Earlier this week, the City of Toronto released its 2010 capital and operating budgets to no shortage of criticism. This is something that, unfortunately, the city has to live with. Unlike the federal and provincial governments, the city is required by law to balance its books every year and so cannot run deficits. Considering the way that Ottawa and Queen's Park have acted for basically my entire life, this is definitely a "do as we say, not as we do" thing. Because of this, though, the city frequently has to contort itself in painful ways to make the budget work.
I'm still going through the budget, and honestly, the thing is so dense and unapproachable that it'll most likely take a good while. But I have been poring through the new user fees, and while most of them are understandable if a bit galling - take childrens' activities at City recreational centers, formerly free, but now they'll be $15 per participant - there are some that I have no idea how the City can defend. Like, say, the new charge that is going to be rolled out for false fire alarms. From what I understand, this is a modification of an already-existing charge - but where it was originally slapped on repeat false-alarm offenders, now it's for every single false alarm, regardless of whether it's the result of idiot kids or drunks pulling the alarm or an overly sensitive smoke detector that doesn't like your cooking.
This is a $350 charge. It's not a flat rate, either - it is $350 *per vehicle*! The next time that someone triggers the alarm in my building, then, at that rate there'll be more than a thousand dollars worth of fines idling on the street after a few minutes. The City plans to make $4,890,375 from this charge - which means that because of this, thirty-eight times every day people will not appreciate the whirr of the sirens approaching.
If I am elected Mayor, I pledge to eliminate this no-forgiveness false alarm charge, and return it to what it was before. I hope that the eventual winner, whoever it may be, keeps this in mind.
I honestly can't understand what the City was thinking when it brought this in. Budgeting based on punitive fines that are, ultimately optional - in the sense that people can theoretically choose to avoid committing actions that would result in fines - is not good economic sense. More than that, though, in my mind it amounts to an assault on the common Torontonian, whose own fiscal resources are already being strained and don't have the liberty of imposing fines to find level ground. If this fine fell squarely on the shoulders of whoever pulled the fire alarm, then I wouldn't mind as much - personal responsibility is something that shouldn't be avoided.
I seriously doubt this is what's going to happen, though. I and many other Torontonians live in multi-unit apartment buildings, and it's rare that a month goes by without the harsh, wailing jangle of the klaxon waking us up and sending us down to the cold street way too friggin' early in the morning. I would not be surprised to see landlords simply turning around and charging their tenants to make up the cost of the fine. For a big building this isn't killer, but smaller buildings don't have many tenants to spread the pain between. What I worry about are the smaller fires that would previously have been caught, but won't, because people disconnect their smoke alarms to avoid accidentally setting off a false alarm.
This is purely a stopgap solution, and it shows. I don't think this is the sort of thing we should be pursuing, and it's not the sort of thing that Toronto should hold on to. We're a better city than that. Nevertheless, this sort of thing is going to keep happening. Governments of the last few decades were blinded by prosperity, thought it would last forever, and thus took no action whatsoever to prepare for times that would not be so good - except for Alberta and its oil-powered Heritage Fund. Wise governments would plan for that, and not simply scramble for whatever scraps they can find in the pantry.