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Marcus Gee

A 'lame duck' squawks one last time Add to ...

Hey, Torontonians. Remember that big fuss about the city's messed-up finances. Stop worrying, already! Sit back. Relax. It's over.

According to Mayor David Miller, the city has found an extra $100-million between the sofa cushions. All that griping about ever-rising taxes? Way over the top. The city, in its beneficence, will be raising your property taxes a mere 2.9 per cent, instead of the planned 4 per cent.

All that stuff from candidates for mayor about contracting out services and selling assets? Crazy talk. Quoth the mayor: "There is no financial reason to do that whatsoever. There is none."

In short, Torontonians, your city is in way, way better shape than you have been led to believe. Don't listen to those nattering nabobs of negativism on the right. Ignore those griping hacks in the media. All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds: our Toronto.

That, at any rate, is the bill of goods being peddled by Mr. Miller. After tantalizing the city with a warning about an "important announcement" - Was he quitting? Was he changing his mind and running again? - the mayor emerged from his office Wednesday morning with a startlingly unstartling revelation.

The city would have a bigger budget surplus than it expected. This sort of thing happens just about every year. Bean counters make conservative guesses about how much money will come in and how much will go out. When the final figures are totted up, it often turns out there is more cash in the kitty than estimated.

This year, that accounting correction is bigger than usual, thanks mainly to better-than-expected returns on city investments, successful tax-assessment appeals and a strike that saved the city millions in labour costs.

But $100-million in a $9.2-billion budget is little more than a rounding error. It does nothing to solve a structural deficit - a built-in, long-term money shortage - that reached $313-million this year and will rise to $469-million in 2011.

Even Mr. Miller's claim that the city should be able to balance its budget in 2011 - without a TTC fare increase and with a property tax hike of less than 3 per cent - is based on the hope that Queen's Park will fork over $250-million in transit funding. That is more a prayer than a realistic expectation, given the yawning deficit the provincial government is facing.

Why, then, did the mayor make such an almighty noise about this underwhelming announcement? The motive was transparently political. Mr. Miller's whole big-government legacy is under threat. With TTC chairman Adam Giambrone out of the race, only Deputy Mayor Joe Pantalone is standing up for the Miller way.

Mayoral contenders from Rocco Rossi and George Smitherman to Sarah Thomson and Giorgio Mammoliti are all, in effect, running against him, promising to do things like outsource government services, slash spending or reconsider big projects such as Transit City.

This makes Mr. Miller furious. In a recent op-ed piece for Now magazine, he said his rivals were liars when they claimed that city spending is too high and out of control. "This," he wrote, "is simply not true."

But by firing back the way he did Wednesday, Mr. Miller has done his cause a disservice. The city was at first mystified, then confused, when he gathered the media mob with his portentous release about an important announcement, then made a disclosure about a routine, unanticipated surplus.

Confusion turned to hostility as people wondered how the city could be so off with its budget estimates. Rather than ease concerns about the state of the city's finances, Mr. Miller reinforced them.

Mr. Rossi called him the "lamest of lame ducks quacking for one more time." Cruel, yes, but when you make such a squawk over such a squib, you deserve what you get.

Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

 

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