Budget 2012: A failure on two levels before it’s even launched

The Toronto Star’s Robyn Doolittle has a terrific feature in today’s paper, providing background on the two-month-long budget odyssey you and I and Toronto City Council are about to embark on.

She leads with a year-old anecdote involving an unnamed source that I’m going to guess was Nick Kouvalis:

Sitting in an uptown restaurant 11 months ago, a top official in Mayor Rob Ford’s inner fold revealed the master plan for his term.

The 2011 budget would be pain-free. The mayor would drain hundreds of millions in surplus and reserve funding left by David Miller and get three huge payoffs for it. One, Ford could deliver an unexpected property tax freeze to curry favour with the voters who just put him in office. Two, he could fill the structural deficit gap without making a single significant service cut. And three — the most important — it would remove the safety net.

via Toronto News: 2012 the doomsday budget? Not so much – thestar.com.

This isn’t surprising news. The talking points memo circulated to Ford-friendly councillors during last year’s budget debate laid it out pretty simply. “By applying all accumulated surpluses to the 2011 budget,” it read, “we unmasked the true financial condition for all to see. The 2012 budget forecast reflects the true gap between the city’s revenues and spending habits.”

In other words, an irresponsible property tax freeze and short-term fiscal thinking in 2011 were a feature, not a bug. The idea was always to make the 2012 budget look daunting and insurmountable, in the hopes that a dire-looking situation would curry public support and the necessary council votes for an austerity-type agenda.

We purposely drained our savings account so we could spend the next year telling everyone how broke we are.

It’s becoming clear that this strategy failed on two levels.

First, despite (apparently sincere) attempts to encourage a very large opening shortfall for 2012, new revenues have crept onto the scene — their presence has been obvious for months, despite denials — and look to have helped bring that shortfall down. In reality, it’s likely to present far less of a challenge than some of the budgets that came across Shelley Carroll’s desk when she was budget chief.

Second, even if there was a fiscal crisis — one as bad as initially claimed — this administration has utterly failed to maintain the public support and the political capital they need to make big, sweeping, cost-saving moves. While some right-leaning and centrist councillors appeared to start the term thinking they could coast simply by hitching their wagon to the new guy in the mayor’s office, it’s becoming clear now that being branded a loyal member of Team Ford could have consequences as we start to approach the 2014 municipal election.

For proof, look no further than Councillor James Pasternak, who squeaked into office with a commanding 19% of the popular vote in his mostly suburban ward. He’s been a fairly hardline supporter of the mayor thus far — more than 80% of the time by my count — but now he’s telling the Toronto Star that he “will not support cuts to many of our social services and arts programs.”

Funny how things change.

What’s next

Don’t get too comfortable. There are still some significant items that could face the chopping block, including some potentially disastrous cuts to the TTC and the Community Partnership & Investment Program, in which the city contracts out cultural, social and recreational services to not-for-profit and community organizations. Small cuts this year can set up further cuts in coming years. Let’s watch close.

Another thing to watch: some in the mayor’s office may attempt to spin a relatively cuts-free 2012 budget as a victory for the mayor. They’ll call it vindication for his campaign pledge that he could cut the “gravy” and balance budgets without service cuts. They’ll say that the left-wing in this city was being premature and alarmist with their messaging over the summer. This will all be bullshit. It’s clear at this point that the mayor’s gambit to craft a 2012 budget in his own ideological image has, in large part, failed.

From here on out, it’s all about the mayor saving face after a very rough first year.

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