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The raving optimists

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Why do voters continue to accept the assurances from ambitious politicians that, unlike their opponents, they can walk through a storm and not get wet?

Symbolically speaking, that is what politicians like Toronto Mayor Rob Ford have done. The bombastic former city councilor who became the sworn enemy of former Mayor David Miller is now a mayor himself. He was elected on an ambitious program that would boost services, cut taxes and fees, and lessen the city's reliance on the political whim of the provincial government. That was last fall, however. Now, it appears that Ford is starting to find out that it's a bit more difficult to stay dry than he first thought.

Ford this week released a letter to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty that detailed $365 million in additional funding the city needs to make ends meet over the next year. The release of this letter is tradition at Toronto City Hall, and something that Miller regularly did to underline his demands for more provincial participation in cost-sharing key city services and programs. However, as a councilor, Ford regularly eviscerated Miller for going cap in hand to the province, arguing that Toronto needed to improve its own affairs before going to Queen's Park. Toronto has a spending problem, not a revenue problem, Ford would say. Toronto voters lapped it up.

Now as the man holding the cap in his hand, Ford and his people would not acknowledge the irony of the situation. Ford's main media spokeswoman, Adrienne Batra, tried in vain to differentiate Ford's demands from Miller's demands, but with little success. And for Manitoba readers, Batra's presence only added to the irony; Batra polished her skills as a spokeswoman as Prairie director of the Canadian Taxpayer's Federation, an organization that wobbles with nausea every time a municipal politician tries to wrangle money out of provincial coffers rather than cutting its own spending.

Toronto is facing a situation not dissimilar to that facing Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz: how to balance a politically designed property-tax freeze and protect essential city services. Toronto is, like Winnipeg, using reserves and other special accounts to balance it's budget this year while cutting some red flag taxes. In Toronto's case, in addition to promising to freeze property taxes, Ford has already eliminated a driver's license tax that provided millions of much needed money to Canada's largest city. However, even if Ford is able to pull off a property-tax freeze this year, most pundits believe that 2012 will be a crunch year where Ford will face revenue shortfalls of tens of millions of dollars and no reserve money left to help bail him out.

The Toronto situation is instructive for Winnipeggers. Katz is certainly trying to pull off the same trick Ford is -- freeze property taxes AND convince voters there has been no appreciable cuts to services or degradation of infrastructure. It's all been smoke and mirrors; the mill rate has not gone up but programs and infrastructure have suffered and Katz has had to use reserve accounts to balance his operating budget. It's a slow process, and perhaps so slow most people haven't noticed the full impacts yet. But the backsliding is real. We'll see in the next couple of weeks if Katz can pull off another freeze when the city delivers its operating budget.

Who's to blame? Well, everyone loves an optimist but we might serve ourselves and our fellow citizens well if we scrutinized electoral platforms a bit more carefully to sort the realistic optimists from the opportunistic ones. Perhaps we should stop applauding candidates who claim they are not affected by meteorological events, and seek out those who have the best rain coats.

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About Dan Lett

Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school.

Despite the fact that he’s originally from Toronto and has a fatal attraction to the Maple Leafs, Winnipeggers let him stay.

In the following years, he has worked at bureaus covering every level of government – from city hall to the national bureau in Ottawa.

He has had bricks thrown at him in riots following the 1995 Quebec referendum, wrote stories that helped in part to free three wrongly convicted men, met Fidel Castro, interviewed three Philippine presidents, crossed several borders in Africa illegally, chased Somali pirates in a Canadian warship and had several guns pointed at him.

In other words, he’s had every experience a journalist could even hope for. He has also been fortunate enough to be a two-time nominee for a National Newspaper Award, winning in 2003 for investigations.

Other awards include the B’Nai Brith National Human Rights Media Award and nominee for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism.

Now firmly rooted in Winnipeg, Dan visits Toronto often but no longer pines to live there.

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