When he was a cranky city councillor, Rob Ford always denied that the city needed to take in more money. City hall, he said over and over, "has a spending problem, not a revenue problem." Yet now that he is in charge, Toronto is considering more and higher user fees for city services. The aim, quite obviously, is to collect more money.
Along with its department-by-department service review, the city is taking an exhaustive look at what it charges on everything from marriage licences and ice time to children's swimming lessons and yoga classes for seniors. If the city is offering something for less than it costs to deliver, city manager Joe Pennachetti said on Monday, it will consider "full cost recovery." In other words, the user pays the whole freight, with no hidden subsidy from the city. On top of that, says Pennachetti's report, the city will seek "additional opportunities for collecting user fees." Translation: It will consider charging for things that it doesn't now.
If city councillors decide to keep a service that its cost-cutting consultants have deemed to be dispensable, he added, "I would highly recommend we look at a user fee." By that logic, visitors to Riverdale Farm, where admittance is now free, could end up paying an entrance charge to see the chickens and pigs. KPMG consultants identified the farm as something the city could potentially do without.
It is a far cry from what Mr. Ford promised as a candidate for mayor. Under his "respect for taxpayers" banner, he said repeatedly that city hall should stop reaching into citizens' pockets and cut its out-of-control spending instead. If the city got a buck for every time he repeated his "spending problem, not a revenue problem" mantra, it could wipe out its budget shortfall in a blink.
Once he became mayor, one of the first things he did was announce a freeze in property taxes and an end to the vehicle registration tax. But user fees come from the same pockets of the same overburdened folk that taxes do. His platform said nothing about higher user fees. Of course, it said nothing about service cuts either. Mr. Ford "guaranteed" there would not be any. Now we are facing the threat of both service cuts and higher fees.
His administration has already raised fees by $23-million to balance the 2011 budget and help make up for the loss of revenue from the vehicle tax. Fees for a host of programs went up about 3 per cent. The current review of fees is bound to recommend yet further hikes, putting more pressure on taxpayers.
It is not surprising to see city hall turning again to higher user fees, as it did for several years before Mr. Ford came along. David Miller raised them, too. The city doesn't know where else to turn. Property-tax increases are unpopular and highly visible. Mr. Ford says the highest he could tolerate for next year would be 2.5 or 3 per cent. And deficit-ridden provincial and federal governments are certainly not going to ride to Toronto's rescue.
For those reasons, the city is relying more and more on fees. They will bring in $1.4-billion this year, 15 per cent of the city's funding. But there is a limit to how much you can raise them before you start foiling their aim: to provide services and programs that ordinary people can afford. In the recent public consultation about city services, most participants said they would not want to raise user fees if it hurt the city's poor.
Mr. Ford owes it to the city to come clean. If he now believes that the city needs to raise revenues by hiking user fees, fair enough. Let him make its case. But as the man who ran for office claiming city hall did not have a revenue problem, he will have some explaining to do.