Ben De Sousa was just one of more than 100 residents from across the city to file into the cafeteria of West Humber Collegiate Institute this week to discuss the city's projected $774 million budget shortfall for 2012 - and the service cuts needed to balance it.
For De Sousa, who immigrated to Canada from Portugal in 1972, attendance Tuesday night at the fourth of eight city-hosted service review roundtable discussions was a must in order to help save the services that mean most to him.
"From what I hear on the news, solid waste, bicycle lanes, even recreation centres might be gone," said the Dufferin and Wilson area resident. "My son played hockey at Downsview Arena for years. As a citizen of Toronto, it was nice to have that little subsidy when you can't afford to pay for everything. I honestly believe that if they make those things private, not too many people will be able to put their children in skating, hockey or soccer."
Clad in a bright blue David Miller T-shirt, downtown resident Virginia (who declined to give her last name) expressed similar concerns: "I'm interested in all the services. We wouldn't have them if they weren't needed, and they're needed now more than ever," she said. "I'm afraid they're going to slash and burn and it'll take generations to get back to where we were. Ask people how they feel about (former Ontario Premier) Mike Harris' changes in our society. This is Mike Harris on that same level."
Hosted by City Human Resource Manager Sandra Hughes and Chief Financial Officer Cam Weldon, the two-hour roundtable discussion session had De Sousa, Virginia and the 100-plus other residents in attendance split up into groups at about 15 tables. With the help of a city facilitator at each table, residents were instructed to categorize a deck of cards, each listing one of 35 different services the city provides, under one of three banners: necessary for our city to be liveable and prosperous; contributes to the city, but is less important; or, is not required for the city.
The 35 service cards covered everything from the city's 311 service, to affordable housing initiatives, child care, public transit, emergency services (police, fire and ambulance), parks and forestry, community centres, garbage collection, water treatment, libraries and the zoo, as well as many others.
While the exercise was meant to assess the service priorities of residents, the stack of cards at most tables remained steadfastly thick in the 'necessary' column and markedly thin in the 'not required' one throughout the process.
Still, Hughes said the exercise is nevertheless a helpful one.
"When an issue is as complex and important to each of us like the services delivered by the city, it's critical we take the time to hear from as many people as possible," she said. "We know that many here are both familiar and passionate about many of the services offered by the city, and many came here this evening to defend or even promote the services near and dear to their hearts. We want to know what those services are."
In addition to the veritable army of city staffers on hand Tuesday night to help answer resident questions, several city councillors also made appearances - Etobicoke North's Vincent Crisanti (Ward 1) and Doug Ford (Ward 2) among them.
For his part, Crisanti was encouraged to see residents engaged at the 'user-friendly' session, although he said it was too early to tell how their input would help the city make whatever cuts end up deemed necessary.
"That's precisely why we called this Core Service Review. This process identifies all the potential savings to be had: are we running services in the most efficient way? Can we do it better? What are the priorities of the taxpayers?" he said. "I remain very optimistic that, as challenging as it will be to reach that goal of $774 million, we'll get there. I'm not sure how yet, but we'll get there."
De Sousa's solution? Bring back the vehicle registration tax.
"I think they sold their soul for $60. What's $60? It's not going to make me rich or poor, but it helped the city," he argued. "If you ask me, we're in this stupid mess because of a lousy $60."
The Service Review Roundtable sessions with residents will continue across the city until June 7. Following that, the public consultation will officially end on June 17, when Toronto Service Review Feedback Forms (which can be found online at torontoservicereview.ca) are due to be filled out and filed with the city manager's office.
Several standing committees will then consider City Manager Joe Pennachetti's report from July 18 to 28. The report will then proceed to Toronto City Council at a special meeting scheduled Sept. 26 and 27.