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Time for TTC, budget chief to get along

by Royson James

Councillor Howard Moscoe’s job is to be the defender of public transit, to jealously guard this essential service and cry aloud when the budget wolves snarl and try to tear apart vulnerable service. olice Chief Julian Fantino now has a similar task on behalf of the police.

And councillors rise to the defence of children, the homeless, the environment and recreational services.

Councillor Tom Jakobek’s job, meanwhile, is to balance the demands without breaking the backs of taxpayers.

Is Jakobek, the city’s budget chief, a cuddly fella? Not on your life, especially not at budget time. And it’s budget time at city hall.

For the third straight year, Jakobek is the point man on the city’s budget team intent on delivering a property tax freeze. Mel Lastman promised it during the megacity mayoral campaign, councillors quickly bought into it in 1998, and no one is about to mess with success a few months before the next municipal election, set for November.

Now, in order to tame the budget, Jakobek has to be himself - mean, ornery, unrelenting, and the main lightning rod for the anger and discontent of councillors who want money for deserving program.

This week, some transit commissioners wailed that Jakobek planned to steal TTC money and impose a fare hike and service reductions. “(Jakobek) is going to force the TTC into the position where it has to raise fares or cut service. And no amount of bafflegab from the budget chair is going to be able to paper that one over,” said Moscoe late Wednesday.

This appears to be a gross overreaction to what Jakobek had told the commission only a few minutes earlier.

Categorically, Jakobek said, “no fare hikes, no reduction in service.” But he’d like to know the impact of a number of budget cuts ranging from 1 per cent to 5 per cent.

And another thing, he wants some of the surplus money the TTC has generated since last year’s budget - from increased ridership, lower-than-budget contract demands and other savings - an amount Jakobek says could be $10.4 million to $15.2 million.

Two things. First, it’s folly to believe the TTC can make any significant cuts without affecting service. This is an organization whose budget has been cut drastically since 1992.

Back then, the TTC was receiving $245 million in government funds. Now, it gets $145 million. Eighty per cent of TTC funds comes from riders, only 20 per cent from government. In short, the TTC runs a tight, efficient ship that is the envy of the world.

Compared to its 37 cents per ride subsidy, Montrealers get 85 cents per ride, Philadelphians get $1.68 and those in Atlanta $1.73, Los Angeles $1.89 and Cleveland $3.17.

Second, because the TTC runs pretty much like a business, it is prudent to bank the surplus it generates now for a rainy day. Then, that fund could be used to offset or moderate future fare hikes.

Jakobek knows this, of course. But he has to balance this with the many demands from the many departments.

In the end, the TTC is funded by Toronto taxpayers. Any surplus of the TTC’s is the city’s surplus; any shortfall is the city’s liability.

Whatever his shortcomings, Jakobek is most skilled at watching the taxpayer’s purse. His TTC budget position is reasonable, two months before the budget is struck.

Instead of scaring commuters with a seven-page list of potential reductions to transit routes they know won’t happen, the TTC must work collaboratively with its financial masters.

Co-operation, not political sniping, will secure the fragile funding for transit users.