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.