Ward Boundary Review Review at the Torontoist

February 6, 2015

While we may be enduring a medically prescribed heat and sun therapy hiatus, we still managed to co-write with Paisley Rae a little something something for the Torontoist about the ongoing ward boundary review. Cheers!

funinthesun

* * *

At the penultimate meeting of the City’s first round of 12 ward-boundary review public meetings, a gentleman who’d sat silently for the previous hour raised his hand to ask a question. Would any of this, he wondered, help people out with real problems? Like poverty, or affordable housing, or income inequality?

It’s a good question; something of a stumper, actually. No one in the room—including City staff facilitating the meeting—could answer it. Will ward reconfiguration help in any way to address some of the serious and long-term issues the city faces? Could it even, if that were a goal? Or is this review simply an organizational readjustment?

Regardless, it’s an overdue adjustment. The last ward realignment happened in 2000, in the early days of amalgamation. Based on 1991 census data, that ward rejigging was hastily slapped together by the provincial government, which reduced the number of city councillors from 56 to 44. It was a number arrived at by the same slapdash approach the Harris government took to the entire amalgamation process: they took the 22 provincial ridings (which had been reduced to mirror the federal ridings), cut them in half and—voila!—44 wards.

Fifteen years later, the city has changed. In time for the 2015 election, the federal riding boundaries have been adjusted, increasing from 22 to 25 ridings to reflect Toronto’s population growth. The provincial government is expected to follow suit. While it certainly isn’t necessary for the city to follow the same maps of the federal and provincial governments, judging from some of the public feedback at consultations held in December and January, there will be pressure to go that route.

The real pressure to redraw the lines of the city, however, stems from Toronto’s robust population growth and the unevenness of its distribution. Population-wise, some wards have grown more unequal than others. This imbalance creates inequitable local representation, and makes it more difficult for the most populous wards to serve their constituents effectively.

It is impossible to draw up wards with the exact number of residents to a person, in part because other considerations factor into new ward boundaries. Keeping “communities of interest” and “traditional neighbourhoods” together, respecting the history of certain wards, and adhering to “natural and physical boundaries” like ravines, rivers, or the 401 are all elements that affect the final outcome. But it’s the population divergence in the current ward configuration that is the primary driving force behind this.

The provincial mandate states that the population of any ward cannot be 25 per cent higher or lower than the average ward. Currently, we have differences ranging as high as 45 per cent above average, and this inequity is only projected to get worse by 2031 as the city grows.

If you live and vote in a ward like Ward 23, Willowdale, you’re one of over 88,000 documented residents, according to the 2011 census. This is about double the population of Ward 29, Toronto-Danforth, which has a population of just under 45,000 residents.

One vote in Ward 23 does not equal one vote in Ward 29. It’s worse if you consider the representation, where 88,000 people rely on the same political infrastructure as half that many people in another ward.

This disparity might serve as one answer to the gentleman who asked the “How does this matter?” question. We should try to ensure that everyone has fair and effective access to their representation at City Hall. Without that, some voices remain unheard; the barriers of marginalization too high to climb.

This early in the process, the importance of the review isn’t always evident, at least judging by the low turnout at most of the first round of public consultations. Unfortunately, the three meetings in Scarborough and three in Etobicoke were conducted in the run-up to the Christmas holiday season; weekday sessions were also sparsely attended. Often, those present in an official capacity—the consultant team, councillors, or staff of various levels of government—far outnumbered the general public.

Interest picked up in the new year at the Toronto-East York and North York meetings. One meeting in a North York library had 25 or 30 people, some in their capacity as a member of a residents or business association, but most simply engaged citizens. More councillors showed up to these meetings too, reflecting a heightened sense of community involvement.

At the meeting in East York, Councillor Mary Fragedakis (Ward 29, Toronto-Danforth) may have struck close to the truth about the public interest in the process when she asked staff, “Do you think you’ll get more public involvement when there’s something to criticize?” After all, it all seems pretty theoretical at this stage. When the staff report returns with lines on a map sometime between May and November, that’s when the real jostling will begin.

When the issue was first raised during the 2010 election, then mayoral candidate Rob Ford used the opportunity to run with his “cut council in half” mantra. The idea has gained traction, including among some councillors. At one of the meetings, Councillor Jim Karygiannis (Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt) said that people living in high-rise towers don’t need the same kind of representation as their single-family household counterparts. After all, he argued, can’t they just call building management?

No doubt, fewer city councillors will be a major talking point as the review progresses. Keeping our wards based on the new federal ridings, at least superficially, makes some organizational sense.

But the ward-boundary review, although seemingly dry and bureaucratic, is more than that: it’s a chance to reshape and re-imagine the city itself. Toronto is not the same city it was in 2000, or 1991, and it’s time for our political representation to reflect that. It’s a review that has long-term significance, too, as the new wards will be in place until 2031.

We should seize this moment to create a made-in-Toronto solution, rather than simply adapt to the form decided by the level of government that has the least to do with the city’s daily operations. It’s an opportunity to more fully make Toronto one city rather than 6 former municipalities.

Then maybe we can start to deal with the problems and issues we all face.

drunken

 — rum-soddenly submitted by Cityslikr

Book Club V

January 30, 2015

For John Barber & Jamie Bradburn

Unless it’s Miss Shirley Bassey and the Propellerheads block-rockingly telling me, I’m not one to embrace the history repeats itself trope. It gives too much agency over to this beyond our control notion of fate, of the march of time blindly spinning its wheels, oblivious to any sense of direction from us. revengeofthemethodistbicyclecompanyWe’re absolved of responsibility. Hey. Authoritarianism is on the rise again. Oh well. It’s just history repeatin’!

I’d argue that any sense of déjà vu we may experience in terms of current affairs is the result of our obstinate inability to learn from the past, from the mistakes we made, grievances we hold, just all `round stupid-head pettiness we cannot, will not let go of. We make history. If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, yeah, history does seem like it might be repeating itself.

So you wanna talk endless Scarborough subway debates? Let me tell you about the late-19th-century struggle to run streetcars on Sundays in Toronto. We do have a way here of turning public transit decisions into pitched, prolonged battles.

The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company by Christopher Armstrong and H.V. Nelles tells the story of the almost decade long back-and-forth it took to bring streetcar service into operation on the Lord’s Day. There are very few good guys in the book. Corruption runs rampant. Vested business interests infect almost every level of public life. Religious fervor masks class divisions. Toronto the Good? Maybe not. Toronto the good yarn?

Huh? Huh?

Horse-drawn trolley/streetcars started up along Toronto streets in 1861. A 30 year franchise to run the service was granted to a private consortium, Toronto Street Railway Company. horsedrawntrolleyAs will surprise very few people these days, the relationship between the company and the local government wasn’t always smooth. There were constant disputes over who was obligated to do what (maintain the street tracks, for one) and who was owed what as a slice of the farebox. Your basic P3 dynamics.

Sunday streetcar service was one item rarely put on the table for discussion. It was a no-go from the outset. A deal breaker.

The grip of religion on the city as portrayed in the book was a revelation to me. The City of Churches, Toronto was sometimes dubbed. I vaguely remember the Sunday shopping brouhaha, back when I first moved to the city in the mid-80s. Sunday blue laws were deep and long abiding.

Religion also delineated much of the class structure of the city at the time. Protestantism was where the power lie, with well over 75% of the population swinging in that direction. torontorailwaycompanyticket1As Armstrong and Nelles point out in the book’s postscript, the fight over Sunday streetcar service was really about maintaining control of the city levers of power as much as it was keeping the Sabbath holy.

The fight too served to shine a light on just how corrupt politics in the city was at the time. How corrupt? Giorgio Mammoliti, by a few fold. Almost anyone and everyone, involved in this story, had a price and could be bought. Even among the proclaimed faithful money changed hands to sway decisions and elections. Christian values remained in the church, to be unsullied by everyday affairs. Unto Caesar and all that.

How corrupt are we talking?

In the 3rd and final vote on the Sunday streetcar issue (the one finally won by the pro side), there were allegations some men – pluggers, they were called, professional voters – cast as many as 25 ballots. Newspapers were paid to run favourable coverage. torontowards1890You might even call them advertorials. Somewhere in the neighbourhood of $11,000 was paid by the Toronto Street Railway Company to the various city newspapers to win that last vote.

Corruption hung so heavily around the workings of local politicians that, in 1891 when the company’s streetcar franchise lease was ending, any notion of making public transit a publicly run system was largely dismissed out of hand. Let the politicians make their fortunes from it? Leave that to private enterprise.

The devious doings surrounding the awarding of the new streetcar franchise told in all the gory detail in The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company led to the McDougall Investigation and the beginnings of a reform movement in the structure of Toronto’s governance. But not before another class struggle between those wanting fewer, ‘right thinking’ men appointed to an executive style board of control whose decisions could only be overturned by a 2/3s majority of city council and those looking to further expand democracy beyond the current restrictive bounds. horsedrawntrolley1An agreement was reached with a board of control appointed by council from amongst their elected ranks. The hope was to take the big decisions, especially those ones involving big infrastructure projects, out of the clutches of pure ward based horse-trading.

Sound familiar?

There was also the hope that civic reform might result in more fresh blood being elected to council. Again, modern readers will recognize such a thing is easier said than done. The first mayor and 3 man board of control established after the change were all very familiar faces on the scene.

Other feelings of things never changing crop up throughout the book. Penny-pinching Presbyterians certainly rings familiar right now during yet another budget debate over how to do things without spending any money. Although, back then, residents were rightly concerned about being fleeced by their politicians. Today we’re just more miserly minded, I think.

Privilege and private interests imposing itself on the public will also remain constant over the past 125 years or so. Then it was about the streetcars. Today, look to the island airport expansion clash. torontorailwaycompanyticketWealth and control hovering around the city business is timeless, I guess.

Late Victorian Toronto also comes across in the book as unrecognizable to those of us living here now. Never mind the coming of electricity or the receding of religious rule. The city was abuzz with political engagement. Elections were held annually with short campaigns run over the Christmas holidays. Rallies were well-attended. One during the 3rd plebiscite on Sunday streetcar service had 5400 people show up. On election nights, crowds gathered outside newspaper offices to wait for the results.

Yes, only a small segment of the population officially “counted”. It was during this time that the right to vote was extended beyond merely property owning men to, well, men. Still, politics didn’t come across as a chore like it sometimes feels today. It seemed to be woven into the fabric of daily, civic life.

Or seen another way, maybe this was just an early display of Torontonians rallying around something they didn’t want. electrictrolleyNo to Sunday streetcars! No to Spadina Expressway! No to a bridge to the island airport! No to good governance (2010 edition). Toronto, a town, a city in spite of itself.

The Revenge of the Methodist Bicycle Company is a quick, interesting read through a tumultuous time in the city’s history, as the pressures of industrialization and urbanization come down to bear on this otherwise sleepy, God-fearing borough. It does suffer from some repetition of election campaigns that didn’t really change all that much. And while it’s quaint to read about an era where satire and pointed political commentary came in the form of poetry, dreadfully bad poetry, there may be too many examples of it in the book.

It does leave one lingering question though. Has Toronto grown beyond the expectations English writer Rupert Brooke had of it when he travelled here a decade and a half after streetcars began running on Sundays? “It [Toronto] is all right,” the first chapter of the book opens with.  “The only depressing thing is that it will always be what it is, only larger…” Prophetic? It all depends on what day you ask.

historically submitted by Cityslikr


DesulTORY

January 29, 2015

I detest hypotheticals. (Also, I defy you to say that out loud and not almost say ‘testicles’.) But indulge me this, and hypothetical away with me for a moment.

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Imagine, if you will, a campaign stop during last year’s municipal election. Candidate Olivia Chow is asked how she’s going to pay for some expensive promise she’s just made, what she’s going to cut or how much she’s going to increase taxes in order to balance the city’s operating budget. Ms. Chow responds, Easy. Imma take a line of credit out from the province, use it to plug the gap. Won’t that just cost us more, an incredulous media asks? With interest charges and all that? Putting off dealing with the shortfall for later? Not to worry, the candidate shrugs.hypocrit What’s a couple of dollars for people in the long run?

Imagine, if you will, her opponent, John Tory, his team’s response to that. Just imagine. The shrieks of outraged joy. TAX-AND-SPENDER!! PROFLIGATE NDP CANDIDATE!!

Just like we heard back last year when Chow proposed increasing buses and bus service. How much will that cost, Olivia? Where you going to get the money, Olivia? If only she had come up with the bright idea of borrowing money from Queen’s Park. Like Mayor John Tory is now to help paper over his increases in spending on things like – I know, right? – increased bus service.

The depths of hypocrisy to which his administration has dug itself into in just 60 days in office is spectacularly audacious. I can’t come close to summoning up the appropriate broadside Christopher Byrd did a couple days ago at the Torontoist. It boils the blood.

John Tory was supposed to be a sober fiscal steward. The municipal budget represented his first real opportunity to make a tough decision, take a tough fiscal stand. He could have decided that City services aren’t worth paying money for; we might sharply disagree with that, but cutting services is at least an honest choice. He could have decided that we all need to pony up for the services we want the City to have. Both of these options would have been unpopular with part of the electorate, but they would have been fiscally responsible.

But Tory didn’t do either of those things; instead, he’s creating additional debt that the City simply did not need to take on—and doing so only to avoid making a difficult call. It’s a cowardly, weak decision, and bodes poorly for his mayoralty.

Yesterday, Matt Elliott laid out 6 ways the mayor could balance the operating budget without resorting to a provincial interest bearing bail out line of credit. reallyWhile time travelling would be lots of fun (and so many problems we could fix without, hopefully, changing the future), I’d say a combination of 1) raising property taxes a little more than the rate of inflation, with a smidge of 2) using some of the 2014 operating surplus might get us over the hump for this year at least. It also might contribute indirectly to 4) convincing the provincial government to reverse the funding cut. Maybe not this time around but in future negotiations. Show the province we’re willing to reasonably tap our revenue sources. In return, maybe they might start looking seriously at other ways they’re putting undue financial pressure on the city. Their half of the TTC operating budget perhaps?

Instead, Mayor Tory took the easy (for now) way out. He goes to the province, cap in hand, and comes back not with chump change, but with an even bigger debt load the city now has to bear. Prudent. I do not think that word means what our mayor thinks it means.

As terrible a mayor as Rob Ford was, even he didn’t try to take out a loan to balance our operating budget. dealwiththedevilHe got up to a lot of tricks, made certifiably outrageous claims, called things by different names to make it seem as if they weren’t what they were, like ‘service adjustments’ instead of ‘service cuts’. But he never took out a loan.

He couldn’t even if he’d thought of it. Can you imagine, with the toxic relationship he had with the provincial government, Rob Ford broaching them for a line of credit to balance the city’s operating budget? They’d laughed in his face. They wouldn’t even have to make up an excuse why not because, as was pointed out this week, the province’s very own law makes it illegal for municipalities to borrow money to balance their operating budgets. Municipal Act, Section 17, subsection C, I believe it is.

Unless… I’m now guessing… you borrow that money from the province?

No, cities can’t go to a financial institution for a loan in order to fund their ongoing expenses. Neither can cities sell of any assets to do that. This restriction does not apply, it seems, if the province is doing the lending or fire sale purchasing.masteroftheuniverse

Leading me to wonder if the Liberal government has come up with a novel approach to assist them in their own current fiscal struggles. Bankrolling municipalities. It’s an effective if ethically dubious strategy. Keep us financially dependent and then cash in loaning us money when we find ourselves strapped. Deliciously IMF-ish.

This presents nothing but upside for the province. The question is, what’s in the deal for cities? Why would Mayor Tory want Toronto more beholden to the province, the senior partner in this relationship, already pulling so many of our governance and fiscal strings?

Three theories spring immediately to mind.

The mayor’s in over his head. While it’s great political rhetoric to demand government operates like a business, the reality is much more complicated. suspicious“Shareholder value” means entirely different things in the two realms. Even balancing public sector books is counterintuitive to self-proclaimed businessmen like our mayor. If Rogers needs more revenue, it just bumps up the price of delivering in their services. The city? More revenue requires tax increases. But tax increases are bad. Square peg meets round hole.

Another possibility is that Mayor Tory is as ideologically hell bent on downsizing the city as his predecessor was. Shrink it into shape and size. Speak of efficiencies and doing more with less. Don’t say as much but all your actions suggest you believe the city has a spending not a revenue problem. Taking on more debt is as good a way to apply downward pressures as any.

The third option might be even more unsettling. Given the mayor’s insistence on deeply entangling the city’s transit plans with the province’s using SmartTrack (Steve Munro provides some examples of that in his interview with Matt Galloway this morning), maybe there’s an even wider convergence, let’s call it, at work here. Further reduce what little independence the city of Toronto currently has in an attempt to wrestle Toronto into a more manageable package as part of an integrated regional form of governance. emptyhandedRather than use the enhanced powers the province granted Toronto back in 2006 to sort out some fiscal sustainability, Mayor Tory chooses to further indebt us to Queen’s Park. Beggars can’t be choosers. Fall into line or we’ll tighten the purse strings.

That one may be too, I don’t know, House of Cards. Sometimes the best explanation is the simplest one which, in this case, would be the mayor’s flying by the seat of his pants, making it up as he goes along. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t bode well for Toronto.

uncertainly submitted by Cityslikr


Subway Ground Down

January 28, 2015

I really don’t want to be writing this. Like the Toronto Star’s Ed Keenan, I’m tired of it, of the Scarborough subway debate. Just as likely, you’re sick of it too. notthisshitagainThere’s gathered a great storm of ennui, a wave of yawn. Just Get On With It has now become the default position. Build Something!

But…but…There’s always the but.

In Keenan’s article today he points to a recent Forum Research poll that shows, given the full options of what Scarborough would get if we spent $3+ billion on transit there, 61% of Torontonians would pick the Scarborough LRT extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway line. A healthy majority of those living in Scarborough too favoured the LRT option given to them.

Just yesterday, as I was railing about the $75-85 million the city is in the midst of handing over to the province via Metrolinx for the work already underway on the Scarborough LRT that council cancelled, I cited a Leger poll from back in February 2014 that showed similar numbers. 61% of respondents preferred the Scarborough LRT option over the subway. 56% of those living in Scarborough leaned that way also.

So why the fuck are we here, spending billions of dollars building something the majority of Torontonians don’t want?

Public enemy number 1, of course, is Rob Ford. Subways, subways, subways, am I right? scarboroughsubwaybellowThe people want subways.

Not to diminish his role in the mess but let me say this. At the very least, Rob Ford and to a lesser extent, his brother Doug, truly believed that subways were the way to go. As committed car drivers, public transit was something of a puzzle to them. They hated streetcars that blocked up the middle of the roads. Buses they tolerated because they were easier to get around. But underground transit? Out of sight, out mind, out of the way.

Because the folks voted for him, giving him a mandate, they too wanted subways. Subways, subways, subways! Like the classic bullshitter that he is, Rob Ford (and again, to a lesser extent his brother) actually believed the bullshit he spouted. He didn’t need no stinkin’ polls to tell him what he knew in his heart, heard every day from the folks he met in line at Tim Horton’s.

This is not to excuse him. He served as the bullhorn for the subway cause. The self-appointed guardian of the taxpayers’ nickels and dimes stubbornly contributed to throwing away of billions of dollars of their money to further a cause he willfully knew nothing about.notthisshitagain1

The larger question though is, how, with these numbers, 4+ years after the debate started, 4+ years after the People Want Subways campaign slogan metastasized into a corrupted conventional wisdom, we’re determined to plunge ahead into this madness? The villainous list is long. Rob Ford becomes little more than the inciting incident in this story, a preening, comic foil Malvolio.

The true monsters in this sorry-assed tale sit up at Queen’s Park. First in the form of the skittish Dalton McGuinty Liberal government, seemingly dead in the polls and facing an election in 2011. In the face of the first (and only true surge) of Ford Nation, they quickly buckled when the newly elected mayor unilaterally declared Transit City dead. Hey. If you say so. Whatever. They would survive the initial assault, holding on to power but reduced to a minority government.

But imagine if instead they had stood their ground, stood up in the face of what was little more than a noise-making machine. Was subway support really ever as strong as the mayor and other Scarborough politicians came to claim it was? Certainly Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker didn’t think so in 2012 when city council wrestled the transit file from the mayor and re-instated Transit City.

At this point of time, it seemed cooler heads had prevailed. Subways, subways, subways had been revealed to be little more than the dying bluster of a mayor who’d soon be sidelined to little more than a cranky observer. Pheee-ew, right? We narrowly dodged that bullet.

But then…

What the hell happened?

Well, here’s where the story gets nothing short of clusterfuckery.

New leader of the provincial Liberals, new premier, new beginning, we’re told. They start to get their sea legs, win a by-election or two including one in Scarborough-Guildwood with Mitzie “The Subway Champion” Hunter. A by-election where, curiously, her NDP opponent, former TTC chair Adam Giambrone, an early Transit City advocate, docilely nods in a similar subway support direction.

Suddenly everybody loves subways! notthisshitagain2Egged on by Scarborough MPPs, city council lurches once more, agreeing to scrap the Scarborough LRT in favour of a subway. A subway the city will now have to contribute to building and maintaining. Scarborough deserves nothing less than a subway, we are told.

Except, still, with the options laid out for them, residents would opt for the LRT.

Despite that, here we are. The Liberals are back as a majority government. They now have both the city and federal government pitching in to build a Scarborough subway. They have a new mayor who, despite his claim to prudent fiscal management, campaigned on a pledge not to reopen the subway debate and is perfectly content to just piss away 10s of millions of dollars in order for that not to happen. In addition to which, his signature transit plan, SmartTrack, is offering even more city money to help the provincial government build their regional transit system.

And all the Scarborough pro-subway city councillors who ran for re-election last year are back. (Interestingly, so is the one very vocal pro-LRT Scarborough councillor, Paul Ainslie, easily re-elected.) notthisshitagain4The debate is over. The people have spoken. They want subways.

Except, apparently, they don’t. Or more precisely, if given an option, they’d take LRTs. It’s the politicians who want subways.

If there’s a more salient example of why we’ve become so cynical and disengaged, I can’t immediately think of one. It’s little wonder we’re bored of this debate. Our elected representatives aren’t listening to us. What’s the use of continued talking?

repeatedly submitted by Cityslikr


We Knew. We All Knew.

January 27, 2015

We did.

bigsurprise

Anyone following along with the “Great” Scarborough transit debate of Two-Ought-One-Ought to Two-Ought-One-Three couldn’t help but know that once city council reversed course once again and decided on the 3-stop subway plan over the 7-stop LRT, we would be on the hook for some money. Lots of it. Lots and lots of money.

So when news broke late last week that an amount had pretty much been settled on, an amount not far off of what had been bandied around during the aforementioned debate, somewhere likely in the $75-85 million range, it shouldn’t have caught anyone by surprise. topsecretWe knew. We all knew. We did.

That we found out in the manner we found out, from the city manager, as done and done, it’s already accounted for and in the capital budget, whoah, wait, what?! “Yes, it’s in the capital plan,” Joe Pennachetti stated, perhaps a little too imperiously. “No, you’d not be able to see it.”

I think it’s fair to call that something of a surprise. Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam said it was news to her, literally. She heard about it the first time everybody else did, in Jennifer Pagliaro’s Toronto Star article. “I think the public should be very concerned about the dearth of accountability and transparency,” Councillor Josh Matlow, perhaps one of the Scarborough subway’s most vociferous critics, said. According to him, city council was never fully briefed on the final costs of deciding to ditch the LRT.

Yet, there it is, now in the city’s capital budget plan, with none of our elected officials (as far as we know) sure of the exact amount.burnmoney

It is a fitting, highly appropriate twist to this sad, sordid tale of malefic governance and shameful political self-preservation. Appropriate too that two of the most shameless proponents of the Scarborough subway, councillors Rob Ford and Glenn De Baeremaeker have gone silent on the issue, not a peep so far from either of them. This despite the fact Councillor Ford’s opinion has been sought out on almost every other matter going on at City Hall.

The fact of the matter is, actual support for the Scarborough subway has never been as deep or clamorous as the noise its supporters on council have made it out to be. Polls that set out the LRT and subway plans for respondents to see regularly came back showing a preference for the LRT. “If you get past all of that rhetoric and you get down to how much is it going to cost,” Dave Scholz of Leger Research said, “who’s going to pay for it and who’s going to be serviced by it, then people have a very realistic view of what they want.” scarboroughsubwaybellowLast February, just as the municipal campaign was kicking into gear, Leger showed that 61% of those asked, including a majority in Scarborough, favoured the LRT extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway.

Just think of what those polls might say if these sunk costs of $75-85 million are run up the flagpole for full public viewing. Which probably explains this attempt to bury them instead. Already putting ambivalent residents on the hook for an annual property tax increase to help pay for the subway, oh yeah, and **cough, cough, cough, cough** an extra $75-85 million. **cough, cough, cough, cough** I’m sorry. What was that again?

Subway supporter and TTC Chair, Josh Colle isn’t prepared to just simply take those numbers at face value. He wants some full accounting. “Absent of any construction happening, where is this supposed money?” he wondered.

A fair enough question from the councillor, and maybe one he should’ve asked before he voted in favour of the subway back in 2013. icouldtellyou“I can show you my notes from City Council Oct 8/9 2013,” Councillor Paul Ainslie, the only Scarborough councillor who voted against the subway, tweeted last week in response to the Toronto Star story. “I wrote answers to my public questions [of city staff]…I wrote “sunk costs est. $85M” I did not make this number up. So I was not surprised by TO Star.”

The numbers were out there. Councillors who ended up voting for the subway did not make their support contingent on a full breakdown of the costs the city should be expected to pay for that decision. They collectively shrugged and pressed the ‘yes’ button. Their sudden demand for fiscal probity rings a little hollow now.

Councillor Paula Fletcher wondered why the city now should be on the hook for the entire amount of cancelling the LRT. “Let’s not forget the provincial government ran a by-election on the Scarborough subway, with their candidate, Mitzie Hunter, named as a subway champ for Scarborough,” the councillor said. “To come back and say the onus is all on the city is a bit disingenuous.” Ahhh, there’s that word again. Disingenuous. If there’s one word to describe this entire fiasco, the entire past 4 years, really. Disingenuous.wishlist

Still, it’s a legitimate question for the councillor, who, it should not be forgotten, helped bring the subway debate back to the floor of council in the convoluted transit vote of May 2013, to ask. A question that should’ve been asked over and over and over again until an actual answer was given before an actual vote with actual repercussions was cast. While Councillor Fletcher eventually wound up opposing the subway, 24 of her then-council colleagues pushed ahead, costs be damned! Scarborough deserves a subway!

And drip, drip, drip goes the money down the drain. At a budget committee meeting yesterday discussing the staff recommended 2015 budget, Councillor Gord Perks listed a bunch of council directives that staff were ignoring. “The budget drops 3 youth lounges from the Council directed 10,” he tweeted. “City turned down climate change and health funding proposal that the Board of Health approved.” “Budget ignored Council vote on playground repair funding. On average we repair once every 80 years. Council said get to 1 in 30. Cost $3M/yr.” “We have been told budget doesn’t achieve Council direction on planting trees. We don’t yet how short.”

We can’t blame all of this nickel and diming on the fact that without any debate on the specifics the city has to come up with some sum of 10s of millions of dollars to pay for the Scarborough subway. A below the rate of inflation property tax increase and a mayoral dictate to all departments to find 2% in “efficiencies” will contribute too. buryingmoneyBut in a largely zero-sum game of a municipal operating budget, money going somewhere has to come from somewhere. So, residents who may soon find themselves paying more to use city services and facilities can rightfully wonder if that Scarborough subway is actually worth it.

Trying to bury the evidence won’t change that fact.

serves us rightly submitted by Cityslikr


His Master’s Voice

January 26, 2015

At a party Saturday night, the conversation inevitably turned to local politics as it tends to do when I find myself at a public gathering. cantshutuupSure, I can be a shout-y bore on the subject but, in my defense, I rarely am the instigator. If somebody’s going to ask me what I think of our new mayor, am I supposed to demur and pretend to admit that I don’t really follow what goes on at City Hall, that I don’t have an opinion?

I’ll spare you all the details, since you’re reading this you’ve probably heard them all before, only to tell you that the conversation’s conclusion ended with a mutual marveling at the fact that Toronto is somehow still functioning. Frequently finding itself near the top of Best Of lists and not some smoldering Rust Belt crater, it is something of a wonder how the city escapes the clutches of oftentimes terrible, terrible governance. It is what it is despite not because of the elected leadership that purports to be looking after the city’s best interests.

That is, for those of us in comfortable enough positions to enjoy the benefits on offer here. If we aren’t spending disproportionate amounts of our income to keep a roof over our heads. If we’re not trapped in a single mode of transport in order to get around. If you’re not dependent on the soft services – the nice-to-haves rather than the need-to-haves — the city provides. If living here isn’t just some daily grind that leaves us looking longingly for any possibility to pack up and move to greener, more livable pastures.livinglarge

Those are the signs of neglectful governance, of course, the loose threads of poverty and inequality concentrated throughout the city. All those shiny skyscrapers are certainly one way (and not an unimportant way) to measure civic well-being but ultimately meaningless while we ignore the homeless deaths and children going to school hungry. A city working exclusively for the Haves is just another gated community.

Reading Royson James’ article yesterday in the Toronto Star, Exploring the murky depths of Toronto’s budget making, it’s painfully clear that neglectful governance has been par for the course for this city for a couple decades now. Not just the startlingly low caliber of local representation we seem content with, almost willfully excited to put into office, no, no. Where the real power resides, at Queen’s Park, Toronto’s had to battle, at times, a deliberate attack on City Hall’s ability to serve as an effective manager of the city’s affairs.

Look at the numbers. $2 billion of the $10 billion or so operating budget goes toward provincial and federal services and programs delivered by the city. hismastersvoiceSome are voluntary while others are legislated. Some get actual funding from the senior levels of governments, some don’t. For the stuff the city either chooses or is mandated to provide that doesn’t come with money from Queen’s Park or Ottawa, the choice is both stark and unpleasant: cuts elsewhere in the budget and/or higher than desired tax and revenue increases.

For most of the amalgamated city’s history, we’ve leant more heavily on scaling back and putting off than actually doling out more in taxes. Our infrastructure suffers as a result. Our transit system can’t keep up with demand. Our social housing stock becomes more and more unlivable.

So here we are again with this $86 million operating gap created by the downloading of a bunch of social services as part of our amalgamation-warming gift from the Mike Harris government that has only been partially undone by the Liberal government that’s been in place since 2003. fightingoverthebillIt’s a depressing case of petty hot potato-kicking the can down the road where no side has been particularly responsible. The province looks to balance its budget and not appear to be too Toronto-centric in the eyes of the rest of Ontario (it’s never obvious which is most important to Queen’s Park), rightfully if greasily pointing to the fact the city is negligent in using its taxing revenue resources more robustly.

It’s all political fun-and-games until the operating budget has to be balanced, and people waiting for a bus or affordable housing and daycare see little improvement in their daily lives. “Hey soldier,” Willard asks, “do you know who’s in command here?” “Ain’t you?”

We’ve arrived at that point in this conversation when I ask if it’s not well past time we start to pose the question, What about a Province of Toronto? Ask people elsewhere in Ontario if they think it’s an idea worth pursuing. If your out-of-town relatives are anything like mine, you’ll probably get a whole lot of Good Riddance and Don’t let the door hit you…

The other common riposte to that line of thinking is a derisive shrug. You want the like of Rob Ford or Mel Lastman to be your premier? That’s a concern, for sure. aintyouOn the other hand, we endured Mike Harris, didn’t we?

Could it be that we get, not so much the municipal government we deserve but more the municipal government we think is appropriate to the responsibilities it has? As we have learned from our recent past, the ultimate authority for the functioning of this city, any city in Ontario, lies with the province. It can do anything it wants and we are pretty much powerless to challenge it. So who cares who the mayor is, our city councillor?

As it stands, most of our municipal decision-making is fraught with almost adolescent angst-filled nihilism. What’s it matter what we do? The province can just come in and scuttle everything. We’re told what we have to do, unsure if there’s any allowance coming to us as part of the deal. While you’re living under my roof… blah, blah, blah.

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As long as we have to answer to a level of government that places this city’s best interests secondary to its own, there can be no satisfactory outcome with this relationship. For 20 years now, Toronto has had to endure the vicissitudes of provincial attitudes toward us, some of it malicious, some of it benign, occasionally beneficial. There’s no way in a scenario rife with such uncertainty that we can possibly plan and build a better future. If the province can’t treat us with respect as their “junior partners” maybe the time has come to demand a more equal footing.

impatiently submitted by Cityslikr


Hallelujah For Somebody

January 23, 2015

“Hallelujah!”

The word of thanks Premier Kathleen Wynne uttered upon hearing John Tory had been elected mayor of Toronto back last October. hallelujahHis win heralded, among other things, a renewal of cordial relations between the city and the province. In fact, Mr. Tory had assured us he was the only one who’d be able to work productively with the other two levels of government. His rolodex and business networking skills and all that.

So this week when city staff delivered their recommended 2015 budget, confidently assuring everyone that gaping $86 million hole created by the provincial government’s unilateral decision to stop paying the long time pooling fund for provincially mandated social services (half of which had been deferred from last year’s city budget), we all assumed Mayor Tory had it covered. He was the one, we were repeatedly told, who’d get everyone to the table to iron out these petty grievances, ramped up largely by the clumsily defiant, confrontational braying of his predecessor’s administration. Hallelujah, right?

Consider that $86 million as good as gone… using a $200 million line of credit at the city’s disposal from the province. Market rate interest charges apply. Hallelujah! dontworryMayor Tory’s on the job.

Wait, what?

A line of credit? With interest?? That’s the result of getting the provincial government to sit down at the table and work things out?

It was only moderately less offensive than the original proposal that had the province offering to buy up land along the Eglinton Crosstown corridor in exchange for the $86 million. Land that was only going to appreciate in value as the LRT got going. An exchange that, by every other measure, would be illegal, owing to the province’s own decree that municipalities cannot sell assets in order to help plug holes in their operating budget.

I mean, holy hell. With friends like these, am I right? Arbitrarily stop making payments that, arguably you should be making because you’ve mandated the city to provide certain services and programs, and when this stopped payment makes it difficult for the city to balance its operating budget which it has to do because of provincial legislation, you offer to help out in return for the city selling off assets to you. takeitorleaveitThere’s a word for that, isn’t there? Not a very flattering one either. A word that rhymes with packet.

It’s difficult to choose the real bad guy in all this. I get the province being stingy with the city as we continue to budget on the cheap, refusing to really explore all our revenue sources except for the user fee route. Property taxes at or below the rate of inflation. Below again this year.

You can’t cry poor but keep your hands in your pockets when it comes time to pay for things and expect other people to make up the difference.

Still, the Liberal government barely could contain their preference for who it wanted to see Toronto elect as its next mayor last fall. Local MPPs and cabinet ministers falling over themselves to be seen endorsing John Tory for the job. They knew what they were getting, at or below the rate of inflation and all.

They continue on, starving the beast and encouraging even more of our tax dollars go to helping build their regional transit system while ignoring their ongoing obligations. Remember when the province used to pay half of the TTC’s annual operating budget? Remember when the Liberals promised to restore it, I don’t know, a billion dollars or so ago? takeitorleaveit1Got a problem balancing the books, Toronto? Here’s a line of credit for you. Plus interest if you don’t mind. Or… Or… You could sell us some of your sure-to-be valuable property.

There are times when it feels like the provincial government is not really any sort of ally of the municipalities it’s been casually, almost as an after-thought, given oversight of. There’s the obvious examples, Mike Harris and gang, 1995-2003. But have the Liberals done a whole lot more for us in the scheme of things? Now 12 years in, there’s not a lot to show for it. A couple big transit projects underway – underway – state of good repair ballooning every year in our social housing stock and other infrastructure. In asking the quintessential governance question, are we better off as a city than we were 12 years ago?

It could be worse is not an answer. The feds need to start contributing is also a little bit of misdirection. Although true, it deflects from the larger point that cities have been left to sort out the problems largely created by an absence of the other two levels of government. Guilt by disassociation, let’s call it.

Now we have a mayor who’s complicit in the neglect, taking scraps and telling us it’s the best he could do. But wasn’t John Tory going to be different? helpmehelpyouDidn’t he tell us he was the candidate to count on to restore a beneficial and productive working relationship with Queen’s Park and Ottawa?

That’s not what this feels like right now, quite frankly. It feels like we have a mayor who is more concerned with keeping the province happy than he is in fighting for what’s best for the city. Maybe he owes the Liberals for helping to get him elected. That doesn’t mean the rest of us should be paying off his debt.

unpraiseworthily submitted by Cityslikr


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