On the face of it, Mayor David Miller delivered great news earlier this week when he announced the city’s 2009 surplus will be $100 million more than anticipated just one month ago. Business and residential taxes won’t have to go up this year as much as forecast. All of a sudden, a balanced budget in 2011 looks within reach. A TTC fare hike next year isn’t a forgone conclusion.
Why, then, does the whole thing smell like two-week-old fish?
A lot of the griping comes from those who accuse Miller of using the occasion to strike a blow at his critics. The city’s improved financial circumstances, the mayor suggested, mean that any mayoral candidate who argues for the sale of city assets or the outsourcing of city services is driven by ideology rather than by necessity. Take that George Smitherman, Rocco Rossi, Giorgio Mammoliti and Sarah Thomson.
All four mayoral contenders embrace privatization models to varying degrees. The only candidate for the city’s top job who opposes the idea is deputy mayor Joe Pantalone — and he stood beside Miller for the $100-million good news announcement.
It was pure political gamesmanship — the kind that breeds corrosive public cynicism.
At issue is what this whole affair says about management of the city’s finances. Toronto is supposed to be wallowing in financial crisis. Just recently, for instance, voters were told money was so tight it would be necessary for each city department to slash spending this year by five per cent. Then, all of a sudden, the situation wasn’t quite so dire. The 2009 surplus was initially pegged at $250 million. It grew to $350 million this week.
Do organizations in financial crisis accumulate $350-million surpluses? Is it really possible that officials working for the country’s sixth-largest government came up with $100 million extra dollars at the last minute? Why should voters believe politicians next year when they say the city faces financial doom once again? And what’s with the current mayor touting the future financial health of the city when even he admits much of next year’s good news depends on whether his successor can convince the financially strapped province to fork over millions of extra dollars?
Miller was trying to score political points against critics of his record, but what he really did was further erode confidence in the way the city is run. How’s that for a legacy?
– April Lindgren teaches at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism, where she specializes in local news and urban affairs reporting; email@example.com.