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David Miller's misstep Add to ...

It's easy to balance a budget when the sky is the limit on fee increases. Unfortunately, that is exactly how the Toronto recreation department solved its shortage of cash, and that is what Toronto Mayor David Miller proudly tucked into his "turn the corner" budget late last month. Yesterday, the mayor was scuttling away from those proposed fee hikes, which hovered at an astonishing average of 21.5 per cent, while promising to have everything fixed by next week.

That's not good enough. Sure, the $5.7-million in proposed new revenues from higher permit fees for the use of city facilities and higher user fees for recreational programs constitutes a small percentage of the city's $8.2-billion operating budget. But why would Mr. Miller allow any department to respond to orders for a zero-increase budget - that is, no requests for additional funds from general revenues - with enormous fee hikes to cover wage and cost increases? The mayor may insist that the municipal budget process is different because officials put the budget together, and only then do politicians approve it. But if that's his excuse for this folly, why did he take full credit for a balanced budget last month? And why did he not even mention fee provisions buried in background documents that were sure to upset hard-pressed parents whose children depend on city-sponsored swimming lessons or play hockey at city rinks?

The revelations should deflate the mayor's pride in supposedly tabling the first balanced budget since the amalgamation of Toronto's constituent parts in January, 1998. They raise unsettling questions about what other explosive bureaucratic notions might be buried in the fine print.

Perhaps worst of all, they have derailed a serious policy debate about user fees. Early last month, a city report proposed higher fees for some parents to boost access for low-income families. Councillors had been wrestling with this idea, with some maintaining that no user fees should be imposed on anyone. It might have been a sensible discussion about how cities fund such services. Instead, Mr. Miller's buried budgetary treat has polarized the debate and squandered a lot of goodwill.

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