Torontonians have had a lot to say about the city budget for the coming year. Mayor Rob Ford held four consultation meetings last week to hear the opinions of citizens and interest groups. Popular concerns included decreased funding for police services, library closures, increased fees for recreational programs, and fare hikes in public transit.
The 2011 budget was released two weeks ago and various cuts to services were announced. Benefitting from a large surplus inherited from the Miller government, Ford, in accordance with his election promise, froze property taxes. None of the surplus will be put toward debt reduction or reserves.
He rescinded the $60 vehicle registration tax and proposed a 10¢ increase in TTC fares. This would require an extra $5 from students for a monthly Metropass.
In addition to fare hikes, 48 late-night and weekend bus routes will be cancelled so that financial resources can be reallocated to busier routes. The routes to be cancelled are those with less than 12 passengers an hour.
These routes, while ridership is low at certain times, provide neighbourhood residents with public transit that is within walking distance of their homes. The last time service cuts were made in the ’90s, ridership declined.
“Why should we be scared to admit that there might need to be some cuts?” said councillor Josh Matlow. “As long as you can support why you decided to make that cut, why it made sense, why it is better to do things differently—do it!”
With ridership expected to increase to record-breaking numbers, the TTC claimed that they require an additional $24 million to budget for service improvements such as more station managers and route supervisors. This was supposed to be provided by the TTC fare hike until the motion was suddenly cut from the commission meeting agenda as city managers promised to find $16 million.
Details of where this money will come from have yet to be announced. The remaining $8 million will have to be provided by the TTC from fare revenue.
Some city councillors have accused Ford of proposing the fare hike and then terminating it the next day as a manoeuvre to boost his reputation.
The Toronto Environmental Alliance has denounced the motion to cancel bus routes as a move backwards for the city in its approach toward climate change, calling the service cuts unnecessary.
“The mayor’s budget will lead to increases in smog and greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging people to drive instead of take transit and it will result in more road congestion,” said Jamie Kirkpatrick of the TEA.
At consultation meetings, citizens insisted that they would be in favour of tax increases if it meant improved services. More than 90 individuals spoke at the meetings on Wednesday—but will their opinions and suggestions be considered? Ford continued to defend his decision to freeze taxes in favour of service cuts.
“I am listening,” Ford said. “I’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty, more than any previous government has, to go out and listen to the people, and not make them come downtown for two days.”
Committee member Frank Di Giorgio commented that the chances of suggestions from citizens affecting the budget are low. He insisted that finances had been planned carefully and that, while minor changes are possible, the city will move forward with the current budget.