The city must get its own clichés in order

The city must get its own clichés in order

“The city must get its own house in order.” This is the phrase that gets bandied about every year at budget time, and it makes Mayor David Miller bristle. At Monday’s executive committee meeting, he let everyone know how much he despises it. He wishes the media would stop using it. I despise the phrase as much as he does. It has, due to overuse, become a meaningless cliché. So let’s make a deal: the press gallery will stop using the cliché if council will have an open debate about the budget.

The city spends nearly $8 billion annually, but every year the entire discussion about the budget comes down to the relative pittance that the city says it absolutely must have from Queen’s Park. This year it’s all about $71 million, or less than 1% of the city’s total budget. In previous years, the amount was similarly paltry. Yes, the province is miserly. Yes, the province needs to upload costs. Yes, the province should pay its bills. All these things are as true this year as they were every year before. This is just a dance, and it is not the real story of the city’s budget.

What is the real story of the city’s budget? Beats me! That $71 million eats up everyone’s time and attention, and all the media’s ink and tape. But if you do the math, there’s at least $7.7 billion worth of stories left over. Here’s a few guesses as to what some of them might be: the planning department is desperately short of resources while the city is facing an unprecedented building boom; the parks department needs a bigger acquisitions budget; the TTC spends $1 billion per year, though it is notoriously secretive about its own finances, so who knows where it goes. All these stories linger behind the curtain, and they’d linger still even if Queen’s Park paid its stupid $71 million without a fuss.

Council’s opposition is as much to blame as anyone for the fact that we keep having the same discussion over and over again. Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34 – Don Valley East) and Karen Stintz (Ward 16 – Eglinton Lawrence) showed up at Monday’s meeting to mouth vague platitudes. If they really want to put the heat on the administration, they should have the nerve to change the subject: shine a spotlight on the parks department, or the TTC, or whatever. They are convinced that the city could be better managed. They need to show people how by presenting an alternative.

Otherwise we’re stuck in clichéland: the city must get its cap in hand to pay the house bills in proper order and conduct real citybuilding by cleaning up its own room like the mature child that we all know it can be. Yuck.