Wheeling And Dealing

February 25, 2015

Evidently, it didn’t pass the smell test.smelltest

Last Friday, Mayor John Tory raised more than a few eyebrows (and some hackles) when he announced two corporations were donating the $200,000 the city needed to keep some outdoor skating rinks open for a few more weeks. “Ummm, what?” I believe my response was upon hearing the city’s private contractor for waste collection, Green4Life, was one of those corporations. (Overcome with the case of the dizzys, I was, when news broke later that the Rogers co-owned MLSE was the other donor.)

I wrote about my concerns with this too, too cozy arrangement a couple days ago, wondering if it passed some ethical/conflict smell test. Yesterday we got the answer.

Green4Life announced that ‘After consulting with City staff about the rules around sponsorships’, they decided to ‘voluntarily withdraw’ their offer ‘so as not to affect current procurement processes.’ embarrassedIn other words, they’d really love to help keep the rinks open but they’ve got that corporate maw to feed.

Is it me or shouldn’t ‘consulting with City staff about the rules around sponsorships’ have sort of been the mayor’s job before rushing to go public with the details? Smell this. Does it smell funny to you? Maybe I shouldn’t go out wearing it in public, you think?

As Councillor Gord Perks pointed out in the wake of this, the city actually has a process in place to be followed for sponsorship deals. “Section 6.2,” the councillor tweeted. “To fit with Code of Conduct ONLY authorized City staff can solicit or negotiate a sponsorship agreement. Council members can’t.” Council members can’t. If Mayor Tory spearheaded these deals to keep the rinks open, did he contravene Code of Conduct rules in doing so? “Section 6.3 ,” the councillor continued. “Unsolicited offers are to be referred to the relevant City Staff.” More: “Section 6.9 All sponsorship agreements must be documented. If over $50K, legal services should be included in reviewing the agreement.” Still more: “6.11 In most circumstances, Council must approve the agreement.”lessons

Did the mayor’s office follow any of these rules in securing the sponsorship deals to keep the skating rinks open?

“Everyone gets a case of the hiccups”, Mayor Tory said in response to Green4Life’s about face. What are you going to do? A rookie mistake.

Maybe. Maybe. It’s just hard to fathom no one around the mayor red flagged this thing. Someone sensing there might be, at best, some bad optics with it and, at worst, actual breaking of the Code of Conduct rules. Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong, perhaps, who’s been around the block a time or two, more than 20 years of elected municipal service under his belt. His response? Great idea, boss! Let’s go skating!

You’d think that right at the top of Mayor Tory’s Not To Do list would be avoiding the appearance of any conflicts of interest, keeping talk of impropriety or backroom shenanigans to a minimum. What with the goings-on at City Hall during the last 4 years and the previous administration. Keep everyone’s noses clean, at least for the first little while.

You’d think.

No matter. Water under the bridge. And there’s always more fish in the sea especially for the man with a full-to-bursting rolodex.johntoryonice

Plan B (generously speaking) came at another skating rink with the mayor revealing that Tim Horton’s (Timmies, to their friends) would step into the donor void left by Green4Life, chipping in $100,000 to help keep the rinks open. Problem solved. Done, and done. The private sector gallantly to the rescue again. Everything above board, clean as a whistle and legit now.

Except that…

“If Tim Horton’s is the new outdoor rink sponsor,” Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler tweeted, “they’re active lobbyists (as recent as Feb. 10).” Jude MacDonald pointed out further information from the Tim Horton’s lobbyist registrar page, showing that some of the subject matter the company signed up to lobby on was “City Policies relating to Economic Growth, Regulatory Issues; Blue Box Program; Drive-Through policy.”

So, we have this restaurant chain of the ‘quick service’ variety, talking to city officials about city policy concerning issues directly affecting them. ‘Blue Box Program’? Where do I throw away this coffee cup anyway? Garbage? Recycling? The lid in one, the cup in the other? What? ‘Drive-Through policy’?! quagmireAll those nasty emissions from idling cars waiting in the drive-through line. Fine. But now they’re donating $100,000 to keep some city run skating rinks open?

I’m not alone in finding this deal more than a little unsettling, am I?

I tried to state my leeriness about it in a few 140 character outbursts yesterday. Let’s see if I can string the thoughts together here.

If a company wants to do business with or is already doing business with the city, or wants to have some say, influence even, in how the city conducts its business, it strikes me that company shouldn’t be in the business of donating money to help the city go about its business. How is that not somehow greasing something that ought not to be greased? There may be some out there who believe fully in the goodness of the corporate heart. keepyourdistanceI’m just a person who thinks corporations don’t really have hearts, only bottom lines.

Maybe we should work to keep things like the operation of skating rinks in house and stop being dependant on the continued goodwill of upstanding corporate citizens to help effectively run this city. Decrease the overlap of the public and private sectors. Wouldn’t it be a whole lot less ethically messy that way?

helpfully submitted by Cityslikr


The Toryfication of Fordism

February 23, 2015

corporateloveI guess if you’re born and bred in the lap of corporate exegesis, your family, almost the very definition of Bay Street lawyerliness and a career spent near the helm of a private sector titan, it would be impossible for you to imagine any downside to a philanthropic hand-out to help out the city in a time of need. You want to keep some skating rinks open for the rest of the winter? Show me the money.

It’s just what good corporate citizens do. Strings attached? Come on. Stop being so cynical. Quid pro quo? I don’t even know what that means. Buyer beware?

So when it became known again this year that some city run skating rinks would be closing for the season yesterday (skating rinks, closing on February 23rd, February 23rd), noveltychequeMayor John Tory quickly flipped through his batphone rolodex and found two willing corporations happy to do their part. Green 4 Life and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment both cut the mayor a cheque for $100,000, thereby keeping the doors to an additional 12 rinks open until spring officially arrives in town. 3 cheers for the good guys! Hip-hip-hooray, etc., etc.

The mayor didn’t seem to so much as pause to consider the, I don’t know, optics, let alone implications of such a financial arrangement. Both companies have fairly substantial dealings with the city. murkyGreen 4 Life is the private contractor that collects nearly half of Toronto’s trash and recycling. It’s not exactly been a smooth relationship, and with the possibility of opening up the rest of the city to private bidding in the near future, the company may well factor into that as well. MLSE just secured a $10 million loan from the city to renovate BMO stadium, home to the TFC soccer team, owned by, you guessed it, MSLE which itself is substantially owned by telecom behemoth, Rogers, a company the mayor was recently some sort of director mucky-muck of and remains as part of the Rogers family trust. In fact, Mayor Tory had to step outside council chambers during December’s meeting due to a vote on an MLSE owned restaurant.

So you start to get a sense of the murkiness of all this. But wait. There’s more.

Over at Spacing today, John Lorinc writes of a one-on-one meeting between the mayor and the CEO smelltest(and Tory campaign donor) and head of government relations of Bell Inc. just this past January to discuss the ‘unhelpful boilerplate’ of the city’s lobbyist registry. Bell, another telecom giant, is also a co-owner of MLSE, owner of TFC, blah, blah, blah, see two paragraphs above. According to Lorinc, no one has said whether these rink donations were run by any of the city’s oversight and accountability officers to see if they, at the very least, passed some sort of smell test. It’s all been very much, these are friends of Mayor Tory, and any friend of the mayor’s is a friend of the city.

Lorinc writes:

It’s also possible that Tory, who has spent his entire adult/professional life functioning in that rarefied world where corporate, social and philanthropic circles intersect, is simply doing what comes naturally, so to speak – making big money asks of prominent donors and networks of well-connected executives.

“Doing what comes naturally”. Rather than figure out a way to deal with the city’s structural fiscal deficit that leads annually to these sort of funding shortfalls, Mayor Tory makes a couple phone calls to those dwelling in the “corporate, social and philanthropic circles” he’s been running in all his life. Leadership means knowing how to make that big corporate ask and having the connections to be able to do it.

Why bother asking hardworking taxpayers to pay to run their city properly wgladhandinghen the private sector will chip in around the edges?

I think we’ve already reached that point in John Tory’s mayoralty when we get to start asking, What would be the reaction if Rob Ford did this? If, while serving as mayor, Rob Ford cuddled up to a major private provider of a city’s service and asked for some money to help keep rinks open? What if Rob Ford tapped a company he had more than a passing interest in, and that also had a financial relationship with the city, for a little spending cash to help the city out?

What if Rob Ford tried to pull off an unorthodox financial manoeuvre, like the current mayor is attempting to do, in order to balance the operating budget and avoid a serious discussion about revenue tools? A move even the city’s CFO admitted last week was going to cost more in the long run than if we simply adjusted the property tax rate to cover the $86 million budget hole now.

My guess is there’d be a little more vocal pushback. It’s not so much that Mayor Tory is operating with a bit of a honeymoon halo, given the benefit of doubt and a little more time on the job. twofacesHe convinced us throughout the campaign that he was a sound businessman with a sound understanding of numbers. Prudent, he’d be. Fiscally mindful and wise.

Except that, what we’ve seen so far is little more than an attempted institutionalisation of the Ford low tax, more efficiencies, anti-government mantra. The city has a spending not a revenue problem with a nicer haircut. An uncomfortable cozying up to the private sector and special interests who make money from the city and give money to the elected officials who help facilitate that transaction.

It’s simply Rob Ford with better pedigree and a more extensive rolodex. You can try and mask it with a nice cologne but the stink doesn’t really go away.

disapprovingly submitted by Cityslikr


How High Sir?

February 19, 2015

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it 17 million times.

You want to fix City Hall? Start electing better city councillors. upthehillEasier said than done, for sure, given the disheartening results of last year’s municipal campaign. Thirty-seven of thirty-eight incumbents returned to office including one still under the cloud of a police investigation. Another, Frank Di Giorgio in Ward 12 York South Weston.

The councillor was on Metro Morning today along with another former budget chief, Shelley Carroll, to talk about the city’s need for more revenue, new revenue tools. “Do you think we need new taxes, Frank Di Giorgio?” asked the show’s host, Matt Galloway. Here’s how the councillor responded:

Not at this point. I think certainly, I think the one thing that’s important in the immediate future is that we have to support the mayor…

Say what?

That’s what’s important in the immediate future? City council needs to support the mayor? [Begins flipping frantically through the city’s Code of Conduct for Members of Council. Must support the mayor…Must support the mayor….] fealtyNope. Not seeing that stipulation.

Councillor Di Giorgio has been a local representative for almost 30 years now, at City Hall in amalgamated Toronto since 2000. This is the sum of all his civic wisdom. “I think one thing that’s important in the immediate future is that we have to support the mayor.”

If the councillor actually believes that — and he’s not alone in that way of thinking, sadly, in talking to a candidate during last year’s election who was running against another deadweight incumbent, I was told that a few years earlier in discussing with the councillor why he had voted a certain way, he was told that, You gotta support the boss — why bother with city council races in the first place? Just elect a mayor, be done with it. No messy debates to deal with, rubber stamp city council meetings, items all passed with a waxed red royal seal.

Parsing Councillor Di Giorgio’s go along to get along logic a little further, consider his 2014 re-election. At Marshall’s Musings, Sean Marshall has done fantastic work breaking down the numbers October’s election. waxsealA look at the results in Ward 12 shows that less than one in five voters there voted for John Tory. The councillor fared little better, garnering under 30% of the popular vote where just over 1300 ballots separated him from the 4th place challenger.

So, less than one in three voters gave Councillor Di Giorgio a mandate to unwaveringly support a mayor who fewer than one in five Ward 12 voters backed? It’s how first-past-the-post elections work, I get it, but it’s almost as if the councillor thinks we have some sort of presidential system at City Hall, though. The Big Guy wins. You fall in line behind the Big Guy.

Councillor Di Giorgio’s views on such ring-kissing fealty to the mayor also extends to city staff. As Jude MacDonald reminded me, back during the last administration when the councillor was still TTC commissioner and voted to fire then-CEO Gary Webster, he had his reasons. “Excellence in bureaucracy means the ability to perform tasks that are consistent with leaders of a corporation, the leaders of a city,” he declared. “It’s the ability to put forward positions that are consistent with positions adopted by the mayor.”

Your councillor for Ward 12 York South Weston, folks.  Frank Di Giorgio.

So, city councillors are elected to merely to serve at the pleasure of the mayor. Such passiveness from Di Giorgio extends to the city’s dealings with the province evidently. jumphighhowDuring the Metro Morning discussion, he said exploring the idea of more revenue tools will simply let the province off the hook for paying their share of stuff like social housing. They’ve already stopped paying, Councillor Carroll pointed out. That’s why the city’s scrambling to plug the hole in its operating budget. That’s why we need to a discussion about new revenues. It’s all on us now.

The councillor was having none of it. No need to rush. We already have revenue tools in the arsenal, like the Land Transfer Tax which is bringing in substantial amounts of money to the city coffers. Maybe we could milk some more from that cash cow. If not, the City of Toronto Act is coming up for renewal in a few years, 2018 or so. Let’s revisit this discussion then. In the meantime, don’t ‘undermine the mayor’s initiatives’ because that would be ‘dangerous’. Loose lips sink ships, I guess.

Councillors like Frank Di Giorgio are throwbacks to an era when municipalities were little more than wards of the province, where we were given the property tax to play with, to largely pay for local initiatives, roads, sewers, maybe a portion of public transit. A time when the province contributed substantially more to the overall operations of this city than it sees fit to now. As Councillor Carroll (as well as the city manager, Joe Pennachetti) pointed out, Toronto is a big boy now, closing in on 3 million people. asleeponthejobIt’s time we put on our big boy pants and realize we’ve been pushed out of the nest.

Provincial contributions to the well-being of this city will be grudging and probably when it is only politically advantageous for them to do so. We can act like two year-olds and hold our breath until we turn blue in the face in hopes of changing their attitude but, well, umm, I wouldn’t…hold my breath. But that’s what Mayor Tory has in mind, and loyal foot soldiers like Councillor Di Giorgio see it as his job to follow the mayor’s marching orders.

After all, that’s what he’s been doing for three decades now. That’s what he was elected to do.

at your servicely submitted by Cityslikr


Already Tired Of Tory’s Timid Toryness

February 18, 2015

Two articles written last week underlined the fundamental problem facing this city right now. Simply put, we have a crisis of leadership. neroIt manifests itself in all that isn’t working, people freezing to death in the streets, crumbling infrastructure, substandard public transit. These failures, though, can all be traced back to a consistent failure at the top.

After the spectacular implosion of the radical Rob Ford experiment of misgovernance, Toronto desperately looked around for an upgrade in competence in the mayor’s office. John Tory, we were told, was just the ticket. Competent – no, prudent! – yet bold. He was a successful businessman, top gun at a huge corporation, shortform for possessing a supreme fitness to lead the city from the crack-dazed darkness of the last 4 years.

Career politicians got us into this mess. Only stood to reason that a giant from the private sector was needed to clean it up. Because, that’s how the world works.

Post-election, a flurry of activity signified that business was being tended to, being taken care of. Cars were towed. likeachickenwithitsheadcutoffBus service increased. Mayor Tory got to work early, got down to busy-ness. Hey. Did you hear? The mayor’s having another press conference.

That’s how you run a city, yo.

Correction:

That’s how you look like you run a city.

In comparison to his predecessor, John Tory just had to show up without soup stains on his tie and having not obviously wet himself to immediately earn the mantle of competency. The bar was that low. Policy ideas were secondary to appearances.

Even beauty pageants, however, consist of more than just the swimsuit competition. Stuff needs getting done. Decisions have to be made, some significant. Like say, budgeting.

robforddrunk

As David Hains wrote in the Torontoist Saturday:

There are no good choices in the budget, and it is time to wake up to why that is the case and what that means. There is a much bigger discussion to have here: Toronto needs to talk about the fact that there is a structural deficit, and that it is also willing to acknowledge that things cost money, particularly the cost of making responsible decisions. If we fail that, we will see Toronto go from budget crisis to budget crisis, pulling out its hair until it wonders how it became bald.

Like every other previous mayor of the city, John Tory has numbers to deal with, big numbers. He has to decide what to fund, what to build, what to repair, what programs and services to maintain, expand or cut. Like every other previous mayor of the city, John Tory will be constrained by the fact there’s only so much money to go around, that on the annual operating side of things, he has to balance the books. shellgameLike every other previous mayor of the city, John Tory must make some tough choices.

Turns out, Mayor Tory isn’t like every other previous mayor of the city. He’s going to spare himself the trouble of making tough choices. He’s going to pretend like there’s another way of going about business at City Hall. His choices “represent…a methodical, responsible approach to budgeting.” Carve out some cash from capital expenditures to plug the hole on the operating side. Hike user fees to help pay for some of the increases in services. Keep property taxes ‘at or below the rate of inflation’. Nix talk of any new revenues. Demand 2% in efficiencies from city departments.

Done and done.

Responsible. Methodical. Prudent. Competent.

Except, it is none of those things. In a word, as Mr. Hains suggests in his article, ‘wrong’.

Mayor Tory is ducking a systemic fiscal problem in the hopes of some magical appearance of money from the other two levels of government sometime down the road. sweepundertherugMoney both Queen’s Park and Ottawa should be handing over in the areas of transit and affordable housing at the very least but money they’ve shown little inclination in handing over for years, decades now. Money the mayor should definitely be pushing for but money he should definitely not be counting on.

It’s like planning your life around the expectation of a relative dying and leaving you some money sometime down the road.

Not what you’d classically consider responsible, methodical, prudent or competent.

And then there’s the mayor’s bold transit plan, SmartTrack.

As John Lorinc pointed out in his Spacing article last week, we’re not even close to knowing what the price tag of that thing’s going to be or what portion the city’s going to have to come up with. Tory’s campaign-driven funding scheme, TIF, is another complete mystery, untested as it is on such a scale. Never mind how much the proposed eastern section of it while overlap with the Scarborough subway extension that he has tried to keep clear of. questionsquestionsquestions(Let’s not re-open that debate no matter how dumb and financially onerous it may turn out to be.)

Whatever its merits may be, aside from threatening to blow the city through its debt ceiling limit and, with that, future construction and repairs of, well, pretty much everything else, SmartTrack also looks as if it could further delay much needed transit building in Toronto. What if, in a year’s time when staff reports come back and questions arise about the viability of both SmartTrack and the Scarborough subway, “a kind of supercollider for Toronto’s latest transit ambitions,” Lorinc writes? Imagine that pitched battle at city council.

Subways, subways, subways versus SmartTrack, SmartTrack, SmartTrack!

And the shovels remain firmly unplanted in the ground.

After 4 years of paralytic, farcical uncertainty on the transit file, Mayor Tory has simply upped the ante instead of bringing clarity or even a semblance of sanity to it. magicbeansIn campaigning for the job, he refused to risk any loss of support by coming out against the Scarborough subway while offering up another fanciful transit plan that may well ensure the subway turns out to be nothing more than a costly white elephant. That’s political calculation not leadership.

It isn’t responsible, methodical, competent or prudent either.

In barely under three months, John Tory has fully revealed himself to be nothing more than just another small-time, parochial politician who is using this fiscal crisis (yes, it is a crisis) to diminish the city’s ability to deal with it rather than strengthen its hand. Why? Either he’s a committed small government ideologue or he possesses a steadfast aversion to making hard choices. Probably a healthy dose of both.

Whatever the reason, we need to stop expecting him to be anything other than an obstacle going forward, another failed experiment in the mayor’s office.

hands wipingly 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.

rodserling

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


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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