City budget a reality check

Mayor Rob Ford has gone some way to achieving his budget-cutting goal for 2012, expected to be $52 million lower than the previous year’s at $9.4 billion. What that means, among other things, is longer waits for fewer buses servicing routes that are already under-served, and a 2.5 per cent increase in property taxes – about $60 more for the average homeowner.

Ford had promised no cuts to services and no tax increases and, instead, to cut waste and create efficiencies. However, as residents of this city panicked over what he intended to cut, he reworked his priorities into two columns, ‘need to have’ and ‘nice to have’.

The 2012 budget proposal by Ford, to be debated by City Council in January, is not without compromises since all departments have not met the 10 per cent cut the mayor had called for in order to avoid overspending. The Toronto Police Service has in fact managed a four per cent increase. Additionally, the Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services have not met their 10 per cent reduction target.

So, while cuts to services will not be as severe as anticipated, this budget is not going to please many Torontonians who will find themselves paying quite a bit more for quite a bit less. The disabled, those who are dependent on WheelTrans, for example, will be among those who have to settle for reduced service.

The reality is that Toronto City Council cannot keep lurching forward without a stable budget model. Ford has made a point of seeking to privatize some services in an effort to rein in costs, most notably garbage removal. He is also aiming to save money by reducing the size of the city’s bureaucracy by 2,300 workers and to defer hiring 340 emergency workers. His promise to hire 100 more police officers is no longer affordable and has been dropped.

As we all should understand by now, if we are not prepared to pay more, there will have to be cuts. Among them, an expected seven per cent cut in the Toronto Public Library’s budget will mean reduced hours of operation. Operating hours at arenas will also be reduced. Recreational programs at some shared-use public schools will end, as will the WinterCity outdoor programming. Five wading pools and two outdoor pools will be closed along with three homeless shelters, and the budget for road cleaning will be cut by $4.2 million.

All of this results in $225 million in service cuts. Ford had initially claimed that $774 million had to be trimmed, but pushback, especially from the police, means that is not going to happen, at least not at this go round.

The group that will be most significantly affected simply because of their numbers is public transit users. Despite a record 1.5 million rides in September, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) will reduce service on 56 bus routes and six streetcar lines across the city beginning January 8 to save costs. Already there are areas of the city that are poorly served by the TTC, and the decision to curtail service on some of the busiest routes in the city even further is faulty thinking.

To try to manage the shortfall in funding from the city, fares will increase by 10 cents next year, which will bring in an additional $30 million. That increase will, however, still leave a $15 million shortfall, hence the route cuts.

Most affected will be low-income workers who cannot afford any other mode of transportation to get to their jobs.

The TTC is being left to fend for itself under a mayor who has shown little enthusiasm for supporting the service. Commuters who depend on public transit should therefore expect to continue to absorb increases in the coming years. We won’t be surprised if there is another attempt at another fare increase in the not too distant future.

It comes down to this: Transit users will have to either pay a little more or find other, maybe more expensive, means of getting around.

Thanks to Ford’s obsessive focus, the city budget will be trimmed. But that also means this city is going to get a lot more expensive while some of the services we have grown accustomed to, will no longer be available.

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