Hurrah. The rinks have been saved.
Mayor John Tory donned skates and a Leafs jersey on Tuesday at Trinity Bellwoods Park to announce that two big companies – Tim Hortons and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment – were donating $100,000 each to keep a dozen ice rinks open to take advantage of the cold weather. Tim Hortons stepped up to replace Green For Life, the garbage-collection company that pulled back its donation over conflict-of-interest concerns because it is bidding for more city business.
Mr. Tory said that, despite that "small hiccup," the deal to keep rinks open an extra four weeks was a great deal for the city. Who could argue with that? Skaters will get to spin around the rinks, which normally close at this time of year, until after March Break. Taxpayers will be spared the burden of covering the cost.
But hang on a minute. Why does North America's fourth-largest city need corporate help to keep a few extra rinks open till the end of winter? The city's 2015 budget is close to $10-billion. Spending by the parks, forestry and recreation department alone stands at $437-million. For Toronto, $200,000 is pocket change.
Is the city so hard up that it can't find that kind of money? The troubling answer is that, in a way, it is.
Toronto in 2015 finds itself in a tight corner. It faces ever-rising costs not just for everyday needs such as transit, policing, road repairs and fire and ambulance services, but for building and fixing the city's vast, aging network of highways, bridges, sewer pipes and public buildings.
The city government has a staggering list of responsibilities. It issues 45,000 building permits a year and conducts 165,000 building inspections. Its paramedics answered 274,220 medical calls last year, while the year before its cops made 41,255 arrests. It maintains more than 4,000 emergency-shelter beds in 58 locations.
City hall is spending $162-million for new subway cars and $600-million for new buses, not to mention $1.6-billion to upgrade the Ashbridges Bay sewage plant and $88-million to build new bike paths. Its state-of-good-repair backlog – what it needs to keep everything from falling apart – stood at $3.7-billion for 2014.
Where, oh where will the money come from? When he was running for election against that self-described champion of the taxpayer, Rob Ford, Mr. Tory promised to keep property-tax increases at or below the rate of inflation. And when former budget chief Shelley Carroll suggested recently that the city should consider bringing in a sales tax to help solve its money problems, he said he would vote against the proposal.
Yet just weeks into his four-year term, Mr. Tory announced he was putting nearly $100-million into transit to make up for Ford-era cuts and beef up service.
Not long after, the city found itself with an $86-million hole in its budget because the provincial government, itself strapped for cash, is phasing out some funding that helps the city pay for public housing. Rejecting a provincial offer to lend the city money, the mayor announced an unusual solution: The city would borrow money from itself, drawing on its reserves.
How very clever. But when you borrow money from yourself, how do you pay yourself back? Not by raising taxes. Heavens no. Not by cutting services either. Mr. Tory insists he is not going to mimic Rob Ford and take a "meat cleaver" to city hall.
Instead, his administration will be "scouring the city for real savings and efficiencies."
Sound familiar? It is a common dodge by governments that shrink from asking voters to accept either higher taxes or fewer services. It is easier said than done.
While city hall is hardly a paragon of efficiency, and every modern organization should strive continually to do more with less, it is getting harder to achieve big savings simply by working smarter or trimming here and there. Toronto's auditor-general reported recently that the city vastly overstated what it saved when Mr. Ford brought in consultants to pore over city operations for cheaper ways of doing things.
Borrowing a lot more is out, too. Within a few years, city hall forecasts it will bump up against its debt ceiling, which keeps debt-servicing costs to under 15 per cent of its tax levy. It would be folly to raise that ceiling, which imposes a welcome discipline on big spenders at city council.
As for squeezing more money out of the federal and provincial governments – another old standby – every mayor attempts it. Mr. Tory says he, too, is going to give it the old college try. To which the city can only say good luck.
The plain fact is that the city must either a) do fewer things for its residents, or b) ask them to pay more for what they get. On past evidence, it will opt to do c) neither, and get Tim Hortons to pay for ice rinks instead.