to act before the smokes, the iceberg and this dark gravel road turn Toronto’s fiscal challenge into a full-blown fiscal crisis.

This post was originally published at on 2016-10-24T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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