Reality about to come bursting in
EDWARD KEENAN EMAIL: EKEENAN@THESTAR.CA
There are a lot of ingredients that go into the nostalgia for childhood that a lot of adults feel — some rose-coloured glasses, some legitimate longing for places and people no longer around, some remembrance of a time before mental and physical wear and tear took its toll. But a big part of it is looking back on a time of apparently limitless possibilities. What would you be? Maybe a doctor, or a cowboy, or an astronaut, or a Hollywood actor. Prime minister? Pro athlete? Maybe both? But not all of us can be Ken Dryden (who has been, so far, a Hall-ofFame NHL player, a lawyer, a cabinet minister, an author of both novels and non-fiction books, a university instructor, and an executive). Through adolescence and into adulthood, the potential pathways available to most of us have a way of narrowing: We make choices to pursue one thing at the expense of another. Limitations in the form of grades or skills or imposed obligations make it clear some things we might like to do aren’t going to be realistic, while university admissions offices or employer hiring committees make choices for us that determine our future. The early months of Olivia Chow’s mayoralty have so far often seemed to have a bit of that childhood feeling of both possibility and uncertainty. Big housing plan, demands to fix shelters, and fix transit, and fix traffic, and deliver more and better services, and so on. How are we going to pay for it? Maybe the federal government will help by raining money on the city, or maybe the provincial government will step in and pay for a bunch of things it hasn’t previously, or maybe they’ll give Toronto a new revenue source such as sales taxes, or maybe the city budget process will reveal potential big savings or a previously unknown appetite among Torontonians to pay more locally. Could be anything! Well, that part of this city hall administration is going to come to an end now, in fairly short order. Decisions are about to start being made — or revealed — that will answer the open questions about Toronto’s government capacity. In a matter of weeks, the fantasy of possibility will be mostly replaced (at least for the immediate future) with a more accurate picture of achievable reality, for better or worse. Some of the answers will be determined — and more so chewed over and considered — at the city’s inperson budget consultations, which begin Monday night in Scarborough and continue through the week and into next week. Mayor Chow and her budget chief, Shelley Carroll, have made a lot of fuss about the importance of these consultations as a place where residents can talk about what kind of city they want to live in, and share how much they’re willing to pay for it, and offer ideas or opinions on how it should be paid for. The success or failure of the project will depend in part on how fully Torontonians embrace the opportunity to get involved, but certainly what people say at those meetings is going to shape how the mayor and council proceed. Another thing that will shape decision-making will come Tuesday, when Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland unveils the federal government’s fall economic update. The city has been making a lot of requests for federal cash — especially for housing and shelters, including a new ask for $600 million to $800 million per year for Chow’s housing plan. Chow has been expressing what may appear to be increasing exasperation with the delay in hearing a response about housing dollars — especially about the hundreds of millions or billions of dollars available in the housing accelerator fund. But Chow also appeared at press conferences twice in the past week with federal officials, including one standing beside Freeland, expressing her hope good news was coming. Freeland, for her part, said she saw the mayor as a “progressive partner” and repeatedly said she didn’t intend to break any news early about what her budget update would contain. But she encouraged Torontonians to tune in. And then, within the next two weeks, we’re expecting the provincial-municipal working group on a “new deal for Toronto” — which the federal government has recently joined to observe — to come back with a report. That group began its work with Premier Doug Ford acknowledging that the city needed help to fix structural issues that have led to a budget hole that’s reached $1.5 billion, and Chow pitching the possibility of a sales tax. As the group has been meeting, both rumours out of Queen’s Park and Chow’s own rhetoric suggest an upload of the costs of the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway could be on the table, a move suggested earlier by former mayor John Tory and former mayoral candidate Ana Bailão that Ford had previously responded to with a hard no. Whether in the form of uploading costs, or in sharing revenue, it appears likely Ford is now a willing partner with the city, but the question is how much and how soon. At least the beginning of an answer — the part the city will need to bank on preparing next year’s budget — should come this month. Which then leads into the holidays and, immediately after that, the thick of Toronto’s budget season, where the reality of what next year will bring — in both spending capacity and tax rates — will be firmly decided. That’s a time when all the dreams and ambitions of the lead-up period, like childhood fantasies, get boiled down to a manageable set of achievable items. It could be painful (it usually is, at least partly), or it could inspire new optimism. It might be both, to different degrees or in different ways. At this point, there’s still a wide array of imaginable budget futures. The next couple of weeks will start to make clear which will actually be possible.