First and Foremost – For the Greater Good

Like so many people who watched and took part in the proceedings at Toronto City Hall yesterday, I was enthralled by the sense of coming together to support the city. People from disparate groups and organizations all took the time, despite Mayor Ford and the committee making it more and more difficult for them to do so, to stand up and tell the committee, and the people of the city, what they believe in. As a city, as a community, I think this will make us stronger. I think that it will provoke more and more people to become engaged in municipal politics, which is a very good thing – that lack of involvement is what got us into this mess in the first place.

But I’m not sure I believe it’s going to do much good.

The hand-picked executive committee went into these sessions having clearly stated that they were not going to be swayed by the deputations. Councillor Mammoliti made it clear that he was there because it was his job but that he wasn’t interested in opposing points of view, something that he continually made clear through the 22 hours of deputations with his attitude and condescending questions. In the end, the committee voted unanimously to take the advice of the KPMG report and look at making cuts, essentially telling every deputant that their time and effort didn’t matter.

The hope now is that the deputations DID sway all of those other, middle of the road councillors so that when it comes time for the full council to vote on the recommendations, decisions will be made with consideration for issues other than budget line items.

But. But, but. but.

Although I am about as left-leaning as they come, although I am the child of a dual-union family, although I am a supporter of the arts, and health programs for the poor, and libraries and public transit… I’m not sure I see the harm in truly looking at every city department to see if “efficiencies” can be found.

I am in the odd position of having very little vested interest in any of the service cuts – I have no children; I work from home, using TTC only a few times a week; I rent (and therefore pay a higher rate of property tax than most homeowners);  I do not drive a car or a bike. I use other city services minimally – a nearby park and the library occasionally but no continuing education or community centre services. Most cuts, if they happen, will not affect me directly. Which gives me the unique perspective of being able to look at the issues based on the greater good.

The KPMG report is shocking, in that is reduces every expenditure of every department down to a line item in a budget. Pens and paper share equal importance with policing and transportation. It’s all too black and white. It creates too much emotion and too much selfishness without ever looking at the nuances of that expense, how it was created, why it is (or isn’t) needed, how it overlaps or works with other departments, and most importantly how making a change will affect the future, not just of that line item, but of the programmes, departments and people associated with it.

I believe that some things should, and will, be cut. I believe that the city needed a core services review, something that hasn’t been done since amalgamation. And I believe that city services need to be equal for all parts of the city.  But I also believe that the committee and council should be working with the various city departments and that the KPMG report should be an outline of where to start consultations, not a bible of what stays and what goes.

That report listed services that, I’m betting, many Torontonians didn’t even known existed. Windrow clearing of driveways in the suburbs after snow plowing – are you shitting me? That happens? On the “taxpayers” dime? A pick-up service for people wishing to surrender unwanted pets to Toronto Animal Services – I didn’t know it existed. Did you? If people don’t even know about it, is it worth keeping?

Likewise, some services that have no clear benefit might not be worth keeping – licensing of cats and dogs, for instance. With only something like 40% compliance, a programme that costs as much to run as it brings in, and no obvious benefit to pet owners, should we even bother with pet licences? Wouldn’t it make more sense to encourage pet owners to use microchips?

Libraries, oh libraries. I am uncomfortable with closing down branches. But I’m also one of those people who reserves books online and goes to the actual library only to pick up and return my books. In urban areas with a mostly adult population (ie. Metro Hall), maybe a pick-up/drop-off branch would be enough. This is something the library board would have to assess themselves – nobody else has the expertise to determine what changes should be made. But personally I’d like to see late charges raised, and I wouldn’t be opposed to charging to rent (non-educational) movies.

Police Services has always been hands off – in other years when other departments were cutting their budgets to the bone, Police Services had their budgets raised. Can we live with fewer cops? Crime is down. Put cops back out on the street, split them up in areas where officer safety is not an issue, and defeat that old cliche of “There’s never a cop around when you need one.” Also consider investing in some tools for cops that let them work more efficiently – two years ago I gave a witness statement to an officer that he wrote out, slowly, in longhand, in a notebook. With a pencil. A $30 digital voice recorder for each officer and the use of a contracted transcription service would save hours of paperwork from every officer’s day and would mean that the statement could be more detailed and more accurate. And that police would have more time on the street, to interact with citizens, and to catch bad guys.

And like every individual or business who has ever written a budget, you not only have to look at what can be cut, but how to bring more money in. It is only the stubbornness of Mayor Ford and his cronies in the burbs that we’re not currently debating the merits of a congestion road toll. Worst gridlock in North America, yet Toronto won’t even consider road tolls. Ridiculous!

And let’s also put a gas tax, and a share of the G/HST on the table. Not to mention pushing other levels of government to allow cities to tax residents based on income as opposed to property tax. It’s shameful and disheartening that these things are being ignored.

Ultimately, every single thing has to come down to what most benefits the greater good. Not just individuals and their specific jobs or programmes, not cost savings or efficiencies, but how the individual services are used and by whom, and whether the savings or the service outweighs its cost. Some stuff is going to end up getting cut. If the process is done properly, that will be stuff that didn’t benefit the city as a whole. Some stuff is going to be deemed too valuable to cut – these things that make our city an enjoyable place to live – and to allay the cost of those services, council will have to come up with revenue from other sources.

But it all has to be done with the intention of what is best for the citizens of Toronto. It’s about money, yes, of course, but it’s not JUST about money. And it absolutely needs to be about compromise – from all sides. If Ford and his crew insist on cuts, then road tolls, gas taxes and other ways to create revenue for the city also have to come into play.

I don’t know if everyone involved is willing to play nice. The bullies at City Hall seem to think that everyone has to compromise but them. I just hope we end up with a Toronto that is still a place that most of us are proud to call home. I hope that the spirit and energy and engagement we saw at City Hall yesterday continues and spreads. That the people involved in the various programmes are given more opportunity than a 3-minute deputation to show the citizens of Toronto the value (financial and social) in what they do. I hope that we come out of this with important services intact, but also more efficient.

And I hope that if that doesn’t happen, we don’t just shrug and go back to our lives, but use the defeat as an opportunity to rally for the next election and elect a mayor who will make the greater good of this city their highest priority.


2 thoughts on “First and Foremost – For the Greater Good”

  1. Nicely written piece, Sheryl. Really, there’s a pick-up service for unwanted pets? Had no idea. I think I’m willing to keep this service going, however, though it’s incredibly sad. As much as I loathe irresponsible pet owners, it’s a preferable alternative to just drowning a sack of kittens in the laundry tub or abandoning Rex on the side of the road ’cause now there’s a baby in the house.

    1. Well, my point is – if you don’t know about it, how can you take advantage of it?

      If it’s actually getting used, then by all means keep it, but I’m betting most people don’t use it, and just drop off unwanted animals at one of the 4 locations.

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