When he was running for mayor last year, Rob Ford made two explicit promises to the voters of Toronto.
The first was that his plan to trim spending and “stop the gravy train” would not mean any cuts to city services. “I will assure you that services will not be cut, guaranteed,” he said on Oct. 8, two weeks before winning election.
The second was that there would be no layoffs. In a statement released on YouTube on Sept. 27, he said he would reduce the number of city employees through attrition. “No need for layoffs.”
Now it looks as if he will break both promises. City hall is considering a whole menu of service cuts as Mr. Ford seeks to wipe out a $774-million budget shortfall. City council is to meet next month to consider cutting back on everything from libraries to policing to street cleaning.
As for layoffs, Mr. Ford came close to admitting on Friday that they are inevitable. It was clear all along that attrition alone would not do the trick. Now it seems that a second tactic – offering buyout packages to employees if they leave – is falling short too. Though Mr. Ford says that the last thing he wants to do is put people out on the street, “I don’t know if we have a choice.”
How does he justify breaking his word? Like countless politicians down the ages, he is arguing that he has to change tack because of the horrible mess left by his predecessor. Following the well-thumbed script of the newly elected, he says that the mess is much worse than he expected. “To see the $774-million coming down the pipe – that was something that... was hard to expect or to see,” he told a Sun TV interviewer.
That claim does not hold water. The city has been wrestling for years with an annual shortfall fluctuating between $500-million and $800-million. Mr. Ford knows that as well as anyone. Toronto’s budget process is remarkably open and, as a city councillor of 10 years standing, he enjoyed a front-row seat.
If this year’s crunch is especially bad, it is at least partly because Mr. Ford himself chose to begin his term by killing the vehicle-registration tax and freezing property taxes for one year, making it much harder to balance the budget. Now he says that drastic spending cuts are needed to avoid tax hikes of “20, 25, 30 per cent.”
The mayor’s supporters say that we in the press should stop hectoring him over what he might have said during the long-ago election campaign. Toronto’s budget problem is real, they rightly argue, and he is trying to fix it. Leave the poor man alone. If he told a few stretchers, well, he was only doing what every politician does when he is trying to get elected.
But that’s the point. Mr. Ford ran for office claiming to be something different than the usual smooth-talking politician. He was the no-nonsense ordinary guy who would cut through the baloney and tell it like it is. As the whole city knows now – and should have known then – he was peddling a line of guff. The idea that he could cut spending, taxes and debt without cutting any services or putting a single person out of work was an obvious fantasy from the start.
Now it is being exposed as such. Shouldn’t the mayor be held to account? Are we supposed simply to forget that he was elected on false pretenses? If his promises to avoid service cuts and layoffs were fake, what are we to make of his election promise to achieve $2.8-billion (yes, billion) in budget savings over four years, to produce $1.7-billion in operating surpluses, to pay down debt by $800-million?
It’s not hectoring to expect a mayor to be straight with the public.