Toronto’s Taxing Problem, Part Infinity

May 27, 2016

I was in New York City earlier this week when this city’s City Manager, Peter Wallace, read the fiscal riot act to city council via Mayor John Tory and his Executive Committee in the boldest terms an unelected official could to his elected colleagues at City Hall. readtheriotact(Could I use the word ‘city’ and any of its derivations more times in one sentence? Probably. But, you know, overkill.)

What the mayor was told was the same thing the mayor and his predecessor have been told for pretty much 5 years now. Yes, there are probably more efficiencies to be found in the budget, efficiencies are always being found. Yes, the city can look at selling off monetizing some of its assets for a one time, payday infusion of cash. Yes, of course but… None of it will come close to narrowing the widening gap between the money coming in and money going out to pay for the services, programs and capital needs Toronto is responsible for. Not even close.

Mayor Tory was told all that but what he heard Jonathan Goldsbie highlights here in NOW. Essentially, the mayor heard what he wanted to hear. He heard what every self-serving, small-minded, pandering local politician hears when it comes to the city’s finances. Taxes bad. We already pay too much. Stretched to the limit. Hardworking homeowners. whatthecathearsNickel and dimed to death. Get off our lawns. Plow our streets.

A few years back, during a similar if not exact budget and fiscal discussion, I remember coming across a page listing the taxes and fees residents of other big cities throughout the world pay. For the life of me, I can’t find it now, and I’m too lazy and inept to actually track it down on the internetz but it did get me to thinking about a comparison I could probably present in a reasonable fashion. New York and Toronto.

I found this from 2009, a study of New York City’s taxation policy, funded by the Solomon Foundation, an off-shoot of the Solomon Company, a fairly substantial investment firm. Now, I offer it up with all the usual caveats. No comparison between cities is perfect, especially cities in different country and jurisdictions. This was from 7 years ago, so things might’ve changed. Moreover, I’m not much of numbers guy, my financial comprehension should be considered suspect and I am easily distracted.

That said…

Consider page 12, Exhibit 1, New York City Taxes and Other Revenue Sources.

NYCTaxes2009

Check out what I think could be called a laundry list of revenue sources the city taps into, taxes making up about 59% of all revenues. Personal income taxes, business taxes, sales tax, hotel tax, cigarette tax, beer, wine and liquor tax, horserace admission tax, vehicle tax, taxi tax. That’s before we even get to property taxes.

No wonder the city never sleeps! Everybody’s working 24/7 to pay all those taxes.

Now, look at this page [page 29], a pie chart from Toronto’s 2016 operating budget.

2016TOBudgetFinal

46% of our city’s revenues come from taxation, at least in name. Property tax, Land Transfer tax and something called “Supplementary Taxation”. Toronto already taxes residents and visitors to this city 13% less than New York did in 2009. So how is it that we’re overtaxed and “stretched to the limit” as the mayor claims we are, we being that mysterious group of “homeowners”?

And this is New York City we’re talking about here, not some zany, left-wing, socialist Scandinavian city. imbalanceThe Home of the Brave, Land of the Free, Tax Hating U.S. of A.

Mayor Tory and his allies do have a point, if they are trying to make a valid point that the city coffers are too dependent on property taxes to help pay the bills. Throwing in the Land Transfer tax, 44% of Toronto’s annual revenues come from property taxes. In 2009, “Real Estate Related Taxes” made up just 26.6% of New York’s revenues, 23.6% of that from straight up property taxes. So yes, especially given how we assess property taxes here, we probably rely too much on them to generate revenue.

So, let’s look for other sources of revenue then, shall we? Not just by selling off assets or ferreting out further efficiencies. The city manager, like the city manager before him, said that’s not going to do the trick.

We need to talk about revenue tools, taxes if you prefer. That’s not a bad word. notlisteningAt least, it isn’t in places that realize you have to pay for the things you want and need. Torontonians want, need and expect the city to provide these things. Somehow, if the words and deeds of many of the people we elect to represent us are any indication, we except to get all these things at impossibly low costs to us. Somebody else pay because I’m already paying too much!

It’s a tired line of argument, one with almost no factual merit. You get the kind of city you pay for. The bottom line is, we’re not paying for the city we say we want.

repeatedly submitted by Cityslikr


The Streets Of New York

May 25, 2016

I’m walking through the Battery the other day, a part of New York I’m not very familiar with, aside from it being the down to the Bronx’s up. It’s the southern tip of Manhattan, where you catch the Staten Island ferry. onthetownYou can see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island from the Battery Park City Esplanade here. The 9/11 memorial, where the World Trade Centre buildings stood, sits just a few blocks north.

While much of this tiny part of the city is all business, Wall Street and the financial district proper, City Hall are situated nearby, Battery City Park itself is part of a planned, mixed use community, developed and built through the 1970s and 80s. This is where I’m strolling through when I stop at an intersection with the pedestrian crossing light counting down from about 7…6…5…4… I’ve got no particular place I need to be any time soon.

Evidently that’s not the case for a couple kids who dawdle and meander past me across the street with the light turning yellow and then red before they get to the sidewalk on the other side. I’m terrible guessing anyone’s age, especially the grade school types. So, I don’t know, 8, 10, the oldest one? The brother, I’m thinking, one of those scooters lugged up over a shoulder. His sister’s a couple years younger maybe? 6…7…8? They continue a few steps down the street before turning into the lobby of an apartment building.

Now, here’s the thing that strikes me as I begin walking again with the green light. mayberryThese two kids are young enough to these old eyes of mine for me to be surprised they aren’t being accompanied by an adult. So maybe they’re both older than I think. Or, and here’s my preferred hope, they’re old enough not to be supervised crossing the street because crossing a street isn’t supposed to require adult supervision.

Now, anybody who’s spent any time at all in New York City knows that crossing most streets here is something of a competition. And this particular street I crossed would not be considered a typical New York City street. Still, it wasn’t Main Street Mayberry. There were cars waiting at the red light. Cabs were all over the place, never what you would consider predictable. These two kids had to have come from somewhere where the streets were typically New York, busy, loud, not entirely orderly. Neither one seemed the least bit fussed about negotiating their way through it all.

As it should be.

That city streets need to be designed for children to easily make their way through without much more than the occasional look over their shoulder is something so obvious it shouldn’t even need stating. newyorkpictureThat they aren’t says a lot about our priorities. When streets, neighbourhoods, communities, cities are focussed on moving motorized vehicles, kids are raised inside cars.

It is surprising to me during my time here in New York just how many people insist on driving, at least in the parts of Manhattan I’ve made my way around so far, let’s say 140th Street down. Driving seems like the worst mobility choice. Unlike many, many other places, there are viable options to driving. Most spots that I’ve Google mapped to figure out routes to have shown public transit as fast or faster than driving to get there.

Still, vehicular traffic dominates the flow in this city, it seems to me. The streets bursting at the seams with pedestrians prove it. There is not the proper allocation of space for them.

On the eventful ride I took down the Columbus Street bike lane to 9th Avenue, from Central Park, winding up eventually in Soho, people fairly regularly stepped into my path, pushcart vendors used the lanes to get to where they were going. Why not? imwalkinghereIt’s street space opened up to them, recently reclaimed from automobiles. Intermingling with cyclists seems like a much safer prospect than contending with cars.

Walking in New York does come with a certain amount of pedestrian boldness you find on foot in very few other big cities. In recent years, they’ve begun the conversation in earnest of divvying up the public space that the streets and roads are in a more equitable fashion. It’s a start, is all it is. Until every street is safe enough for kids like the two I saw in Battery Park to navigate without so much as a second thought, we still have a long way to go, a long road ahead.

— moseyingly submitted by Cityslikr


Take Me Out To The Ballgame

May 20, 2016

guestcommentary

(While we’re off visiting New York City, our Los Angeles correspondent, Ned Teitelbaum, writes a post about Dodger baseball, linking it back to Brooklyn and public transit. [Did you know them Dodgers got their name from Manhattanites derisively referring to their borough counterparts as ‘trolley dodgers’ because the Brooklyn streets were once filled with trolley cars?] The serendipity of things, huh?)

*  *  *

There are times during baseball season in Los Angeles when I feel closer to my father’s Brooklyn than I ever did living in New Jersey or Manhattan, or even Brooklyn itself, which we’d pass through on our way to see my grandmother when I was a kid. dodgerstadiumThose times are when the Mets are in town and I am lucky enough to catch one of their games at Dodger Stadium.

“Pick you up at six?” my friend, a New Jersey transplant with season tickets offers one recent evening. Great seats at the game, a meal that comes with the seats, and door-to-door service as well? He’s a great friend, but I decline the ride.

“I’ll just meet you there,” I tell him, thinking that’s how busy people do it in a big city, even if Los Angeles long ago abandoned its urban rubric for a more suburban slant. My friend knows I’m on a transit kick, and now since my car was recently totaled, I just walk and take transit practically everywhere.

Still, I feel a sense of guilt at not taking the ride, as if I’m being anti-social, biting the hand that feeds me.

“I just need to walk a little, climb some stairs,” I explain, and he pretends to understand. We’ll meet up at Will Call.ebbetsfield

I gather my things — my glove, my cap, my Lee Mazzilli shirt — and am about to leave when the phone rings.

“I can’t talk right now, Mom,” I say quickly into the phone.

“Where are you going?” she asks.

“I’m taking the subway to the Dodgers game…” But even before the words are out of my mouth, I am struck by a mysterious, ghostly and disjointed nostalgia, as if I had spoken those exact words in that exact order countless times before.

But of course, I hadn’t.

The Dodgers left Brooklyn for the West Coast the year before I was born. reeseandrobinsonStill, I would hear stories all my young life from the devout Brooklyn Dodger fan that would marry my mother and become my father. He would tell me stories about Pee-Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, the Duke of Flatbush and of course, Jackie Robinson.

But Pee-Wee was his favorite. I’d never seen my father do anything more athletic than mow the lawn or pull up his socks, but in clips of Pee-Wee Reese playing shortstop, I recognized my father’s own physicality – short, quick and tightly muscled – and imagined him as a kid in Bed Stuy playing stickball or handball against the wall.

I take the Red Line down to Union Station from my local stop in Koreatown. When I get to the game, my friend has just arrived. He smiles under his Mets cap, and sports the team shirt as well. I read the name on the back – Dykstra. Lenny Dykstra, nick-named ‘Nails’ for his toughness and unrelenting drive to win. I see my father in him too.

We enter and take our seats. roycampanellaThe sun is coming down behind the palms that top the ridge out beyond the parking lot, and while the visiting players are out on the field, stretching and cracking jokes before the game, I am distracted by the swallows flying above their heads and feasting on the gnats. A breeze, fragrant with sage and mountain pine, comes down from the mountains and fills the stadium. There is no question that the Dodgers’ current home is a powerful place.

After the Star-Spangled Banner, the game starts. The Mets lose a pitchers’ battle on the last at-bat of the game. My friend drives us home in his electric car with the disembodied female voice telling him how to go.

“We’ll get ‘em next time,” he says, and we both know it’s just part of the game, what you say when your team loses. I thank him as I get out of the car and close the door. I am grateful for such a friend.

The next day, I’m waiting for the 206 bus to take me back to my office after a Chinese lunch. A man sits at the stop. He has curly, prematurely white hair and looks up at me, at the top of my head.

“How long you been a Mets fan?”newyorkmetslogo

At first I think it’s odd that he knows. But then I remember I am wearing the team cap.

“All my life,” I tell him with a certain pride.

He reaches into his bag and pulls out his own crumpled Mets cap and puts it on.

The man starts talking. And he is a fast talker, mostly about the Mets and how he was there when Shea Stadium opened in 1964, and for some reason, he gets free seats to any game he wants.

I want to tell him that I was there in 1969 when the Mets won it all, in the fifth game of the World Series at Shea, when they beat the Baltimore Orioles. But I can’t get a word in edgewise.

He continues talking, mentions ‘clients’ of his and I wonder what kind of clients he means. losangelesdodgerslogoHe tells me he got a ball signed at the game at Dodger Stadium the other day and the Mets players who had signed it.

“I got Campbell and Syndegaard and Morales,” he says, then doubles back. “Actually, I already had Morales. But I got Wright and Cespedes and De Grom and…”

He goes on like this even as we get on the now crowded bus and sit next to each other, taking up seats you’re supposed to give up to the elderly and the handicapped.

I glean from his non-stop stream that he is a professional drummer, which probably explains the round canvas bag in his lap. He plays the clubs in Koreatown, he tells me, knows a whole bunch of people from the world of entertainment, including Stevie Wonder and Zsa-Zsa Gabor, and is traveling around the country come June with the Platters. brooklyndodgerslogoWherever he goes, he checks out a baseball game. Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia…

We get to my stop and he gives me his card.

“Call me anytime,” he tells me. “We’ll go to a game.”

I nod and thank him and climb over a few people to get out of the bus. And then I realize I never got a chance to ask him where he was from. Then again, why would I have? It was obvious. As obvious as Pee Wee and Syndegaard, the Duke of Flatbush and Wright.

echoingly submitted by Ned Teitelbaum


Everybody’s Talking

May 18, 2016

If they call, looking for me, tell them I’ll be in NYC. NYC is where I’ll be. Hustlin’ in NYC.*

imwalkinghere

(*New York City, in the state of New York)

I’m-walkin’-herely submitted by Cityslikr


Everything’s Fine!

May 16, 2016

These days, this council.

With the provincial government dangling the prospect of ballot reform, tantalizingly, and today’s announcement of the ward boundary review recommendation, giddywe here in Toronto should be giddy with excitement at the opportunity to reshape our local democracy. It’s something that hasn’t been done for 16 years since Queen’s Park pretty much unilaterally aligned all the city’s wards with the federal and provincial riding boundaries. So, we’re overdue, to make an understatement. Seize the moment to try and iron out some of the parochial wrinkles that have accumulated. Sweep out the dust bunnies and moldy odors that have collected in the cupboards.

It’s just… You know…

These days, this council.

With Councillor Justin Di Ciano, as city council’s woefully underwhelming representative, taking his anti-ranked ballots clownshow up University Avenue to speak to the standing committee overseeing voting reform initiatives, there’s some serious concern that Toronto voters won’t get a crack at using ranked ballots. dampenHell, if the councillor has his way, we’ll be robbed of even having a debate about it. His argument against moving from the current First Past The Post system is so full of shopworn bullet talking points, it’s impossible to tell what his real motives are with this antediluvian quest.

Equally unclear are the reasons our mayor, John Tory, seems determined to curtail debate on the ward boundary review ahead of the final recommendation going public. Earlier this year, when five possible new ward alignment options were outlined, he stated his position, which was pretty much as dismissive as you could be. “The last thing we need is more politicians.” Over this past weekend, his rhetoric had ossified into place, suggesting Mayor Tory hadn’t put so much as another thought into the matter.

I’ve maintained my position, which is, first of all, I don’t personally see the need for an expanded number of politicians, and secondly, I have yet to meet a Toronto citizen who has told me that their top priority — or any kind of priority of their’s — is to expand the number of politicians. I think we can make arrangements by reorganizing the boundaries a little bit.

The bottom line is I don’t think we need to have more decision makers at City Hall.

That there? That’s the sound of the door slamming on any sort of serious discussion about the size, shape or reorganization of city council. Maybe ‘a little bit’, John Tory’s incrementalism on full display. draggedIf it ain’t broke, amirite?

Rather than take the opportunity to show some civic leadership, and begin a discussion that might inject some new ideas and life into the governance structure at City Hall, Mayor Tory is intent on belittling the debate to nothing more than the number of councillors. Just like his predecessor did. As if numbers, and numbers alone, are the sole determinant of good, solid and proper political representation.

While it wasn’t part of the ward boundary review mandate to look at the structure of city council, the mayor and councillors could make it theirs, take the initiative and start talking about ways to improve how council functions, how to better represent the residents who’ve elected them to office. One of the biggest glitches plaguing governance in Toronto is the seemingly intractable urban-suburban divide that engenders division instead of cohesion. (Something I suspect is going to be a lightning rod of contention surrounding the ward boundary recommendation today.) Could a move toward at least some at-large, ward-free councillor positions help address that?

Maybe. Maybe not. It’s at least worth some sort of examination, isn’t it?notlistening

Whatever the outcome and final decision city council makes determining new ward boundaries, it’s going to be in place for the next 4 election cycles, 2018, 2022, 2026, 2030. During that time span, the city is projected to see huge population growth – 600,000 new residents by 2031 — and significant demographic changes. Is this Mayor Tory led city council really going to look at that and pursue a redrawing of wards only through the lens of a head count? Will it also brush aside the chance to give voters in the city a new way to elect its local politicians, maybe even in a new type of arrangement that might help reduce the type of harmful geographic divisiveness that has dogged it pretty much from the beginning of amalgamation?

You’d hope not but… well, you know…

These days, this mayor, this council.

same-ol’-same-olly submitted by Cityslikr


You Don’t Say

May 13, 2016

If there were gold medals handed out for stating the obvious, I would nominate Dr. Frank Clayton of Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Research and Land Development for his not in the least bit surprising blog post, youdontsayDid You Know: Travel Times for City of Toronto Commuters on Average are 60% Longer by Subway than by Car? As friend of our site, John McGrath responded: “Trying to figure out for whom this is news.” Gee willikers, Dr. Clayton. I guess that’s why so many people choose to drive, huh?

Turns out, if you build and redesign a city to maximize car travel, to put the private automobile at the top of your transportation hierarchy, make it near impossible not to need one in some parts of that city, lo and behold, people will tend to drive because it’s the most convenient way to get around. Or, to paraphrase Dr. Clayton, it’s faster and easier to drive than take public transit. We are, after all, rational actors, making rational choices, as we make our way through our daily lives.

Isn’t that how the saying goes?

What I don’t understand, though, is the point of Dr. Clayton’s post.

Why is this important? As Professor Haider explains it in a 2014 blog post, environmentalists and transit enthusiasts routinely overstate the benefits of public transit by claiming more public transit will reduce congestion or travel times, which he states is a myth.

Oh oh, I thought. Professor Murtaza Haider? That Professor Haider?2plus2

Doesn’t this whole argument rest on whose travel times you are measuring? Professor Haider himself writes in the Globe and Mail article Dr. Clayton cites that increased investments in public transit “will reduce travel times by public transit.” So, how is it a ‘myth’ to claim that more public transit investment will reduce public transit travel times?

That it would still be more convenient and quicker to take a car? You don’t transform a transportation system that’s been in place for 70 or 80 years overnight. In almost every part of Toronto and the GTHA, driving remains the best bet to get to where you’re going because that’s exactly what’s designed to happen. Streets and roads built and operated to best accommodate car travel to the detriment of all other users, pedestrians, cyclists, even public transit. Never a lane given over to a bus or streetcar or bicycles uncontested by those seeing such advances as an infringement on the movement of private automobiles. drivingPublic transit wants fast and convenient? Build it underground.

What articles like this one from Dr. Frank Clayton (and almost everything transit-related by Professor Murtaza Haider) smack of is a defense of the transportation status quo. A majority of commuters drive, driving makes for faster commute times, therefore, we must ensure that we do not threaten that delicate balance by offering up more viable mobility options where currently there are none.

It is simply a hand-fisted reading of a very narrow data set that makes no differentiation between the quality of commuting modes, not to mention within the same modes themselves, using time as the sole measurement. You think the experience of driving to work for 45 minutes is comparable to a drive of 10 minutes? Perhaps a 45 minute bus ride where you’re watching last night’s episode of the Daily Show puts you in a better frame of mind when you get to your job than a half-hour grind behind the wheel. sowhatAnd if time and convenience is what we’re aiming for, shouldn’t we be plowing a whole lot more money and resources into cycling and pedestrian infrastructure in the city of Toronto where the commute time is just over 17 minutes, the quickest way to work by far?

Dr. Frank Clayton seems content to tell us where we are without much of an explanation why or even if it’s a place we want to be. I’m not sure what purpose it serves aside from confirming what pretty much anybody who travels around the GTA already knows too well. Cars are king. Long live the king.

m’ehly submitted by Cityslikr


Driving Through The Future

May 10, 2016

“Humans are bad drivers,” Oliver Sachgau writes last weekend in the Toronto Star’s “Driverless cars will shape our lives – if we let them.jetpack

Mr. Sachgau will get no argument from me there. Humans are also quite bad predictors of the future too, says someone who grew up with 1960s picture books that promised us jetpacks by the year 2000. Jetpacks, jetting us off to our long weekends at Disneyuniverse Mars.

I have no doubt driverless technology will be a part of our future. It’s already here, in fact. There are cars driving automatedly among us currently.

It’s just… I have a couple issues with how Mr. Sachgau sees this all playing out.

It’s 7:20 a.m. on a Monday in the not-too-distant future. You wake up, and realize you’ve overslept. It’s a two-hour commute to work, so you call your boss and tell her you’ll start working on the way.

(Woah! Your boss is a her? It must be the future.)worldoftomorrow

In this scenario, Sachgau’s non-gender specific stand-in lives 2 hours from work. Who the fuck wants a future where you’re commuting — driverlessly or not — 4 hours a day? But I’ll be able to get so much done during that time with something else doing the driving. During Oscar season, I can watch all the nominated films from the comfort of my own back seat!

With driverless cars, in this version of the future everyone is driving everywhere.

For the next two hours, you’re immersed in work as your car takes you to the office. Once you arrive, you’ll order another car to pick up your kids — who’ve hopefully woken up by now — and drive them to school. Another car will pick them up and drive them home in time to have dinner with you.

Just as it was forecast in New York in 1939. The World of Tomorrow.

I don’t doubt driverless cars will make the act of driving better in many, many ways. Safer, smarter, a whole lot less ragey. Maybe. worldoftomorrow2By almost every measure, we are terrible at driving. Our judgement at higher speeds is suspect. We don’t share the roads in any what that doesn’t make congestion worse. We’re so easily distracted.

Yet, this is the one important fact the article steadfastly does not address, most conversations about the future of self-driving cars I’ve heard and read rarely bring up. By making driving easier, more appealing to more people, more people want to drive…more. Induced demand, in other, more succinct words.

If everybody oversleeps and summons a car to take them to work, and everybody is still heading toward the same general area of a region, say, the downtown core, for example, where is all that extra road space going to come from? Has anyone actually done that math? Self-driving cars improve congestion travel times by x%, therefore we will see an increase of car use by y%. Unless the new technology is so vastly superior that it is able to transcend the bounds of induced demand, people are still going to be stuck in traffic, driving or not.

The article dedicates exactly one paragraph to self-driving vehicles and public transit. “Buses and subways might continue to exist,” Sachgau writes, “while people continue to own cars, only now…” wait for it, wait for, “…all of those won’t require drivers.” What does that sentence even mean? worldoftomorrow3Everything is going to be exactly the same except the cars will drive themselves.

Cities would be better off preparing for driverless technology and public transit rather than making way for driverless cars, the real key word there remains cars, private vehicles, not the driverless part. Sachgau suggests that car ownership might decline, with people realizing the benefits of just hiring them when necessary, like getting to work, getting the kids to school, going shopping, going out to a restaurant, a movie, although that possibility is questioned by an innovation expert at the University of Toronto.

There’s no second amendment for vehicle ownership. But a lot of people probably think vehicle ownership as a basic human right.

So, it’s easy to imagine a not-too-distant future, when a self-driving car isn’t prohibitively expensive, and the same, if not more, people own one, using it exactly like they use it today, the only difference being, they’re not driving it, but still demanding that cities make the room for them to operate smoothly. Sure, the amount of space dedicated solely to the private automobile will shrink, owing to things like increased safety and less need for parking, making room for other modes of transportation. worldoftomorrow1But if travelling by car gets easier, cheaper and even more convenient than it is now, cities are still going to be dominated by them. What kind of improvement will that be exactly?

“The tech sector…establishes a reality on the ground before governments and even ordinary citizens even have an opportunity to understand these issues, let alone figure out how they want to deal with them,” according to the innovation expert, David Ticoll, of the Munk School of Global Affairs, who has submitted a report to the city of Toronto addressing the driverless car future.

Ticoll said the city can’t afford to take the same pace when dealing with driverless cars that it has taken with other issues such as the Uber-taxi debate.

We all know how that turned out. Big business played chicken and our local government blinked, essentially rolling over on the red carpet that it had set out for Uber. That was one company. Now imagine a whole bunch of them, all with their own shiny version of a driverless car, wanting to flood our streets with them. Are we really aiming to have everyone spend more time in their cars even if they aren’t driving?

skeptically submitted by Cityslikr


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