It was a hairy week at city hall, a foreshadowing of the tumult the city is likely to face as it seeks to cut hundreds of millions of dollars in spending. The city rolled out an employee-buyout plan aimed at cutting thousands of staff, launched task force investigations on daycare, homelessness and arena construction and released consultants’ reports that floated the idea of cuts on everything from daycares to zoos to fluoridation of the water supply.
With so much at stake, it would be nice to think that there is someone in charge who seems to know what he is doing. Instead, we have His Worship Mayor Rob Ford.
Mr. Ford kept a low profile for most of the week, leaving it to titans such as Giorgio Mammoliti, the York West councillor famous for proposing a red-light district on the Toronto Islands, to field most of the questions. On Tuesday, a day when the efficiency consultants fingered a program that helps elderly people buy medical supplies, Mr. Ford found time to kick off the annual Caribbean festival. The mayor, who pointedly declined to raise the Pride Week flag last month, even did a little dance with a woman in a feathered headdress. Apparently he has no trouble cavorting with scantily clad revellers just as long as they aren’t gay.
With city council meeting for its monthly session, Mr. Ford had a perfect chance to speak about the city’s financial fix and to explain to residents how he planned to get out of it without cutting cherished services. Instead, he focused on graffiti and traffic lights.
Two city councillors wanted to put in new stoplights on Dufferin Street and Queen’s Park Crescent to protect pedestrians. Mr. Ford, a famous champion of motorists, was opposed. When he lost the votes, an unusually agitated and apparently angry mayor stormed around the chamber trying to find out how it happened.
Earlier, he distinguished himself by voting against programs that hand out money to community groups supporting seniors, the disabled, immigrant youth and minor hockey. As a penny-pinching Etobicoke councillor, he always opposed the grants as a waste of money. But now that he is the top man, holding a big cleaver over the city budget, it is not exactly comforting that he believes things like that are gravy. Even his conservative allies weren’t with him. He lost one of the votes on the grants 43-1.
It was not until Friday that Mr. Ford gave his first interview on the burning issue of the week: cutbacks. He chose a friendly venue, the John Oakley Show on AM640 radio, where he announced his mayoral bid last year.
Although those KPMG consultants have yet to find a dollop of gravy in their exhaustive floor-by-floor search of city hall departments, the mayor told his friend “Johnny” that city hall has positively “tons” of the stuff. Just look, he said: in his first six months in office, “we have saved over $70-million.”
“And so if we can find 70 million, I’m sure we can find 700 million” – the amount the city needs to close its annual budget shortfall. There is only one small problem. When he says he has “saved” $70-million, he does not mean he has cut that amount from what the city spends. In fact, most of it comes from what the city collects in taxes.
Included in the $70-million figure is $64-million from the cancellation of the vehicle registration tax earlier this year. That is a plus for taxpayers, but a minus for the city treasury, which must make do with $64-million less each year to pay for the services it delivers. Mr. Ford’s tax cut has made it harder, not easier, to balance the budget. So the mayor is way off base to claim he has found $70-million in budget savings in six months.
Either Mr. Ford is misleading the public or he simply does not understand the apples-and-oranges difference between money taken in and money saved. To make matters worse, he told Mr. Oakley that the city spends 80 per cent of its budget on labour. The real figure is 48 per cent. “The last thing we want to do is lay off, Johnny, but when it makes up 80 per cent of your budget, there’s a lot of gravy there,” he said. Oh dear.
The sad thing about all of this is that most people probably support Mr. Ford in his drive to get city spending under control. But if they are going to go along with big cuts, they want to know they will be done sensibly and humanely. Mr. Ford’s performance this week did not reassure.