What a difference a year makes.
Last year, the operating and capital budget was a battleground between left and right, downtown and inner suburbs, Margaret Atwood and Etobicoke North Councillor Doug Ford. The budget committee wrestled with hot-button issues such as the closure of city zoos and the denuding of public libraries.
It was enough of a fight that Toronto Council finally took part of it away from the budget committee and Mayor Rob Ford, and set the stage for a dramatic power shift in which council wrestled pretty much everything away from the mayor.
Mayor Ford and his supporters warned that in this year’s budget, council and the city would have to go through the war all over again.
As it’s turned out, that’s not so much the case.
The 2013 operating and capital budgets are definitely still a thing of the Ford administration. The budget will see tax dollars invested in road repairs to unprecedented levels — driven even higher by the need to repair and rehabilitate the crumbling Gardiner Expressway — covering roads in cash rather than borrowed money.
To help fund that, there will be some cuts to fire, police and ambulance, and projects near and dear to the hearts of downtowners and the left wing on council — such as arts funding — aren’t getting the attention they might have under another mayor.
But generally, this is a budget that doesn’t take many risks. There is no attempt to remove the land transfer tax. The budget doesn’t pretend to freeze property taxes. It doesn’t make an attack on downtown services particularly, just as it doesn’t reward suburban communities, especially.
It does make a significant and potentially damaging change to the way the city funds repairs, using cash instead of borrowing — but that is a serious double-entry accounting problem, and not an especially significant political problem.
It shouldn’t surprise that the Ford administration is taking it easy on this one, or at least playing things a little more slyly. Last year, Mayor Ford could still point to a strong electoral mandate as a basis to push hard on an agenda that was both aggressive and divisive.
That mandate is still there in theory. But the mayor and the agenda are walking dead in these weeks before Christmas, as the budget committee wraps up its deliberations.
They’ve been a sullen affair; budget committee chair Mike Del Grande presided over public deputations early this week, underneath the projection of a growing spreadsheet on which he costed every single thing Torontonians asked for in their three minutes. But again, that’s nothing compared to the marathon meetings Mayor Ford held last year.
Spreadsheets have nothing on sleep deprivation. And from the look of things, 2013 has nothing on 2012.