Toronto at a crossroads: Will Ford's austerity agenda be derailed?

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On June 20, 2011, Mayor Rob Ford and his allies on Toronto City Council Executive Committee turned down free money.

The Ontario government had offered $170,000 to cover the cost of hiring two public health nurses. One nurse would have worked with new immigrants on disease prevention. The other would have worked in low income neighbourhoods to promote health services. While the province had committed to ongoing funding for these two positions, Ford refused to hire the nurses.

This was not the first time that Ford had refused to vote in favour of proposals that would have improved services at no cost to the City. For example, in February, he was the lone dissenter in a 44-1 vote to accept provincial public health money dedicated to improving screening for HIV and syphilis. In March, Ford's Executive Committee refused a request from City Council to direct the City Manager to advocate for the restoration of the $5 million in funding to immigrant settlement services that was cut by the federal government. In July, the Mayor voted against distributing funding to community service providers, funding that had already been approved as part of his own 2011 City budget.

On the other hand, Ford has committed himself to many policies that will waste millions of city dollars. He has offered to buy out the employment contracts of 17,000 city employees, essentially paying workers not to work. City Council, at his urging, has committed to spending $200,000 to remove bike lanes on Jarvis Street that were installed last year for $59,000. He has cancelled lucrative construction contracts for ex-Mayor David Miller's Transit City Plan as well as contracts for the building of a pedestrian footbridge at Fort York that was already under construction, resulting in the loss of millions of dollars.

If the main concern is addressing a massive budget shortfall -- as Ford claims -- these decisions would be impossible to understand. It is clear that Ford and his allies have an agenda that goes well beyond simply ensuring that revenues are sufficient to cover expenses.

The Core Service Review: Cutting services and attacking public sector workers

There can be no doubt that the City of Toronto is facing a real budget problem. While there is some disagreement about the size of the shortfall, the city budget chief claims that there is a $500-774 million difference between the city's projected revenues and its expenditures for 2012. This shortfall is not a new problem. It was something that Miller's Council also struggled with. In the past, each year around budget time, the provincial government would find sufficient "one time funding" to see the city through.

Ford has vowed to bring an end to the budget shortfall, famously repeating that the City of Toronto has a "spending problem, not a revenue problem." The city is engaged in a "Core Service Review", which is expected to result in massive cuts and the implementation of hefty user fees to so-called "non-core" services. The city is spending $3 million on private sector consultants who are being paid to identify which services are "core" and which are not (and are therefore on the chopping block). The consultants are also looking at which services can be privatized, leading to low-wage and non-unionized workers taking on jobs currently done by city workers.

Lost in the rhetoric is the fact that there actually is a "revenue" problem, a problem that is deeply connected to the larger austerity agenda.

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 communities.

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 necessary.

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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