Over the next few weeks, the fate of many of Toronto’s valued programs and services will be decided at City Hall. Toronto’s core service review took another step forward on Monday, September 12th, when city manager Joe Pennachetti released his report outlining city recommendations for spending cuts – an attempt to reconcile an alleged $774M budgetary shortfall. The Ford administration is aiming to save $100M in 2012 – openly breaking a key election promise NOT to cut city services, while simultaneously reducing taxes. Even with the $500M surplus former Mayor David Miller left behind, Ford can’t make good on his word.
Since Torontonians began following the service review and its goal of reducing service spending, red flags have been flying in nearly every faction of the city’s public service sector. Things were particularly ugly at the epic all-night marathon of public deputations (live blogged by Torontoist) at City Hall on July 28th and then again following the release of KPMG’s report, shortly thereafter. The third-party consulting firm was hired by Mayor Ford at a cost of $3M to review services and recommend budget reductions. Those who have scanned the report have reasonable cause for alarm as KPMG systematically explores cutting pretty well anything that isn’t deemed mandatory or essential and therefore within the power of the city to cut. The report then rates each item in terms of its savings potential, risk and possible barriers. Seven service areas were reviewed including Infrastructure and Public Works, Economic Development and Culture, Parks and Environment, Community Development and Recreation, Licensing and Standards, Governance and Management, Planning and Growth Management and Executive Committee.
Service areas were measured against a handpicked control group of cities and other governments to determine whether Toronto services were being delivered below, at or above standard. Any service that was deemed to be “above standard” as compared to the control group was marked as “opportunity for savings”. Suggestions included things like reducing recycling targets, eliminating water fluoridation, further privatizing garbage collection and “reducing the number of subsidized child care spaces over time to eliminate 100%”. KPMG also proposed eliminating the Community Partnership and Investment Program (CPIP), which contains the budget for the Toronto Arts Council, as well as other cultural and social services with a total budget of $47.4M. The report states that “all these services can be reduced or eliminated, however these steps will impact the cultural vitality of Toronto”. The report also acknowledges that Toronto’s spending on cultural services per capital is lower than other cities.
Thanks to Councillor Michael Thompson, Chair of the Economic Development Committee, the importance of culture to Toronto’s social and economic wellbeing has been the subject of discussion at City Hall as of late. Thompson was the driving force behind the City’s recent Creative Capital Initiative – an effort undertaken in partnership with both the arts and business sectors to update the City’s 2003 cultural plan for the new term of Council. City Councillors recently voted unanimously to adopt the report Creative Capital Gains which set a financial target of increasing city arts investment to $25 per capita among other key recommendations. Thompson’s efforts also assured that the culture portfolio within city government was firmly rooted within the economic development file – a priority area of government for any city.
However, despite this commitment, Pennachetti’s report contained disastrous recommendations for the arts sector and Toronto’s economy, namely major spending reductions in arts grants as well as the sale of cultural assets. Local arts journalist Martin Knelman got wind of the news ahead of the report’s release and, to the surprise of the arts community, Friday’s Toronto Star news headline read Arts grants on chopping block. As was confirmed on Monday, the report proposes cutting all arts funding by 10%, eliminating grants under $10,000, selling city-owned theatres, closing museums and libraries, as well as eliminating $6M in grants to major cultural institutions including (among others) the Canadian Opera Company, the Toronto International Film Festival, Luminato, Pride Toronto, the National Ballet of Canada and Canada’s National Ballet School, the institution run by Ford’s very own arts advisor.
The story hit the news hard and fast – mobilizing the arts sector to advocate via an online petition stressing the importance of the arts to our city. Later that day, a senior official from the Mayor’s office assured reporters and the arts sector that Ford would not be entertaining such cuts but simply aiming to reduce city-run arts programs and services, redirecting savings to the Toronto Arts Council.
So, now what? In the coming weeks decisions will be made about the fate of arts investment along with a host of other public programs and services. First, Pennachetti’s recommendations will go to Executive Committee on September 19th. Executive will debate and vote on these recommendations, including any proposed amendments. They will then go forward for discussion among the full city council on September 27-28. The discussion and subsequent votes will determine the framework for budget 2012.
Given these imminent decisions, NOW is the time to contact your City Councillor as they will want to hear from their constituents in order to calibrate their vote on this and a number of issues that will be on the table. Sign the petition. Show your support by attending these meetings at City Hall.
It’s important to remember that despite alarming indicators, government decisions take time and must go through a political process, of which we can be a part. In the face of potential cuts, the arts sector can certainly strengthen its position in the coming weeks and leading up to budget 2012 by creating opportunities to showcase its economic and social impact on Toronto, reinforce its value to the business community, build alliances with related industry sectors, and stay top of mind for Councillors and constituents in the most positive way possible.