Sifting For A Sign Through The Garbage Entrails

March 19, 2015

As symbolism goes, garbage packs a pretty potent wallop. The outside workers’ strike of aught-nine, with its mountains of festering garbage piling up in city parks, is often seen as a symbol of the beginning of the end of the David Miller regime. garbageIn too deep with the unions, handed them the key to the vault, kick the bums out!

The veracity of that interpretation of events is contestable but the effect the strike had on the election seems pretty straightforward. Garbage stinks. As a politician, don’t put yourself in a position where you could be covered with garbage, even figuratively.

So how to take the news that garbage clean up in the city costs us about $25 million annually, according to staff? Here we are, always eagle-eyed about how City Hall spends our hard-earned tax money, literally (litterly?) throwing millions of dollars onto our streets every year. “If nobody littered in the city, that’s potentially $25 million in savings,” claims Robert Orpin, the director of collection operations.

$25 million? That’s more than double the amount we’re told we save from having contracted out waste collection in the western half of the city in 2011. Simply by not just throwing trash on the ground.

Which, as the snow recedes from our sidewalks and curbsides, reveals we do a lot.

I am of the vintage who remembers firsthand the PR push to get people to stop littering. Give a hoot! Don’t pollute! giveahootOr the tear-shedding Native American, Keep American Beautiful! We laugh now at the Mad Men episode where the Drapers just shake their picnic blanket free of debris onto the park grass. Ron Burgundy and friends tossing their fast food wrappers on the ground as they stroll down the street.

That was a thing we might’ve thought had been relegated to the… ahem, ahem… the dustbin of history. Evidently not, judging by the flotsam and jetsom strewn about the place, manifesting itself most every spring. When did we stop giving a hoot?

There’s more to it, obviously, then just people littering. Anyone walking around the city, especially at the end of a weekend, can tell you about inadequate receptacles along the street, the ones you do encounter, stuffed already to overflowing. Or broken bins. Mr. Orpin claims that bins are serviced once a week although all it takes is a few hours of non-functioning along a busy stretch of street and garbage has become unsightly litter.

On Tuesday, Mayor Tory suggested the city should be “collecting things more often” and was going to look into it. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but ultimately comes down to spending more money. cigarettebuttAnd we don’t like spending more money now, do we.

So here’s the thing. We, as residents, could actively contribute to reducing spending by not throwing our shit on the ground as we move around the city. Relying on by-law enforcement passes the buck. What’s the cost-benefit ratio to having enough officers in place to be able to catch people in the act of littering? We could park one outside every bar and restaurant in town and put an end to cigarette butt flinging in a minute but would it be a good way to spend money?

Never mind the cigarette butts but how many of us have seen someone walk out of a convenience store with a new pack of smokes, unwrap the cellophane and fling it aside like nobody’s business? And gum? Who the fuck just spits out their gum on the ground when it loses its flavor? What are you, 4 years-old?

Ultimately, what’s it symbolize about us as citizens that we complain loudly of paying taxes for the general upkeep of our city but, apparently, don’t have much of an issue with making the city clean up after us because we’re too lazy or distracted to take care of our own garbage?

filthily submitted by Cityslikr


Eventually You Have To Stand For Something

March 18, 2015

That’s why it’s not C51 that’s the issue. The problem in this country is we have a prime minister called Stephen Harper. And long as he is prime minister, whether it’s the Supreme Court, the workings of parliament, the politicizing of the police force and the walk away from science and evidence, all of these things can be laid at the feet of Stephen Harper. It’s the reason why he must be beat in the election…The focus we need to have in this country, quite frankly, is not on one bill it is on all the legislation which has been problematic. We need to change this government.

Elect Justin Trudeau and the Liberals or Bill 51 gets it! And by ‘gets it’, we mean, gets enacted and implemented by Stephen Harper and the Conservatives. You wanna talk about fear now? Fear that.

Vote Liberal!orthebunnygetsit

I sat listening to two of my favourite Toronto political figures, Trinity-Spadina M.P., Adam Vaughan and one of the best reporters around, Desmond Cole, on the latter’s Sunday afternoon talk radio program (where the above quote comes from). Before being elected to Parliament in a by-election last year, Vaughan was pretty much enemy number one of the Rob Ford administration, riotous fun to watch poke great big smoking holes in that clusterfuck we called a mayoralty, sometimes with righteous anger and other times outright mockery. Cole has established himself as a major voice writing (and talking) about the stuff most of us would choose not to think or talk about: racism, poverty and the corrosive effects of poor policing. He’s now taken to sitting for one hour a week in the belly of the beast, hosting an a.m. talk radio show.

Their segment, unsurprisingly, centred mostly around the Canadian government’s proposed bill, C51, their terrorist bill which has generated much (and increasing) pushback. c51protestsThere had been nationwide demonstrations protesting the bill the day before, on Saturday, with the turnout numbered in the tens of thousands. Vaughan had appeared at the one in Toronto, raising eyebrows among some folks, since the leader of his party, Justin Trudeau, has come out and stated that, despite some serious reservations, the Liberals would support the bill. Support it and then change it if elected as the government in this year’s elections.

Once more, the Liberal Party of Canada quakes in the face of theoretical machinations of the diabolical Conservatives. If we do this, then they’ll do that. If they do that, then we’ll look like this.

At a purely crass political level, it’s understandable. c51protests1For the past two elections, the Liberals have been defined to the electorate by the Conservatives, fighting both campaigns from back on their heels. In 2011, the unthinkable happened. They wound up in 3 place, setting out immediately to find a fourth leader to lead them into a fourth straight campaign.

With Justin Trudeau then in place, rather than burst forth with a sense of purpose, driven by, I don’t know, youthful optimism and a truly liberal or progressive agenda, they chose instead a certain tentative amorphousness, nothing which could be defined by anyone especially the Conservatives. Sure, they purged the party of anti-choicers. Trudeau mused about pot decriminalization. But mostly, it was vague generalizations that could not be pinned down.

Nothing anyone could throw a punch at. Equally, nothing anyone could hang a hat on and call home. Just place your worst fears or greatest hopes here.c51protests2

Pretty much the not-conservative politics of our generation. The progressive collapse of vigour and ideas. Hum and haw while licking our wounds in defeat, waiting for the inevitable crash and burn of whatever right wing government is in place. A crash and burn that is inevitable because modern right wing politics is designed to crash and burn, and take everyone around with it.

Tony Blair after the disintegration of Thatcherism. Bill Clinton, post-Reagan. Barak Obama in the wake of W.

We here in Ontario are living it with the McGuinty-Wynne doing little more than smoothing out the rough edges left behind from the Harris years. Much of Toronto’s current woes aren’t due to the Harrisites’ assault but because the Liberals haven’t done enough to fully reverse those policies. Conservatives destroy. nothingleftLiberals validate the principles but deplore the excess.

(Don’t mistake this as some partisan attack. No party on the left, as far as I can see, has stood up strongly enough against the basic tenets of modern conservatism. Challenged its bankrupt orthodoxy.)

So it happens again with Bill 51. Few I have encountered or read outside of Conservative supporters have expressed anything less than outrage, horror, contempt for this piece of proposed legislation. The words of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada, appointed by Stephen Harper, as Michael Geist points out:

…the scale of information sharing being proposed is unprecedented, the scope of the new powers conferred by the Act is excessive, particularly as these powers affect ordinary Canadians, and the safeguards protecting against unreasonable loss of privacy are seriously deficient.  While the potential to know virtually everything about everyone may well identify some new threats, the loss of privacy is clearly excessive.  All Canadians would be caught in this web.

As a result of SCISA, 17 government institutions involved in national security would have virtually limitless powers to monitor and, with the assistance of Big Data analytics, to profile ordinary Canadians, with a view to identifying security threats among them. In a country governed by the rule of law, it should not be left for national security agencies to determine the limits of their powers. Generally, the law should prescribe clear and reasonable standards for the sharing, collection, use and retention of personal information, and compliance with these standards should be subject to independent and effective review mechanisms, including the courts.

The scope of the new powers is ‘excessive’. ‘Limitless powers to monitor’ by national security institutions. ‘All Canadians would be caught in this web’.

Yet somehow, Justin Trudeau and the Liberals found enough in bill C51 that they could get behind, support even without changes in oversight or to the vague language defining terrorism. duckandcoverNothing problematic enough to make a political issue out of it. Just go along to get along.

From a strategic standpoint, it may work out for the Liberals. The Conservative government is currently setting itself on fire in a flaming burst of racist demagoguery and other populist nonsense. Support for bill C51, which initially ran high, now seems to be tanking the more people read and talk about it. Perhaps we are witnessing yet another right wing crash and burn. The Liberals might’ve played this one right for a change.

Yet, by mouthing any type of support for the bill, regardless of how guarded or calculated, Liberals again endorsed a conservative narrative. milfordmanThat there is need for increased surveillance, further intrusion into our privacy, perceived security trumps individual rights and freedom. Accommodation not repudiation.

In the above quote, Adam Vaughan runs down a list of offenses committed by the Harper government against the country as proof of why they have lost any sort of authority to govern. It’s long and damning, for sure. But somehow, he wants us to think that such an immoral, unethical government is still capable of delivering a surveillance law with enough integrity to it that his Liberal party can get behind.

That’s the vacuity of our modern day liberalism, folks.

sadly submitted by Cityslikr


Selling Us Short

March 17, 2015

Frankly, I’m beginning to suspect Mayor John Tory’s business smarts as much as I’ve become dubious of his approach to 21st-century urban issues.suspect

According to the Toronto Sun’s Don Peat, on some morning talk show today, the mayor expressed the notion that, what Toronto needs are ‘big events’ to get people to come to the city. You see, he’s heading down to Austin in a couple days to attend the South By Southwest Festival and wants to sell Toronto as a place that could do that kind of business. Forget for the moment that Toronto regularly does do that kind of business. Why, in fact, the city’s home to more than just one music (or “pop culture”, as the mayor refers to it) event a year. There’s nothing wrong with trying to improve how you do it, learn from other places.

It’s just… these “big event” mayors and their circuses.

What does it say about their view of the city they represent? In order to draw people here, we need to lure them with big ticket events. Musical and film festivals. Sporting events. Casino and ferris wheels.circus

How many destinations, cities especially, do you visit for one thing? I mean, you go to Atlanta because it’s hosting the Olympics. Is that what really draws you to London? Yeah, yeah. I hear you. Toronto’s no London. Fair enough but, how about Chicago as a comparison. If you go to Chicago, do you go for just one reason?

Cities attract tourists for a combination of reasons. Places to see. Things to do. Ease of getting there and getting around. And an unquantifiable quality of delivering something, a vibe let’s call it, visitors don’t get at home.

Does Toronto possess that vibe? I don’t know. It’s tough to judge from the inside but I’d say in fits and starts. But I’m pretty sure some ‘big event’ isn’t going to be the tipping point that secures us that ever so elusive label of ‘world class’.liveablecity

I’d be much more enthusiastic about the mayor’s push for attracting more tourists if, instead, he was out advocating for the city’s ability to implement a hotel tax. Use that money directly to help pay for our desperate infrastructure needs that would go a long way to improving the city’s ability to attract visitors. Maybe while Mayor Tory is down in Austin, he can ask the mayor there about that city’s Hotel Occupany Tax.

And maybe on his way back home from Austin, our mayor should do a quick layover in Minneapolis. Set up some meetings there with company mucky mucks, ask them if they keep their businesses in the Twin Cities because it’s – How did he say it on the radio today? ‘Technology jobs come because it is a cool, hip place to be’?

Really? Is that businessman John Tory’s read on things? austinCompanies with their 21st-century technology jobs set up shop where it’s groovy to do so? Somebody needs to take that Richard Florida book from the mayor or, at least, try explaining it a little deeper for him. (That isn’t what Florida meant by the ‘creative class’, is it? I haven’t read it.)

“No other place mixes affordability, opportunity, and wealth so well,” the Atlantic says of Minneapolis-St. Paul in its article, The Miracle of Minneapolis.

The Minneapolis–St. Paul metro area is richer by median household income than Pittsburgh or Salt Lake City (or New York, or Chicago, or Los Angeles). Among residents under 35, the Twin Cities place in the top 10 for highest college-graduation rate, highest median earnings, and lowest poverty rate, according to the most recent census figures. And yet, according to the Center for Housing Policy, low-income families can rent a home and commute to work more affordably in Minneapolis–St. Paul than in all but one other major metro area (Washington, D.C.). Perhaps most impressive, the Twin Cities have the highest employment rate for 18-to-34-year-olds in the country.

The top 10 ‘for highest college-graduation rate, highest median earnings, and lowest poverty’ among under 35 residents. ‘The highest employment rate for 18-to-34-year-olds in the country’.minneapolis

That hip and cool enough for you, Mr. Mayor?

It seems no one festival or big event has done the trick for Minneapolis. Apparently it has more to do with a history of equitable sharing of resources and tax dollars that has built affordability into the equation. People stay, and work and live and raise families, because they can afford to. Rather than depending on attracting business to it, the Twin Cities have a history of developing their own businesses, maintaining a critical mass of management level workers who deliver a smooth continuity.

Of course, it’s far more complicated than that. Minneapolis didn’t create such a scenario itself. The state bought into the concept as well. And I’m sure there’ll be plenty of huffing and puffing about Toronto not being Minneapolis, bigger and more diverse, yaddie, yaddie, yaddie.barker

My point being, it’ll take far more than some one-off shazzam big event to deliver the economic impact the mayor is hoping to score in his search for Jobs, Jobs, Jobs. Being hip, I don’t think, is really much of a substantive business plan. Mayor Tory seems to be mixing up cause and effect.

Transforming an economy takes a lot more than simply ‘selling the city’. It requires some boldness in thinking based on frank discussions about the realities you face. So far, our businessman mayor has opted merely to be a showman, relying on cheap optics and empty rhetoric to give the impression of doing something.

wonderingly submitted by Cityslikr


Book Club VIII

March 15, 2015

What does it say about us that we’re operating under a political-economic framework that doesn’t work, at least, not for the overwhelming majority of us? isthisthingworkingMoreover, what does it say that we know categorically that that political-economic framework isn’t at all sound, that it’s based on ideology rather than evidence, and what evidence is provided can be (and has been) thoroughly debunked? We know there is a better route to take, one that does have a proven track record of success but one that runs counter to the prevailing narrative of the past 30 years, an approach challenging an established orthodoxy that’s pretty much faith-based, a faith based on little more than class and status.

These are thoughts I thought while reading Mark Blyth’s Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea. It’s a short book, considering the subject matter it covers, from the intellectual roots of economic austerity theory through to its current application post-2008 financial crisis. Spoiler alert! Blyth quite emphatically declares austerity does not work.

Austerity is more of a philosophical outlook than it is a working economic model. At its heart lies a distrust and dislike of the state. austerityGovernment, from an austerity point of view, serves only as an impediment, all red tape and interventionist bullying. Every dollar in public spending or investment translates into one less dollar in private sector spending or investment. Stated as if that is inherently a bad thing, based purely on an anti-statist philosophy, and one made, as with much of austerity economic thinking, without much evidence to back its case up.

Blyth traces modern austerity’s dim view of government back to the origins of liberal thought, the late 17th/early 18th-century and John Locke. That state, such as it was then, was represented by an authoritarian monarchy, subject to no rules but its own. Representative government was in its infancy. Locke foresaw a liberal, market-oriented society, free from the regular financial assaults on the state’s treasury by an anointed single family of misrule. Locke, and later others like David Hume and Adam Smith (the father of the free market’s Invisible Hand) wrote as champions of what grew to be the middle-class of merchants, bankers and small enterprise.

As unnecessary as it might seem to write that much has changed in the 300+ years since, to austerity proponents, evidently, it hasn’t.

Not This John Locke

Not This John Locke

In order for their economic case to be taken seriously, austerians must work to convince us that our representative form of government is as self-serving, antagonistic to free enterprise and willfully whimsical to the needs of its subjects citizens as any form of dynastic royalty. Unfortunately, they’ve succeeded in doing just that.

Forget for a moment such success at the wider, international level and simply look at our local politics currently. Toronto elects a new mayor in John Tory who almost immediately goes to work vilifying city staff, proclaiming that he’s confident, despite evidence to the contrary, there remains plenty of fat to trim. The solution to the city’s revenue problems lies in cutting its public sector spending.

Austerity in a nutshell.

Perhaps the more disturbing aspect of the success of austerity is that the economic underpinnings are highly suspect and when it has been trotted out by accommodating governments, as we’re watching right now in Europe, it hasn’t worked. In fact, it’s made the problems it sets out to solve even worse. fellforit1Government debt levels increase rather than drop. Ditto unemployment. Austerity exacerbates the economic upheaval and insists the only way to fix that is to implement more austerity.

Even here in North America, where pro-austerity governments reacted to the 2008 economic meltdown in a very non-austerity, very pro-Keynesian way via stimulus spending, at the first sign of, if not recovery, an easing of further cratering, the reins were quickly tightened and austerity pursued. All eyes turned to the public sector debt and we were told to quiver. This will dampen investor and consumer ‘expectations’ for an economic turnaround.

In an influential 2010 paper, Growth in a Time of Debt, economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff suggested that once a government’s debt exceeds a point of 90% of a country’s GDP, it kills economic growth. This was all many governments and economic bodies needed to hear as they set out to slash debt. tightenyourbeltAusterity, in other words.

Turns out Reinhart and Rogoff’s numbers might’ve been a little off, an Excel spreadsheet error. Disturbing in and of itself but hardly the first time austerity advocates have pursued their agenda using faulty assumptions. Blyth goes into detail of the ‘expansionary austerity’ movement stemming from Milan’s Bocconi University and especially the work of two economists, Francesco Giavazzi and Marco Pagano. In essence, their theory goes, by cutting spending (and theoretically, its debt), governments signal two things: tough times ahead and decreased competition for the private sector for investment dollars from the public sector.

Both rely on the very imprecise notion of expectations and a predictable, rational response to them. Turns out, according to Blyth, reactions vary and, almost entirely in a way the theory doesn’t predict. richierichCertainly here in Canada, consumers haven’t responded to the federal government’s austerity measures by spending less while the private sector remains on the sidelines, sitting on ‘dead money’. Canadians pile up personal debt, propping up a shaky economy that shows little more than anemic growth, and the bigger players look on idly, waiting for an economic idea with no history of working anywhere to work this time.

So how to explain such obstinacy? I’ll let Mark Blyth answer that:

When government services are cut because of “profligate spending,” it will absolutely not be people at the top end of the income distribution who will be expected to tighten their belts. Rather, it will be those who lie in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution who haven’t had a real wage increase since 1979. These are the folks who actually rely upon government services and who have taken on a huge amount of debt (relative to their incomes) that will be “fiscally consolidated.” This is why austerity is first and foremost a political problem of distribution, and not an economic problem of accountancy.

Wrap it up in as glitzy a package as you want, sell it as the only viable alternative to improving our economy, backed up with proof of concept from various “schools” — Austria to Chicago to Bocconi – but at its very tiny, cold, cold heart, austerity is nothing more than the weapon of choice in the class war that’s been waged for over 30 years now. A lopsided affair that the rich, by getting richer and richer, are winning handily. It’s a situation, if history can provide any sort of guidance on the matter, that never turns out well for anyone.

austerely submitted by Cityslikr


Same Ol’ Song, Same Ol’ Dance

March 12, 2015

“It is the easy way out to say, let’s just have 3.0%, 4.0% more put on to property taxes…”

So began Mayor John Tory’s pitch to city council this week, presenting his maiden budget for their ultimate approval.upisdown

That this was in direct opposition to, well, reality, nobody much noticed. No, Mr. Mayor, in fact the easy way out is to campaign on an anti-tax platform, to assure voters that there were magical ways to fund city’s services and programs with a little left over for special pet projects. TIF. New money pouring in from senior levels of government. Efficiencies.

In other words, just what the previous administration told us minus the crack smoking and drunken stupors.

In my experience, it is far, far easier to pretend there’s no tough decisions to be made than to accept the unpleasant reality staring you directly in the face and deal with it. At least, initially. The bills do eventually come due, however, and very, very rarely do crossed fingers and a wish on a star provide much of a soft landing.

Oh but the sky is not falling, we were assured time and time again by the mayor, his budget chief, and ancient regime dinosaur, Councillor David Shiner, who told us every year that he’s been around (and that’s a lot of years), it’s been the same ol’ song. everythingsfinePredicted shortfalls and terrifying opening pressures amounting to millions and millions of dollars, only to be dutifully wrestled into submission, the operating budget balanced, as it always must be. The sun rises. The sun sets.

Never mind the ever growing state of good repairs elephant in the room, a To Do List backlog of infrastructure needs now somewhere in the neighbourhood of $7 billion. Social housing upkeep that, in some cases, if not done in the next few years will force the closure of units, sending some of our most vulnerable residents looking elsewhere for shelter. Transit. And transit. And transit.

But somehow, there’s no connection between that beast and the fact that since amalgamation, our property tax rate increases have not kept up with inflation meaning, in real dollars, there’s less money going to even core services and programs, let alone the items a municipality should not be paying for like, the aforementioned social housing or major transit infrastructure builds. Yes, cities are expected to do more with less but what do we think is going to happen when our response to that is to try and make do with even less? That’s what insisting on property tax rate increases below the rate of inflation does.

When Councillor Gord Perks introduced a motion on Tuesday to increase the property tax rate an additional 1.59%, bumping the total hike to over 5% in order to pay off the $86 million hole in the operating budget created by yet more provincial downloading, a hole the mayor is papering over by borrowing from the city’s investment portfolio, Councillor Josh Matlow rose to speak in opposition. nothingtoseehereWhile he understood the intentions of Councillor Perks’ motion, he couldn’t support it because that would let the province off the hook for its obligations. Once we established that precedent, what else would Queen’s Park expect us to start paying for?

A fair point, to be sure, but it leaves the lingering question: WHAT THE FUCK DO WE DO IN THE MEANTIME? Oh, that’s right. Cross our fingers and wish upon a star.

It also ignores the fact that a 5+% property tax increase is not unheard of except here in amalgamated Toronto. Ask our GTA neighbours about their recent property tax hikes and see if you get any soothing words of comfort. Toronto has been shortchanging itself since 1998. So its demands for the other levels of government to live up to their responsibilities in funding cities, correct as they might be, ring a little hollow.

Rather than face up to that unpleasant truth, Mayor Tory chose instead to take the easy way out, referring to any such proposed tax increase as ‘through the roof’ and, therefore, out of the question. Neither was the mayor in any mood to discuss other forms of revenue at the city’s disposal. notlisteningCouncillor Kristyn Wong-Tam’s motion to bring back the vehicle registration tax and dedicate it to fast-tracking accessibility redesigns for the remaining last half of the city’s 69 subway stations in order to comply with provincial legislation (more of those damned state of good repairs) was soundly defeated. Increasing revenue, in a John Tory administration, was simply not prudent.

Unless, of course, you use any of the city’s services, programs or facilities (not including roads). This budget continued to lean on increasing user fees. From garbage bins to sports fields, above the rate of inflation increases were in effect (except for roads). There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that but it does lead to the question: Why there and not property taxes?

The simplest explanation is that Mayor Tory is playing to the same constituency Rob Ford sings for, both administrations deluding them (and themselves) that the city’s fiscal problems are not of their doing, and that somebody else will swoop in, all deus ex machina like, and pay the piper. deusexmachinaWe just need a little discipline and patience, cross our fingers and send our wishes skyward (which totally isn’t falling) and it’ll all work out fine.

Easy peasy.

Making it official in the process.

Toronto didn’t elect John Tory, the civic leader. We elected John Tory, the talk radio show host. So let’s stop expecting any sort of leadership from him and settle in for another 4 years of sound bites and simple solutions that will solve few of this city’s problems.

heard-it-beforely submitted by Cityslikr


Day 101

March 10, 2015

So sometime this week (I’m predicting Wednesday but not ruling out Thursday), city council will approve the 2015 operating, capital and rate support budgets. It is at that point when the 2014 municipal campaign will officially close.keystothecar John Tory actually takes over, full on, as mayor of Toronto.

What?! you say. But John Tory’s been mayor since December 1st of last year when he was sworn in. He’s got the chain of office to prove it.

True. But since the 2015 budget process kicked into gear in December, we’ve been told that this was an election year budget, cobbled together by city staff and assembled in a short time frame with the minimal of input from city council. Normally a year long process scrunched down into 4 months or so.

I don’t reject the notion out of hand. New mayor, new council (sort of), with lots of things to do post-election. To hit the ground running, from a budget perspective may be a little too much to expect without much guidance and input from staff. Continuity favours the bureaucracy once every 4 budget cycles. This one’s it.

To a point, of course.

That below the rate of inflation property tax increase was a major campaign plank for John Tory. Ditto SmarTrack dough. And I find it a bit hard to believe that staff thought it a great idea to add $443 million to the capital budget to expedite the Gardiner repairs. whispersI’m not saying the mayor had anything to do with it but his Deputy Mayor of choice, Denzil Minnan-Wong, sure does love him his car.

Still, tradition has it we cut the mayor some slack on the very first budget after being elected to office. A mayoral mulligan, if you will. Sort of a, he did what he could but his hands were tied by previous decisions, kind of thing. Next year, though. Next year.

Starting on the first day after the 2015 budget is passed, Mayor Tory has stated work begins on the 2016 budget. That one will be his baby, the one that will start to shape his legacy. 2015 was tying up loose ends left behind by the previous administration or two. (In theory, at any rate.) 2016, well, that’s Tory time. While he’s offered up hints of the direction he wants to take the city in, when budget 2015 wraps up, the buck starts stopping on his desk. There will be no one else to blame, no more before his time talk. John Tory will be master of his own fate.

Within the confines of being a mayor, that is, a position we all know to be limited in the powers of both the purse and jurisdiction. trainingwheelsActually, now that I think about it, there are plenty of receptacles for mayoral excuse-making when it comes right down to it. An uncooperative and unruly city council. Neglectful senior levels of government. Overzealous accountability officers! A culture of non-accountability rife in the ranks of city staff.

So scratch that. There’s no end to blame gaming at a mayor’s disposal. It’s just, going forward, we no longer have to indulge John Tory that opportunity.

blamelessly submitted by Cityslikr


The Fault, Dear Brutus

March 9, 2015

Look, I’m not going to shrug off some $400 million cost overruns in a $2.5 billion project. Any way you slice it, that’s a lot of money. moneymoneymoneyMoney, in tight budgetary times like ours, that could be put to better use. Another $400 million and those repairs on the Gardiner Expressway would be done in no time.

Nor am I going to defend the TTC’s oversight. Maybe as an organization they aren’t up to the task of managing major infrastructure builds like a subway. Hell, there are days the TTC doesn’t seem capable of simple route management, so yeah. Questions need to be asked about the role the TTC played.

But I’m not going to sit here and listen to easy solutions offered up about how all this could’ve been avoided, the budget blow throughs, the delayed completion time lines. “An entrenched culture of nonaccountability at city hall,” according to Mayor John Tory. You should’ve used an Alternative Financing and Procurement, Premier Kathleen Wynne said. Ahhh, P3s. Is there no problem they can’t solve?

Perhaps both are right. Each has an element that may’ve factored into the mess. Not only are the cost overruns and delays problematic but timely reporting on them seems to be lacking. Who knew what and when? fingerpointingDid the mayor and TTC chair Josh Colle only find out about them when the public did last week?

And as was pointed out by Trevor Heywood at Metroscapes, there is currently another transit project being done here in the city, the Union-Pearson rail link, using an AFP model with no talk of overruns or delays. Was an AFP contemplated for the Spadina subway extension? If so, why wasn’t it implemented? If not, why not?

Still, I don’t think either of these ideas fully explains what’s happened with the TTC and the Spadina subway extension. Both offer up easy explanations for what is clearly a complicated situation. Digging and building underground always will be fraught with unknowns and unexpected problems. You can work in contingencies (as contingencies are in budgeting big public work projects) but, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, there are known unknowns and then there are unknown unknowns.

In other words, shit happens, yo.

No, I think there are bigger questions and concerns to address with this, especially as we go forward to build more public transit.wantwhatnow

That this happened should really come as no surprise to anyone. The Spadina subway extension was a political transit decision from the outset. The province wanted it, the city less so. As lore has it, the subway was the price the city had to pay to get Queen’s Park to play ball with other transit projects it deemed more pressing. Without the Spadina subway extension, would there ever have been Transit City?

Certainly Toronto couldn’t have been all that happy about the extension of the extension, up 2 stops past York Univeristy into Vaughan. No question that York was in need of some form of rapid transit (whether or not it should be a subway is a good point of conjecture) but the decision to carry on, north past there wasn’t really in the city’s best interests. Yet, here we are.

If the city was so reluctant for this subway, forget the construction costs, concerns about the operational costs of it were present from the outset, how it was going to have to be subsidized like the Sheppard line, taking money from the rest the system to its detriment, why did it agree to build it? Was the option on the table for the city to step back and say to the province, Have at it? You want it? thanksnothanksYou use your precious AFPs to build it.

So was this miscalculation on the TTC’s part or coercion from the province? Either way, I think it’s safe to say that the political (rather than a transit) oriented nature of the Spadina subway extension created the opportunity for unpleasantly unexpected turn of events. A scenario we should acknowledge as we proceed down the profoundly political path of the Scarborough subway extension.

The larger concern, however, goes to what the mayor called ‘an entrenched culture of nonacountability at city hall.’ While we know who the target was in the mayor’s mind — city staff — I think we should try to cut a wider swath in this. Let’s call it, the nonaccountability of unrealistic expectations. You want a subway? I can get you subway. You want to pay how much for that subway? … Sure, I can get you a subway for that much money. No problem. Sure.

We elect politicians who tell us we can have the infrastructure of our dreams for no money down, no interest ever. The private sector will build it for us. lessonslearnedHave you ever heard of something called Tax Increment Financing? Seriously. It won’t cost you a dime.

The notion we could build a subway, first for $1.5, then $2.5 billion for what became 6 stops, 8.6 kilometres was never going to be a slam dunk. Even if it comes in at $2.9 billion, about $337+ million per kilometre, it wouldn’t be some grotesque outlier in terms of international costs for building subways. For every Barcelona, Helsinki and Sao Paulo, there’s New York’s 2nd Avenue subway or London or Amersterdam.

The Spadina subway extension is not out of whack in an international comparison. While we most certainly should examine ways it could have been completed less expensively, this indignant outburst at the news of cost overruns stems more from our entitled belief that cheaper is better and somebody else should pay for the things we want than it does any systemic failure on the part our public sector to be able to build infrastructure. cheapSure, let’s point out all the examples of cost overruns on projects throughout the city in addition to the Spadina subway extension. Nathan Phillipps Square. Union Station.

But in an environment where the bottom line often means the bottom dollar, the lowest bid, city staff must find themselves in the uncomfortable position of speaking forthright versus being painted as naysayers and no-can-doers. An extreme case would be former TTC CEO, Gary Webster, delivering an opinion on the LRT-subway debate that ran contrary to the administration and finding himself quickly relieved of duty. A politician gets elected telling voters this won’t hurt a bit and then expects city staff to conform to that way of doing things. It’s called a mandate.subwaystop

Maybe the problems start with voters who demand the impossible from politicians and the bureaucracy. If you want a great city, a former mayor once said, you have to pay for it. Seems we’ve chosen to go another route, insisting more on a OK-is-good-enough and can’t-somebody-else-foot-the-bill-for-us trajectory. When reality rears its ugly head, somebody’s got to pay. Again, not us. Somebody else.

money-for-nothingly submitted by Cityslikr


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