City budget a bloody foul sausage

Toronto City Hall council chambers on February 4, 2016. (Stan Behal/Toronto Sun)
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Next Wednesday, Toronto city council will meet to finalize its 2016 budget — the product of an ugly exercise in public sausage-making.

For the past few months, we’ve watched hogs get slaughtered, gutted, butchered and stuffed through the grinder. Now, the mayor and his budget chief face the unenviable task of trying to sell us some tasty bratwurst. What’s it taste like? Here’s what we know:

Living in Toronto will cost you more in the short term

Life in Toronto is getting more expensive (again) this year. Residential property taxes are going up almost 2% on average (about $51 per average household, according to the city). On top of that, rates for water and sewer are going up by 8% (about $72 for the average user) and fees for garbage pick-up are increasing by 3% (about $12 more for a large bin) while the tax rebate intended to offset those garbage fees (don’t even ask — it’s that complicated) will decrease, depending on how big your — ahem — can is. That’s an additional cost to you of $36 for a large garbage bin. Altogether, then, the average household with a large garbage bin will pay about $171 more this year for the privilege of living in Toronto. That’s, well, much more than a 2% increase.

And even more in the long term

To make it balance, this masterpiece of fiscal cuisine relies on the kind of unsustainable funding we haven’t seen since David Miller was mayor. Say what you will about Rob Ford, but this practice was beaten out of city staff and council during his term as mayor. It’s back. Even left-leaning Councillor Gord Perks recognizes the danger of tapping into one-time cash sources and raiding reserve funds: It means next year’s budget is going to be even more difficult to balance. The city manager calls this a “transitional” budget. One deputy mayor has said work on the 2017 budget must begin the day after council passes this one. Everyone is talking about having a conversation about new taxes — ahem — “revenue tools.” But why didn’t they do this last year? There’s no excuse not to have some answers boiled into this budget. What have they being doing all year?

Look, it’s not that hard

Toronto continues to fund programs council has previously ended. In September 2011, council directed city staff to commence the process of selling the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts. We still own this theatrical albatross. It’s a colossal failure for which you will spend $6 million on capital upkeep this year, plus $1.8 million to keep it open and losing money. Sell it and save $7.8 million. Also in 2011, council directed Exhibition Place to start making money. Now five years later, this 80-hectare waterfront parking lot still generates zero income for the city despite employing 361 well-paid employees. It will cost you $5.5 million this year for capital upkeep — plus $85 million more over the next 10 years. Fire the management, get a new board, give them authority to execute a profitable plan and start making $10 million per year.

No one on this council has the guts to take on the cops, despite a recent report that identified millions of dollars in easy savings. Man up. Save $50 million to $100 million this year alone.

There’s $118 million in savings in less than 200 words. Your turn, council.


 

— Towhey is managing director of Ballacaine Strategy & Execution, a weekend host with Newstalk1010 and former chief of staff to former mayor Rob Ford.

First published in the Toronto Sun, Feb. 11, 2016