TCHC Follow Up

February 28, 2011

Just perusing the Auditor General’s report about the shenanigans going on over at Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC). The 2 titles of the document say it all, pretty much. Procurement Policies and Procedures Are Not Being Followed & Controls Over Employee Expenses Are Ineffective. Yikes! It is grisly, grisly reading, no question. Made worse by the fact that TCHC is responsible for some 160,000 tenants throughout the city, most of whom… “are households with low or moderate family income, seniors, refugees and people with special needs.” They might as well have been eating bonbons ($1000 from Holt Renfrew) right off the sweaty, bed bug bitten backs of the poor.

It is grist for the Mayor’s mill to grind. Gooey coal to feed his Gravy Train and all that. But here’s a few things from the report you probably won’t be hearing from the mayor’s team over the next few days.

1) This is a report that was initiated under Mayor Ford’s predecessor, the free spending David Miller. So it’s not dirt uncovered at the behest of our current mayor although he will undoubtedly exploit it to his advantage for all it’s worth.

2) The Auditor General says that there were rules in place already to deal with the questionable financial practices (questionable but not illegal, it is important to point out) but that the rules were routinely ignored and flaunted. Which is not good but some of those responsible for this lack of oversight have already been terminated, hopefully without too much extreme prejudice, a new CEO installed, process has begun to restore the proper chain of command and to seek redress and repayment of improperly allocated funds.3) TCHC received some $304.4 million in funding from the city in 2009. That was roughly .0349885 of the total operating budget that year. In his report, the Auditor General suggested with better procurement practices, TCHC might’ve saved anywhere from $4-$10 million. While uncertain of the numbers in terms of dubious employee expenses, it was very likely in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. Give the AG his high number from the procurement estimates, match it with questionable employee expenses which is wildly inflated, just so you know, and that ends up at $20 million. That’s .065703 of the money TCHC received from the city and .0022988 of the total 2009 operating budget.

I am not sneezing at the money here. Clearly, it should’ve been applied properly to areas of true need. No question. But it is hardly the runaway gravy train the mayor likes to portray city agencies as being. And it will hardly help him substantially when he goes to try and balance the budget next year.

4) Most importantly, the Auditor General writes, “…it has been evident throughout this review that one of the major issues that needs to be addressed is the requirement for increased operational coordination and co-operation between the TCHC and the City.” Increased operational coordination and co-operation between the TCHC and the City. That’s kind of the exact opposite of suggesting the city unload the organization or try to privatize it in some way. In the report, the Auditor General quotes Madame Justice Bellamy in calling for “good government” not less government. It’ll be interesting to watch how the mayor and his team try spinning this into getting out of social housing in order to benefit those who depend on it.

There is no way to put lipstick on this particular pig. It’s ugly. But to use the report simply in order to further purely ideological politics rather than a self-correcting guideline is most certainly not an example of good government. Let’s use it as an opportunity to fix something that’s broken.

level headedly submitted by Cityslikr

Making A Mountain Out Of A Molehill To Hide The Actual Mountain

February 28, 2011

I really wanted to write about the mayor’s 180, the complete reversal of his entire campaign m.o., in the letter he sent to the province’s finance minister, Dwight Duncan, last month and revealed in the pages of the Toronto Star today. It seems our mayor, he who insisted that the city had a spending not a revenue problem, fired off a missive asking that the province pony up $150 million to help the city plug some projected shortfalls in next year’s budget. This year’s OK because the previous council left behind a healthy surplus after driving the Gravy Train all the way to Excessville and back again. Next year, however… Brother, can you spare a dime?

This revelation comes just days after the mayor voted against taking provincial money for STI screening and awareness because, well, I’ll let the Mayor Ford speak for himself. “Everyone says it’s provincial money. No. It’s taxpayers’ money. So, you know what? In the big picture, they say it doesn’t cost the city a dime. Well, it costs people money…” So, it’s not ‘provincial money’ when it comes to fighting sexually transmitted diseases but it is ‘provincial money’ when the mayor needs it to cover his fiscally inept tracks. Is this what you might call straying from the message or is that the mayor’s message is corrupt to its very core?

But that’s not what I actually sat down to write about. I wanted to get out ahead of the Auditor’s report (even perhaps by the time this is posted) detailing the ugly spending going on over at the Toronto Community Housing Corp. which, rumour has it, will be chalk full of all the Gravy Train evidence the mayor and his team railed about during the campaign. The prospect already has the mayor’s brother salivating. “Everyone keeps coming up, yourself too, where’s the gravy? This is just scratching the surface,” Councillor Ford said Sunday. “There’s some damning things in there. It’s just disrespect for the taxpayer you know having big parties on the backs of taxpayers and not proper procurement practices. It’s pretty scathing.”

My bet is we’re going to see a boatload of bad optics with juicy pieces of ill-advised spending practices that will be more embarrassing than they are lucrative in terms of filling city coffers. In other words, the exact scenario that got Mayor Ford elected. The exact scenario that will offer little assistance in helping the mayor deal with his ballooning budget woes.

That’s not to suggest I’m an apologist for government/bureaucratic waste or unnecessary extravagance. This is why we have an auditor’s office in the first place. To provide oversight on how City Hall and its various branches handle the finances of the city. It audits and reports its findings. What it uncovers will, at times, be ugly.

But unless today’s report reveals massive fraud and illegality, just how twisted should we get in our knickers? Will the auditor-general find millions and millions of misspent dollars that could’ve helped the city better balance its books? Hardly. It sounds as if it’s all penny ante stuff. The nickels and dimes that drove candidate Ford and his following so nutty.

Which brings me to the point I’ve been trying to get to oh-so many paragraphs ago.

What price are we willing to pay to those whose job it is to run, manage, administer, oversee our city’s agencies, corporations and sundry holdings? Should we demand complete austerity and count on a voluntary civil service, doing it out of the goodness of their hearts? Or how about taking the average income of those a governmental agency assists and use that as the rate of pay. How much is too much, the level at which it counts as hopping aboard the Gravy Train?

Certainly it is terrible optics, spas, dinner cruises, manicure and pedicures especially since we’re talking the TCHC with its long waiting lists, crumbling infrastructure and unfunded bed bug issue. It strikes one straight at a visceral level, bypassing sober second thought completely. You immediately throw your hands onto your head and scream, what were you thinking?! It just serves it up to meat-and-potatoes neocons who seem entirely comfortable with the fact that they went after the same organization 5 years ago and came up with bupkis. The fact that they’re going to use anything they find in this report to flail you publicly. Why provide the ammunition?

Is that how our bureaucracy should be forced to operate, ever vigilant about drawing council and the public’s ire? The simple answer is, yes. Yes, they should. And that’s why we have the office of the auditor-general.

Still, we shouldn’t have a bureaucracy afraid of its own shadow. There should be rules in place, a list of do’s-and-don’t’s that are easy to follow and leave little doubt about how and where to spend money. My sense is, such rules already exist and we’re going to witness the process play out this afternoon.

For those still believing in the existence of a great gravy train that needs derailing, it will be proof positive that City Hall needs a massive overhaul. I would like to think that when the great hue and cry of outrage recedes, reasonable measures will be taken to fix anything that the auditor deems to be broken at TCHC and we will move on to matters that are truly problematic. Like say, the province’s outright dismissal of Mayor Ford’s massive ask.

warily submitted Cityslikr

Tactics Trump Strategy

February 27, 2011

Based on a very unscientific poll, that is, a guesstimate on my part, 2/3s of voters in Toronto’s municipal election last year cast their ballot largely out of anger toward how their city was being run. Why wouldn’t they? It was in the air. The eventual victorious mayoral candidate was not alone in bellowing out at every whistle stop and campaign debate that City Hall was awash in out-of-control spending with no respect for the taxpayers and he would Stop The Gravy Train if elected. He simply said it more relentlessly and convincingly than most of his opponents and it made for great copy in the newspapers and AM radio.

Consisting of anecdotal evidence exemplifying council extravagance and out of context big numbers (billions of dollars, ladies and gentlemen, billions of dollars!), it coalesced into a wave of discontent that mirrored the anti-government worldview of then councillor and now mayor, Rob Ford. Enough was enough, voters of Toronto told their elected representatives. The city needed to get its fiscal house in order. Finally.

Problem was, it’s a (per)version of reality that’s largely untrue. Yes, there are money clouds on the horizon that could be problematic. But we’re still emerging, snail-like, from economic turmoil we’d not experienced in 80 years. All levels of government had been forced to take on extra debt. Spending also ballooned as the city undertook long overdue transit expansion and infrastructure projects. Projects that had not only been ignored by the megacity but by the pre-amalgamated, lower tax municipalities before they’d found themselves strapped to the yoke of downtown, spendthrifty pinko elites.

So profligate was the outgoing administration that it left behind a massive surplus in its wake. Hundreds and millions of dollars that would force the city to make huge sacrifi—I’m sorry, wait. Would you mind repeating that? A surplus, you say? A surplus?! Doesn’t that mean more money was brought in than went out? How exactly does that jibe with out-of-control spending?

No matter. The new mayor and his team would see to it that such a thing could never, ever happen again. They quickly set out to shut down revenue generating tools (i.e. taxes) and burn through their inheritance to create a one-time rosy fiscal picture. But next year… next year. Well, that was going to be a different story altogether. The dire economic outlook they had said was coming, it would be here in no small part owing to the decisions they just made. Everything would be on the table. Surpluses were something tax-and-spenders not prudent fiscal managers inflicted on the city.

In other words, ignore the man behind the curtain. Toronto’s financial situation had never been nearly as dire as David Miller’s critics made it out to be. Even a passing, non-prejudicial glance would’ve revealed that our property tax rates, both residential and business, were not at all out of line with the surrounding jurisdictions. Our debt level is far from problematic and the numbers to service it are subject to hysterical hyperbole by those wanting to manufacture a crisis. Disagree? Then explain why our credit rating remains solid. Such relative stability, in fact, is allowing the Ford administration to begin its neo-conservative experiment on the city.

The irony of the situation is certainly not lost on the mayor and his team. So much so that they have gone to great lengths to discredit their predecessor’s surplus. Governments shouldn’t run surpluses, they told us. If they do, it should go straight to paying down the debt. Yes, and there’s an official process in place to do such a thing and one the Ford administration was rather cavalier with, opting instead to freeze property taxes. Surpluses are proof that we’re paying too much in taxes. OK. So does the corollary to that suggest deficits are an indication that we’re not paying enough taxes?

But nowhere is the twisted spin logic more in evidence than in the talking points memo Team Ford sent out to all like-minded councillors during last week’s budget debate and that Jonathan Goldsbie wrote about at Open File Toronto. The entire document is worth a read to get a glimpse at just how orchestrated the mayor and his allies are. It also reveals what Councillor Adam Vaughan suggested during the debate that the 2011 budget is much more a series of tactics than it is an economic strategy.

However, the spin takes on true Lewis Carroll-George Orwellian proportions when it deals with the handling of the surplus angle. By applying all accumulated surpluses to the 2011 budget, we unmasked the true financial condition for all to see. The 2012 budget forecast reflects the true gap between the city’s revenues and spending habits. Take a moment. Reread those words. I couldn’t possibly sum it up better than Mr. Goldsbie did in his article. “In other words, by ploughing through our savings, we can see how poor we really are.”

It’s nothing short of fucking incredible. If Team Ford spent even a fraction of the time coming up with a feasible transit plan that they do in concocting steaming piles of bullshit to cover their destructive ulterior political motives, we might have something tangible to talk about. Instead they prevaricate, dissemble and churn out talking points in communication packages to throw people off their scent and offer cover to councillors who may not yet know how to fully talk the talk and walk the walk.

To follow and adhere to the mayor’s so-called line of reasoning, to spew out his pre-packaged babble as if it’s anything other than ideological cant is to fully admit that you’ve given up on critical thinking. Rational discourse is no longer part of your vernacular. You’ve become a pod person. An unthinking, brain dead virus, feasting upon the flesh of our body politic, offering up no solutions or substance. In your cold, cadaverous hands, truth is now fully expendable, to be used only when convenient and beneficial to your cause, if at all. You’ve stop talking sense. So it would be better for us all if you stopped talking altogether.

zombie killingly submitted by Cityslikr

Notes On A Budget Debate From The Peanut Gallery

February 25, 2011

Well, it’s done. Mayor Ford got his first budget passed thoroughly, decisively and, gleaning from the post-meeting rhubarb and chatter, in near record time. We are now fully living in a Rob Ford Toronto. And yes, the sun did rise, the snow did fall and a vehicle registration tax rebate showed up in the mail. Delivered to the wrong address as I haven’t owned a car for years now.

There were few close votes, no losses that ultimately mattered but the mayor did not emerge unscathed. On day 1 of the budget, he made the mistake of getting up to speak, ostensibly to let council know which way he was voting on a handful of amendments and get his ducks in a row. This opened him up to 3 minutes of questioning from any and every councillor who so chose. That he (and his team) didn’t realize this would happen speaks volumes. After 10 years on council, the mayor remains oblivious to how the place works and/or he thinks that as mayor, normal rules don’t apply.

Whatever the thinking, Mayor Ford got caught in the headlights. Nothing Speaker Nunziata did — herself, no wizard when it comes to council protocol, and another staggering example of ignorance from someone who’s spent decades in municipal governance — could save the mayor from a spectacular car crash of a performance. Captured here by the Torontoist in all its glory, it may be the last time we ever see the mayor attempt this stunt again. Certainly by day 2, his team had resorted to quiet note passing in order to lean on the councillors they needed to get votes passed.

Even in silence, the mayor managed to further embarrass himself. When a motion was brought forth to accept $100,000 from the province for HIV awareness and education, the mayor was on his own voting against it, 44-1, summoning up images from his days as a councillor. This, even after an amendment was attached to make sure it didn’t become an annual program that the province mandated and funded less and less. Just another addition to the Gravy Train. Still, no go for the mayor who simply proved himself to be a confirmed homophobe, and no amount of post-vote talk of looking after the taxpayers of Ontario could overturn the fact Mayor Ford simply has a problem with teh gays.

More ominously still for the mayor, despite drumming up overwhelming support for his budget, the items included in the operating budget passed on average of a 31-14 vote, he made no new friends in the process. He used all the powers of the bully pulpit that come with the office of mayor, trumpeting his overwhelming mandate from the voters of Toronto that was echoed throughout the press, giving him seeming powers of edict. All of which is most certainly his prerogative. He’s not the first to have done that.

What he did not do, though, was build a consensus. There was no coalition of the willing. Only those councillors who believe and are counting on the fact that Mayor Ford represents the will of a majority of Torontonians. While dubious, at this point of time, it seems like a safe bet.

And will continue to be so as long as the mayor pulls off what no other fiscally conservative politician has done in 30 years. If he can turn a surplus into a deficit with tax cuts and then balance the books, pay off the debt without ever raising taxes again or cutting services, Mayor Ford will have his way at City Hall for as long as he wants. He won’t need friends. Just allies.

But if, as history has shown, this economic theory isn’t nearly as solid in practice as it on the chalkboard, and taxes have to rise, valuable assets put up on the auction block and taxpayers of Toronto start seeing all those ‘reallocations’ and ‘readjustments’ as nothing more than major service cuts when their regular bus doesn’t arrive or if it does, it costs more to ride or their library branch is no long open on Sundays or their classes and courses at community centres cost more, Mayor Ford will see his council support dry up. Fair-weather friends like Councillors Mammoliti and Stintz will bail at the first sign of trouble. New councillors now sitting on the fence, won’t be nearly as compliant.

Think I’m just engaging in wishful thinking? Maybe. But I witnessed a telling moment yesterday. Josh Colle, one of the freshman councillors and political moderates, voted with the mayor on every budget item save for the Parks and Forestry and Library budgets. That’s not blind adherence but pretty solid support. In turn, when Councillor Colle’s motion came to a vote, a motion, let me add, that bore no financial impact on the budget, it just asked for a report on front yard parking fees and was shepherded through with the help of Councillor Cesar Palacio, a councillor plucked out of well-deserved obscurity owing solely to his slavish devotion to the mayor, it lost by one. You know who voted against it? Mayor Ford.

When the results were announced, catcalls could be heard directed at Councillor Colle. “They’re not your friends, Josh!” Through either neglect, political expediency or (and I’m unwilling to tar the mayor with this yet) pure spite for not toeing the line absolutely, Mayor Ford hung the new councillor out to dry. If one were the suspicious type, one might even suspect Palacio’s motivation for not stepping up and fronting the motion himself and risk drawing the mayor’s ire.

“They’re not your friends, Josh.”

Even in absolute victory, Mayor Ford sowed the seeds of future discontent although, given his focus purely on the here and now, he’s probably losing very little sleep over that fact. It’ll be interesting to see how he navigates more choppy waters when the political winds change (and they always change) and contentious matters like garbage privatization or transit matters come to council. When the mayor finds the atmosphere a little less friendly.

nuttily submitted by Cityslikr

Gone Fishin’

February 24, 2011

For councillors, that is.

It’s day 2 of the Great Budget Debate of ’11. Up today? The Operating Budget. That’s right, I said the Operating Budget.

So, no post today but you can follow the proceedings on my Twitter feed, somewhere  in that direction.

Down there, on the right side of the page. No, your right. Under the calendar and the archives. Although, if you’re bored, you can check out a few of the oldies, we’ve posted. A favourite of mine is from June 10th of last year. Yeah, that was a good one.

Keep going, past that orange thingie… I don’t even know what that is. See where it says `All Fired Up in the Big Smoke on the’ and underneath there’s that blue bird? That’s us on the Twitter. Recent Outbursts will start at around about 9:30 and will continue until the party’s over.

That’s where you can find me.  If anyone’s asking.

pickerly submitted by Cityslikr

Buckle Up! It’s Budget Debate Time.

February 23, 2011

So today begins 4 days of debate, bluster, posturing, finger pointing and maneuvering before the 2011 operating and capital budgets are voted on and put into action. After being fast tracked through weeks of committees, public deputations and PR battles, the day of reckoning is nigh. The expedited budget, Mayor Rob Ford’s first born, is prepped and ready to go.

To be sure, this budget will be passed, pretty well intact. I’m betting the final vote won’t be that close. Even councillors not aligned with the mayor, sitting nearer the mushy middle than the far right, will go along with the budget especially those representing the more suburban wards. They can’t ignore the big fat goose egg of a property tax increase their constituents will hold tightly onto as proof City Hall is finally listening to what they want. The increase in user fees and various ‘minor’ cuts will take some time to poke holes and deflate the belief bubble many voters insist on living within, convinced that yes, you can get something for nothing.

What will be interesting to watch are the votes that occur when various motions and amendments emerge. Again, the mayor will have his way almost certainly 100% of the time. But some of the votes will be much closer than the final yea or nay on the budget. While Mayor Ford has been on the kind of winning streak at council one expects from someone newly minted into the office, there have been times when his team has had to whip enough councillors in place to secure 1 vote victories. Expect to see some of those in the lead up to Monday’s big vote.

Also expect to see the mayor relatively quiet and sanguine throughout the whole process. Aside from the odd moment when his former boisterous councillor self has turned red-faced and threatened to erupt, he’s been congenial, amiable and seemingly happy to oblige. His brother, Doug, will probably bubble over in exasperation once during the course of the 4 days at all the lefties who simply refuse to understand that government’s just lousy with waste.

Deputy Mayor Holyday will riff on that theme as well, more regularly than Councillor Ford. Taking his glasses off, he’ll chide council to be more serious about taking up the challenge of fiscal responsibility. He may not start a statement with an ‘In my day…’ but that’s just what it’ll feel like. Every time he opens his mouth.

Budget Chief Mike Del Grande will grumpily inform every councillor who thinks the cuts in the budget are too draconian that We. Just. Can’t. Afford. anything. And Everything. Is. On. The. Table. He will also remind everyone that he’s got a thankless, dirty job but someone’s got to do it.

Speak Nunziata won’t be able to mask her contempt for those she disagrees with and will rule them out of order even if they aren’t and brush aside the city clerk who tells her she’s not following protocol. Protocol and procedures are not the Speaker’s strong suits. How many she ignores, steamrolls and/or disregards is anybody’s guess but the over/under currently is 11.

Councillor Mammoliti will rise often and patronizingly tell dissenting councillors that he understands where they’re coming from (he doesn’t) and implore them to just trust him and his newest, bestest friend, the mayor. Councillor Thompson will talk and talk and talk, sounding as if he’s not totally in the mayor’s corner but will invariably vote with him every time. Fingers crossed that councillors Palacio and DiGiorgio aren’t inclined to try and match councillors Mammoliti and Thompson verbosity for verbosity as, well, actually, let them talk. We’ll need time for the occasional pee break. Councillor Milczyn will counter every criticism of the budget with examples of atrocities committed under the Miller regime.

Councillors Vaughan and Perks (ably assisted by newcomer Josh Matlow) will all bug Speaker Nunziata, Deputy Mayor Holyday, the budget chief, councillors Ford, Shiner and Milczyn to no end. Perks and Vaughan will be the ones bringing forth motions and amendments that will send Team Ford scrambling to beat back. If anyone is denied a point of order or not voted an extension to speak, it’ll be either Councillor Vaughan or Perks. Someone will inevitably call one of them a Left Wing Kook which will leave things wide open for councillors Carroll and Davis to seem more than reasonable in pointing out the unreasonableness of much of the budget and its proponents.

Oh yes, it’s going to be 4 days of fun and games, made all the more circus-like because of the inevitability of the ultimate outcome. A budget vote with a safety net. Ironic since it will be the first step toward a more sweeping attempt by the administration to dismantle the safety net the city has carefully stitched together over the last 7 years, beginning with an entire budget review process that will start up almost immediately upon passage of this budget. So enjoy the frivolity, folks, because for here on in it just might get loud.

prognosticatingly submitted by Cityslikr

Enemies Within

February 22, 2011

I must admit to becoming increasingly flummoxed.

I thought we were going to financial hell in a hand basket, spending out of control, the jagged rocks of economic ruin lurking, all pointy, to sink our ship of state. Families and businesses fleeing the oppressive crush of over-taxation in the 416 for the greener pastures of 905 and beyond. An anti-business, union-controlled, fetid backwater in need of tough loving, fiscal discipline and some good ol’ common sense revolutionizing.

But over the weekend, an article in the Globe and Mail detailed the influx of box store chains into the downtown core of Toronto. On Monday the Toronto Star suggests that there might be a lot less gravy oozing from the walls of City Hall than originally claimed by the Ford administration. This just a couple days after the Executive Committee heard that the city’s still got an AA rating. That’s one notch below the highest triple A rating but much more visually pleasing.

What gives?

I don’t have any strong, informed views of the economics of box stores. I do find most to be soulless entities that crush my will to live within minutes of entering one but I usually chalk that up to having been forced into a car to get to any of them. That tends to dampen any goodwill I have toward anything, let alone shopping. But the idea that these chains are looking for ways to make a go of it in the more urban, downtown areas of Toronto in spite of possible higher overhead suggests that there’s more to engendering a positive business environment than simply keeping costs down or providing ample parking.

And it flies in the face of all those on the side of our current mayor who speak only of a city teetering on the edge of a precipice and facing an oncoming financial apocalypse, brought on entirely by a spending problem. Excessive spending, you’ll note, on public sector services that make up the bulk of Mayor Ford’s increasingly chimerical Gravy Train. Public sector services that are made note of when Toronto yet again places 4th in the world of livable cities as ranked by the ever so radical liberal rag, The Economist and its Intelligence Unit. Among other factors, the EIU cites health care, culture, the environment, infrastructure and stability as methods of judging a city’s livability level.

Stability? Mayor Ford has proven to be more adept at crisis creation. So far his administration has used a surplus left over from the previous, supposedly profligate regime, to fill in budget holes made bigger by tax cuts and freezes, one of which was shrugged off on the mayoral campaign trail as being irresponsible. We’ve been assured this year’s budget will be the easy one. The mayor’s budget chief warns that come next year, “everything’s on the table.” Everything? Deeper cuts. Privatization of services. Selling of assets.

Are we experiencing the beginnings of our very own Wisconsin? Conservative ideologues gaining power on a wave of economic discontent in an anemic post-recessionary period, pointing the finger of blame solely at government mismanagement and union fat cattery; once in office, they torch the place with ill-advised tax cuts and freezes and create an actual crisis where everything’s on the table.

It’s a predictable formula which makes our falling for it on a regular basis all the more baffling. Those seeking elected office on an anti-government/pro-business platform will inevitably undermine government and enrich the private sector at its – that is, our – expense. There are precedents for how it gets played out. We either don’t mind or are supremely forgetful.

And we only have ourselves to blame.

mystifiedly submitted by Cityslikr