Budgeting and the art of distraction

Those opposed to service cuts as part the City of Toronto’s 2012 operating budget were reasonably happy when they heard that Councillor James Pasternak, a fairly consistent ally of the Fords, had come out publicly in general opposition to library branch closures. They were even happier when, soon after, heretofore stalwart Ford supporter & TTC Chair Karen Stintz voiced the same opinion. But when Councillor Frances Nunziata jumped on the I-oppose-library-cuts bandwagon yesterday, things started to feel a little contrived. With all these Friends-of-Ford making headlines with their valiant support for Toronto’s libraries, the question has to be asked: were library branch closures ever really on the table at all?

Torontoist’s Hamutal Dotan thinks all these “Save Our Libraries” shenanigans may add up to little more than a big distraction:

So where does this leave us? The library system is just one item in the giant inventory of City services (a.k.a. “savings opportunities”) that the municipal government might cut in anticipation of the 2012 budget. And the public’s strong defence of the library system, heartwarming and essential though it has been, has had one unfortunate side-effect: distracting attention from other services that have less vocal or less organized supporters, are less politically favoured, and are much more likely to actually be cut, even though they too are much beloved and much relied-upon by a broad community of users.

via “Look Over Here, Guys!” (Or, How Libraries May Be Safe but Other Services Aren’t) | Torontoist.

This isn’t really a conspiracy theory, despite appearances. The Ford administration’s only strategic move throughout this whole budget consultation has been to hold all cards to the chest and offer little comment on what might get cut. This enables them to wave off passionate defence of services as premature and paranoid, while at the same time continuing to advance the idea that all programs and services are on the table for potential cuts. The consequence of this vague and inexact approach is that engaged citizens have to play their politics like a game of Twister, attempting to cover all the spots on the board they care about.

At linebreaks.com, Mike Smith explores this notion further:

The Fords likely never had any realistic intention of closing libraries. I have little doubt they would if they could. But by trundling it out as a possibility, they make more generalized cuts — staff, hours, community programming, circulation — feel less severe, like a concession. They may even potentially neutralize a certain amount of activism by making people see victory in “reducing” cuts to the ones that had been planned all along.

Well, alright. To be honest, I don’t know if they actually plan it that way. For all I know, blinkered prejudice and bumbling contempt just happen to have the same effect in the end as keenly enacted right-wing strategy. But it’s the effect that matters, and the effect is twofold: expand the boundaries of the possible for yourself, while limiting the same for your opponents.

via So, Rob Ford and Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci walk in to a library… | linebreaks.com.

If I had to speculate, I’d bet that the vaunted 2012 budget shortfall is made up for with some combination of the following: Some 250+ million in unused surpluses from prior years combined with other revenues; a property tax hike at two or three percent; further cuts to TTC bus routes (this may be accompanied by a fare freeze as a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down); steep hike to user fees for city-run recreational programs; the elimination of some or all of the Community Partnership & Investment Program (CPIP) grants; a reduction in hiring for Police and Fire Services; reduction in hours at community centres and libraries; and probably some asset sales, including city-owned old age homes. They’ll also knock a few million off the top through continued administrative efficiencies, continuing a trend started several budgets ago.

CPIP is the one sure-thing in the list. It’s the mayor’s go-to example for waste at City Hall and the cover provided by this year’s convenient budget crisis makes for the perfect opportunity to take a knife to it.

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