As Mayor Rob Ford and his campaign rivals pledge to keep the lid on Toronto's taxes, the chair of the city's budget committee is warning cuts are getting close to the bone and it's "unreasonable" to expect rate increases to stay below the rate of inflation.
Councillor Frank Di Giorgio, an ally of the mayor picked by him to head budget talks last year, says he is not convinced there are many more efficiencies to be found in the city's spending and isn't even sure the cuts made this term won't come back to haunt future councils faced with aging infrastructure.
"It's like a person losing weight. You get to the point where you lose so much weight that you start to become feeble," Mr. Di Giorgio said Thursday – the same day Mr. Ford continued to boast he had brought the city "back from the edge of a fiscal cliff."
Mr. Ford, in full campaign mode, pledged earlier this week to keep tax increases below the rate of inflation if re-elected and said Thursday he will reintroduce to council a laundry list of cuts he failed to get passed as part of this year's budget.
The mayor's low-tax message has set the tone for his rivals, who say they will keep annual increases at the rate of inflation.
Amid such talk, Mr. Di Giorgio says the jury is still out on whether spending decisions made this term – especially on capital investment – were a good thing.
"We just reduced the rate of spending, that's all," he said, when asked about the mayor's "fiscal cliff" claim. "Now whether that is ultimately a good thing or not is only a function of time. Only time will tell because sometimes when you reduce the rate of spending you also reduce the necessary infrastructure improvements that you need to make."
As for the mayor's tax pledge, "To keep tax rates below the rate of inflation I think is unreasonable going forward," the budget chair said.
A University of Toronto study released this week found the city does not have a spending problem, as Mr. Ford has argued, and noted property taxes are low compared with elsewhere in Ontario. It also warned the city cannot maintain its existing infrastructure or invest in new transit, roads and housing without new revenue.
Mr. Ford's "fiscal cliff" assertion, first made in a press release issued from his office Wednesday in response to the U of T study, also has been challenged by Toronto's top civil servant, who used to be the city's CFO. City manager Joe Pennachetti took the unusual step Wednesday of holding a news conference to dispute the mayor's claim, saying he could "not support" Mr. Ford's terminology.
Councillor Paula Fletcher, a critic of the mayor, said Mr. Ford has succeeded in shaping the conversation about taxes by making people afraid to talk about the need to raise money to invest in capital projects.
"The mayor has got a lot of people spooked because he has been so successful saying we spend like drunken sailors," she said. "Any candidate for mayor or council has to take very seriously the issue of our revenue stream."