Lost in the rhetoric is the fact that there actually is a "revenue"
problem, a problem that is deeply connected to the larger austerity
The city's budget is inextricably tied to other levels of government.
There are very few city services that do not receive a significant
percentage of their funding from the federal and provincial governments.
What we are seeing at the city level are merely the local impacts of
austerity measures taken at higher levels of government.
Childcare is an excellent example. Roughly 80% of funding for Toronto
Children's Services comes from the province. Some of the provincial
funding is actually, indirectly, from federal funding via transfer
payments. For many years, the budget for Children's Services has been
significantly under-funded. There are currently almost 20,000 children
waiting for subsidized childcare spaces, in a daycare network that can
only accommodate 30% of Toronto's children aged 0-9 years old. The
strain on the system will only become worse in light of significant cuts
to the provincial Best Start funding and the federal Early Learning and
Child Care funding. With the loss of these funds, the city has created
contingency plans for cutting between 2,000 and 5,000 subsidized child
care spaces in the next year.
Such cuts will directly affect the ability of low-income parents,
primarily mothers, to get paid work to support their children. For these
parents, affordable daycare is a core service that must be maintained.
For KPMG, the private-sector consultants hired by Ford to find the
"gravy," at least 2,000 childcare spaces should be labelled as
"non-core" services that are ripe for the cutting.
These cuts, if they are made, will be made by Ford and his cronies,
but it was the Harper and McGuinty governments who set the stage.
The global recession of 2008-2009 has served as a convenient excuse
for the implementation of an austerity agenda by all levels of
government from coast to coast. While banks and corporations benefit
from extremely generous corporate welfare and the Toronto Police Service
is enjoying pay raises of over 10%, the brunt of the profitability
crisis is being borne by everyone else through cuts to services and
public sector jobs.
So there is money for fighter jets, at the same time as the federal
government cuts transfers for childcare funding. There is money to
expand Canadian military bases in seven countries, while the federal
government has cut $53 million from settlement services. As both the
federal government and the City of Toronto move to reduce corporate
taxes and increase the amount that individuals pay for services, the
austerity agenda results in the massive transfer of wealth from the poor
to the rich.
If politicians were serious about getting rid of the "gravy," they
would be looking to the banks and corporations that are profiting
immensely on the basis of public monies, to the detriment of everyone
else. More profits through the fire sale and privatization of government
services are the next station for the corporate gravy train.
The City of Toronto budget cuts are just the local impact of the
larger austerity agenda. They are not simply about surrendering to the
neoliberal dogma that budgets must be balanced. For right-wingers like
Ford and co., cutting government spending is a political goal in itself.
For example, reduced funding for public health nurses reinforces the
idea that generous City services are a thing of the past. It also
reinforces the message to public sector workers that their jobs are on
the chopping block and won't be saved by money from other sources.
Signs of trouble for the corporate gravy train
The City of Toronto is at a crossroads. While Ford has not yet
revealed his plans for gutting services, slashing City jobs and
privatization, the potential areas identified for so-called
"efficiencies" are frightening. On the chopping block are thousands of
unionized jobs and services including public libraries, childcare
spaces, night buses and recreation centres and programs. Recent comments
by the mayor suggest that he will be pushing for the cancellation of
the entire community grant program, a fund upon which many community
agencies rely in order to deliver needed services to marginalized
But there are reasons to be hopeful. For one thing, activist
organizations, unions, community agencies and community groups have not
been silent. A massive organizing effort is underway against the Ford
cuts. While the effectiveness of the efforts by these very disconnected
groups is certainly up for debate, there is real resistance. One major
barrier has been that the City unions, still rebuilding public support
following a disastrous 2009 strike and immersed in their own contract
negotiations, have been unable to provide significant leadership for a
broad fight back to defend jobs and services.
Second, Ford's own plan for shoring up legitimacy for his massive
cuts is backfiring spectacularly. A series of community meetings and an
online survey were meant to provide the veneer of public consultations.
There is no doubt that the surveys were designed in order to get results
supportive of Ford's agenda. The surveys asked respondents to identify
"where" cuts should be made, not "if" they should be made. If, despite
this leading question, a respondent felt that a particular service
should be maintained, they were asked to identify whether services
should be maintained by way of increases to property taxes or user fees
or both. No other options were provided. The expectation was that
self-interest would win the day and the survey results would support the
cuts. Instead, the almost 13,000 Torontonians who participated in the
survey voted overwhelmingly in favour of preserving city services. A
large majority were even in favour of increasing property taxes if
These results are all the more hopeful in a context in which Ford
publicly called upon his "Ford Nation" to turn out in droves to
participate in the public consultations. It should not be forgotten that
while Ford rode a tide of popularity into the mayor's office, he did so
on a campaign that he would not cut services. The survey results
suggest that Torontonians expect him to keep that promise.
Similarly, the KPMG Core Service Review has found that the City is
legally obligated to provide the vast majority of its services, which
thus cannot be cut. As headlines in the local papers have trumpeted,
there seems to be little in the way of "gravy" to be found. While KPMG
has certainly identified areas for cuts, many of the suggestions in the
KPMG reports are deeply unpalatable to City Councillors, who will not
want to account to their constituents for having voted in favour of
cutting services like snow plowing and child care. The Toronto Star and
to a lesser extent the Sun, as well as the Globe and Mail, have been
critical of the proposed cuts as well.
Third, Ford has managed to anger some heavyweight interests. For
example, the mayor's brother and closest ally, Doug Ford, has been
attempting to unravel plans for the Toronto waterfront that have been in
place for years, raising uncertainty about $1.5 billion in private
sector investments. Not surprisingly, developers are hopping mad.
Ford's suggestions that he is prepared to slash the Toronto Police
Service budget will likely also result in serious push back. After all,
as the federal government's massive budget increases for prisons and the
military demonstrate, the austerity agenda has generally meant a
significant commitment to building up the security apparatus to maintain
public order. Ford seems to have gone off-script in this respect (which
is not to say that cuts to the police budget would not be at least one
welcome result of the austerity agenda).
Thus, Ford's corporate gravy train may be on some rickety tracks. The
Executive Committee will be making public Ford's plans for the 2012
Toronto City budget in September. This will be the next major step to
implement an austerity agenda which could cause immense suffering,
poverty and marginalization. Activists are targeting Councillors that
they think will vote against Ford's agenda, and communities are
mobilizing for this key September meeting and beyond. No matter what
happens, the results of this battle will be decisive for years to come
and will have repercussions well beyond Toronto.
Jackie Esmonde is a member of Toronto New Socialists, No One is Illegal (Toronto) and the Stop the Cuts Network.
This article first appeared in The New Socialist.
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