Why a panel of experts?
Today’s big city hall news is that Mayor David Miller has named an independent fiscal review panel, comprised of six well-reputed Torontonians, to look over the city’s finances. The mayor wishes to counter his critics who complain about “wasteful spending at city hall” but who are never more specific in their criticism than that. And the ultimate measure of the panel’s success will lie not in what it finds or what recommendations it makes but in whether or not it shuts those people up.
The wasteful-spending tag line has gained traction over the course of the summer despite all available evidence to the contrary. During the provincial election campaign, Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory insisted that Toronto should perform value-for-money audits of all city departments before it gets any further help from Queen’s Park. The demand left Jeffrey Griffiths, the city’s auditor general, aghast: Griffiths conducts such audits regularly, and he finds that, for much of its operations, the city is well managed. Back in the spring, Miller used to make a habit of reminding people of those audit results. No one believed him. He is straining against his political stereotype, against the generally held belief that New Democrats can’t manage money.
He is also straining against a budget process and a budget debate that has become extremely detailed and complex. The city has two budgets: one for capital spending, one for operations, and it bewilders the general public to keep track of the difference. (Quick quiz to prove my point: The TTC eats up 51 per cent of one of those budgets and 15 per cent of the other. Which is which? Why does it matter? And why should you care?) To the complications of the spending side of the ledger we can add the mayor’s insistence that we must now perplex the income side: the city needs to diversify its sources of money, so it is considering a bunch of new and ever-more-innovative ways of taxing and invoicing its residents while demanding one cent of tax from some other government, or something. I doubt the expert panel will manage to make things any easier to understand.
It all makes me wish Miller had a bit more Mel Lastman in him. Lastman would never have let the discussion get so weary, partly because he had good salesman’s instincts, and partly because, from all appearances, he seemed to be a bear of very little brain, so to speak. But this is one of those times when a penchant for simplicity, no matter how you come to have it, is an asset. Despite Miller’s campaign slogans, Lastman remains the standard for talking like a neighbour.