Our Money. Our Budget.

June 28, 2013

“…I might have some pool of funds somewhere that are hiding somewhere, I don’t know.

— Toronto Budget Chief Frank “Pockets” Di Giorgio, in response to the provincial announcement of a 3 year, $150 million phase out of pooling funds.

foundmoney

Well, since obviously just anybody can be the city’s budget chief overseeing a $10 billion or so annual operating budget, why not all of us?

A group calling itself Better Budget T.O. has come together, hosting an inaugural event last night at the Academy of the Impossible’s Campaign School. It is a nascent movement here that has taken root in other places like Calgary, New York City, South America with the intention of bringing about a more inclusive way of putting together the city’s budget. Participatory Budgeting. A grassroots approach that not only endeavours to de-mystify the budget process but to build political engagement at the community level.

While not perfect, the municipal level is a great place for the public to influence how tax dollars are spent. Federally, provincially, the budgets are delivered, largely sight unseen. Boom. Press lockdown. There you go. Locally, the process is much more public, coming together over a longer (albeit not long enough) process that begins in earnest in the fall and concludes at city council in mid-January.

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But as was pointed out last night, transparency does not automatically mean clarity. Sure, we can see but we’re not sure what we’re looking at. The budget can be intimidating. The numbers overwhelming. But people, trust me. If the likes of Councillor Frank Di Giorgio can be seriously considered capable of putting together Toronto’s budget, anyone can. And I mean anyone.

A Better Budget for a Better City, writes Lisa Marie Williams of the Wellesley Institute. As the mayor keeps telling us, it’s our money he’s fighting for. So let’s make sure it’s spent the way we want. Let’s truly make it our budget.

all-together-nowly submitted by Cityslikr


They’ve Got A Committee For That?

June 27, 2013

Early on at yesterday’s Community Development and Recreation Committee meeting, it dawned on me that I wasn’t really that interested in people. realitytvSure, in the abstract, I spend my time thinking about things like transit and budgeting in a (hopefully) people friendly manner but the nuts and bolts of their daily lives? That’s what reality TV’s for. To watch the mundane aspects of real life without actually having to experience it.

Apparently it is an indifference I share with Mayor Ford because the Community Development and Recreation Committee whose task it is to oversee “social cohesion, with a mandate to monitor, and make recommendations to strengthen services to communities and neighbourhoods” may be the most non-Fordian of any of the city’s standing committees. The makeup skews centre to left. Former chair, Councillor Jaye Robinson, was perhaps the most natural ally of the mayor’s and he turfed her because of her outspoken stance on his alleged crack use.

Social cohesion and strengthened services to communities and neighbourhoods is stuff the mayor is prepared to leave up to the lefties on council to sort out. sandboxOr, more to the point, stuff he can quash at the Budget or Executive Committees. From his perspective, it’s easy to see CDR as the sandbox he sends the usual suspects off to play in.

Which translates into a very amicable and constructive atmosphere in the committee room. With no vendetta seeking animosity brought to the table by any of the mayor’s remaining allies, the meeting represented the complete antithesis of the dysfunction normally on display at the higher profile meetings like council, budget, public works and infrastructure. Hell, the mayor’s own hand-picked Executive Committee has become more strained and combative than Community Development and Rec.

That’s not to say everything was roses.passthebuck

There’s clearly a shit storm brewing with the continued roll out of full-day kindergarten and the question of before and after school child care. It pits three entities – Queen’s Park, the school boards and the city – against one another with the latter holding the bag when the inevitable shortages appear. The big question is who’s going to provide child care for the newly minted kindergarteners before and after class. Licensed child care businesses were led to believe the schools would, so adjusted their staffing and facilities to reflect that. Many of the schools have not taken up the task. The province just shrugs. Community Development and Rec committee members scramble to figure out how to fill in the void.

Another agenda item, the Toronto Youth Equity Framework is an ongoing part and parcel of “…the development of a Toronto youth equity strategy”, undertaken after the 2008 Review of the Roots of Youth Violence report from Roy McMurty and Alvin Curling, and the provincial Ontario Youth Action Plan that came in response to a couple high profile shootings in Toronto last year. You know, the low hanging fruit our elected officials can easily strike off their To Do list. sweptundertherugInequality. Discrimination. Exclusion.

I will grant Mayor Ford this. He isn’t the first politician to place such matters on the back burner of their administration although few have been as open in their disinterest as this one. There’s not a whole lot of political capital to be gained dealing with issues like poverty and racism especially when you get elected vowing to rein in spending. The axe tends to fall easily on the disenfranchised if it saves the hard-working taxpayers a buck or two.

So the workings of the Community Development and Recreation committee feel like a slog. The type of business only the likes of Councillor Janet Davis could love. Seemingly intractable problems moving in imperceptible slow-motion. Troubles mount quickly. Solutions appear stingily.

There are no easy wins and the steps needed to set things on the right course invariably cost money. That’s a formula to strike fear in the hearts of any but the most intrepid of politicians. The weight of the status quo hangs heavy over the Community Development and Recreation committee.

Councillors taking on this work deserve the utmost respect from us. When all is said and done, they are the faces of the city at ground level, rollingrockdoing the grunt work while lacking the necessary control over the factors that influence what comes before them. It was Queen’s Park who made the decision to institute full-day kindergarten but the implications of it fall on the desk in front of the members of CDR committee.

Judging from the tone of Wednesday’s meeting, they do so with a certain resolve, grace and equanimity. It just so happened to be Councillor Anthony Perruzza’s first meeting as chair and, despite the fact I still question his decision to take the position that pushed aside the last female member of the mayor’s Executive Committee, I thought he did a good job. He was solicitous with all the deputants, accommodating with both visiting councillors and the members of the committee. There was no bombastic oratory. Disappointing to those of us who are a little partial to his bombastic oratory.

Once again, I was left with the feeling that the dysfunction ascribed to City Hall currently flares up only when the mayor or his brother or Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong gets involved. For the most part, at most committee levels work is getting done. Councillors do get along. The business of the city is proceeding apace.

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It just doesn’t make for an immediately compelling story.

applaudingly submitted by Cityslikr


Putting Ourselves Between A Rock And A Hard Place

June 25, 2013

On the other hand…

hmmmm

It was gently asked of me yesterday that if the characters in the current $150 million pooling-uploading saga now swirling around City Hall and Queen’s Park were different – like, say, a mayor I didn’t see as a raging incompetent or a provincial government I felt was more Mike Harris-y – would my reaction be the opposite of what it was. Essentially, a variation on the why is he so fucking incompetent theme. A fair question.

Yes indeed, the Liberal government is getting away with some dubious claims in this transaction, using Mayor Ford’s epic inability to get along with absolutely anyone and everyone he doesn’t see eye-to-eye with as cover. letmestopyourightthereAs John McGrath pointed out on Friday, over the course of the 3 year phase out of the $150 million pooling fund, the city will ultimately be short-changed just over $13 million after factoring in the uploading of services back to the province over the same period of time. (The chart is on page 5 of this letter sent to the mayor’s office by Finance Minister Charles Sousa.)

Of course, Mayor Ford muddies the waters with his immediate ballistic response, threatening to cut social programs to the tune of $50 million next year when, in fact, the pooling fund-upload exchange will net the city an additional $700,000. It’s hard to believe there can’t be some financial re-arranging at the city level to mitigate the need for any cuts. It’s also hard to believe the mayor would be willing to go into an election year with the mess of significant cuts to social programs on his hands in the hopes voters follow him in pinning the blame on the provincial government. No service cuts. Guaranteed. Remember?

This is all purely political jostling on everyone’s part. It’s just unfortunate, if not at all surprising, the Liberals decided to play along. pissingmatchA solid majority of Toronto residents know that we’ve elected a child-mayor who only operates through the lens of campaigning. The provincial government is supposed to be the adult in the room. Instead, they’ve started up their engines in a game of chicken.

In order to try and mask that, the finance minister threw into the pot relief from a loan made to the city by the province back when Mike Harris was premier and Mel Lastman mayor. A loan to cover the initial costs of amalgamation with the expectation of being paid back with all the efficiencies that would be found. Efficiencies weren’t found, so the loan has been ignored for most of its life.

So, the finance minister claims that’s about $230 million in savings for the city but it’s actually Ford level accounting. thanksfornothingIf the city hasn’t made a payment in a decade or and wasn’t expected to, it should hardly count as any sort of savings. Thanks for the gesture, Queen’s Park. As empty as it may be.

The politics of this goes beyond just the war with Ford. The Liberals want everyone to know that it’s not giving any municipality preferential treatment even if there are legitimate reasons it might. If the province is fully assuming the costs of the social programs Toronto bears a heavier burden providing than other cities in Ontario, fair enough. I’m yet to be convinced that’s actually the case.

But the Liberal government under Premier Kathleen Wynne, a Toronto MPP, is petrified of being seen as Toronto-centric by the rest of the province. So no special deals on a casino. No special funding treatment. itshisfaultAs it goes in Kenora, so it goes in Toronto.

It would be unfair to suggest that it’s simply back to business as usual since 1995. The Liberals have reclaimed much of the costs their Progressive Conservative predecessors downloaded onto municipalities in the Great Savagery of 1995-2003. (Certainly not all. For one, there remains the outstanding matter of the provincial contribution to the TTC’s annual operating budget they haven’t made good on.) Let’s give credit where credit is due.

It’s sheer big-balled audacity, though, to point to the city’s annual surpluses as proof we’re sitting pretty while Queen’s Park battles heroically with a debt load that’s kept us all afloat. Lest they need reminding, cities can’t run an operating deficit. They’re not allowed as provincially mandated. dirtyhands1Our surpluses come from conservative budgeting that leaves many of our services (some also provincially mandated but not necessarily provincially funded) and residents more than a little frayed around the edges. It’s at moments like this when it’s worth asking if the province is putting back as much into Toronto as it’s taking out. I’ve never had a satisfactory answer to that.

While it may be politically advantageous at this point to use our bumbling, stumbling mayor as a convenient punching bag, it would do well for the provincial government to remember that there are real life implications to their political calculations. Implications that will inevitably be borne by those least able to bear them. Mayor Ford won’t be among them.

Perhaps the bigger lesson to be learned from this is for the people of Toronto. Queen’s Park and the governments in power there, first and foremost will be looking out for themselves. We’re just part of their always fluid political equation, little more than polling numbers.responsibility

We need to look after ourselves and have been given some of the tools to do so. In order for that to happen, we have to stop electing politicians who refuse to step up and take on that responsibility. It makes us easy prey for those putting their own interests first.

responsibly submitted by Cityslikr


Double Down On Blue

June 24, 2013

If nothing else, this $150 million latest Mayor Rob Ford-Queen’s Park brouhaha should lay wide open the very essence of our mayor’s fundamentally terminal approach to governing. punchyourselfA dullard’s populism that contradicts itself with every policy utterance and eats its own tail without so much a burp of self-awareness. He’s mad as hell but probably only because of who’s making the proposed cuts and the colour of their team’s jackets.

Don’t get me wrong here. I don’t trust the province’s numbers one little bit and I’d like to see the work behind Royson James’ math or, at least, some context. It’s particularly galling to read the shiny remembrances of gold-standard fiscal management by the previous administration at City Hall from a guy who had few positive things to say about that matter in real time.

Even if the province is simply playing politics with this announcement, Mayor Ford has put himself in no position to fight back without looking like a massive hypocrite. potkettleThat may be of no consequence to him – he seems quite comfortable wearing that – but it does undercut his legitimacy and, by extension, the city’s.

You can’t claim the government you lead doesn’t have a revenue problem and then cry foul when some of that revenue is cut. Earlier this month the mayor was beating his chest about the $248 million surplus in 2012. So hey. You should be able to take a $50 million hit (the $150 rollback would be over a three year period) and accept a smaller surplus. Mayor Ford is on record hating those one time savings anyway.

You can’t go around cutting your own revenue stream (the VRT), threatening to reduce another (LTT) and keeping the main source impractically low (property taxes) and then stamp your feet and pop off when Queen’s Park does likewise. When the mayor came to power under the banner of getting the city’s financial house in order, he set about to cut spending. He demanded the same from the province. pleasesir1Get their fiscal house in order. Cut spending.

So they cut spending. To the city. Now he’s got a problem with that?

You can’t continually pick fights with your provincial overlords and not expect some pushback. Some pushback that is detrimental to the city you were elected to serve. Oh, it’s on, Mayor Ford declared, when he killed Transit City and demanded the province give him all the money to build his Sheppard subway or else he would unleash the electoral power of Ford Nation on them. They complied. The mayor reneged and got all partisan in the subsequent provincial election. There was no Ford Nation.

Like Junior Soprano told his nephew Tony, if he was going to come at him, he better come at him hard. Our mayor is all bluff, no bite to his bark. By now, everybody but the mayor and his brother realize that fact. juniorsopranoHis threatening gestures ring hollow.

You might actually feel for the guy if he was taking the fight to the province looking out for the best interests of Toronto. Increasingly however, it looks like anything but. Fuck, it isn’t even ideological with him. If it were, there might be some sense to it all, some straight line you could draw from intent to action.

More and more it just seems like nothing but a branding battle. The mayor and his brother are Conservative blue to the bone. Anything to do with Liberal red or NDP orange is automatically bad and must be fought. Both Fords, elected to represent the residents of Toronto, seem far more interested in changing the government at Queen’s Park than they do effectively running City Hall. bluemayorI think they’d happily sacrifice the best interests of the city if it meant the Tim Hudak Conservatives became the next government of Ontario.

In his unflagging support of local sports team, the Argos, the Leafs, the Jays, you might think he’s just doing his job as mayor acting the local booster. I think he just likes the colour blue. As both a sports fan and as the mayor of Toronto.

me-too-bluely submitted by Cityslikr


So That Happened

June 21, 2013

With the rental car out back in the garage, waiting to whisk me away for weekend (a detail pertinent only as proof of, see, weekendgetawayI too on occasion drive an automobile and am not just some anti-car zealot), let me leave you with this passing thought.

In a book I am currently reading, Transport For Suburbia: Beyond the Automobile Age by Paul Mees, the author summarizes a consultant’s report written for the city of Los Angeles:

the region required an integrated, multi-modal public transport system comprised of high-speed rapid transit trains running on segregated rights of way, fed and linked by urban and interurban trams, with buses serving sparsely settled and recently developed areas. A single organization would need to control these services to ensure integration and eliminate wasteful duplication, and substantial public funding would be required for the capital works.

Oh right. I forgot to mention this report was written in 1925.

transportforsuburbia

Public transit planning has been with us long before the car, folks. Private automobile use is, in fact, the interloper here. Designing cities and communities around the mobility of drivers is the real radical experiment in social engineering. It’s just that for anyone under the age of, say, 75, we don’t realize it because we’ve been living it. It’s our normal but not society’s.

I don’t begrudge urban planners from 50, 60 or 70 years ago their dreams of autopia, to use Mees’s word. We were still largely a rural, small town people with a deep suspicion of big cities (although I will look askance at some likely racist sentiment behind that. urbansuburbiaCities were where wave after wave of immigrants settled.) Cities offered economic opportunity but were not places someone would choose to live given their druthers.

Cars delivered a promise of personal mobility, easy and inexpensive access to a place in the country. With wide open spaces to expand and now a means for everyone to get there, the suburbs became a way of life. Cities were transformed, designed for the convenience of personal vehicle use.

But I think it safe to say that it’s been a spectacular failure, a victim of its own success in many ways. The lure of the suburban lifestyle has drawn more and more people to it. We have grown increasingly urbanized as a society. As that has happened, it’s become apparent such a lifestyle, dependent as it is on the automobile, is not sustainable. Not economically. Not environmentally. And, most importantly, not socially.

failedexperimentSo it’s time to turn the page.

What we shouldn’t lose sight of, however, is that we’re not starting a new chapter. We don’t have to chart entirely new territory. This isn’t a blank slate.

We simply have to revert to a previous way of doing things. With a few new wrinkles for sure but we’re not re-inventing the wheel here. Remember, cars and the lifestyle they introduced are the new kids on the block. Party crashers we initially were excited about having shown up but who turned out to be drunken bores. When we asked them to leave, they trashed the place on the way out.

Car dependence was the bold new theory that looked great on paper but eventually worked out poorly in practice. Shit happens, right? As we set out to undo and repair the damage, don’t forget that. Our attempts now to deal with the fallout, like fixing traffic snarls by giving right of way access to public transit or keeping cars off streets during certain hours, shouldn’t be viewed as way out there, never been tried before plots to destroy capitalism as we know it or whatever other conspiracies the knuckleheads will try and come up with.

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We’re simply regressing to the mean, baby. Reverting to the way things used to be before the crazy kids and their souped-up hot rods convinced us they knew better. Proponents of alternative methods of transportation, whether walking, biking or public transit, are the real conservatives in this discussion. They have nothing to be defensive about and need to start acting accordingly.

old schooly submitted by Cityslikr


The Calculus Of Crazy

June 20, 2013

So this morning TTC CEO Andy Byford lit the always short fuse of car-loving Ford Nation. uttermadnessIn an interview with Matt Galloway on Metro Morning, he floated the idea of closing King Street to car traffic during the morning rush hour. Reaction from the auto-huggers was swift and sadly predictable.

“Where are the cars supposed to go?” tweets radio talk show guy, Jerry Agar.

WHERE ARE THE CARS SUPPOSED TO GO?!

WAR ON THE CAR!!

Nothing Mr. Byford suggested was new or novel or particularly bold. In fact, King Street has been a problem for the city’s transportation department for over 20 years now. I wrote about this very thing in February. Back in the early-90s, city staff tried banning cars along the route during peak times in the day, using overhead signs and markings on the road.

upyoursGuess what happened?

“… this “passive” system of deterrents didn’t work,” according to a staff report, “motorists did, and continue to, ignore it.”

Motorists ignored the rules of the road. Just said, fuck it. I need to turn left here, I’m turning left here.

There’s no war on the car going on. It’s the exact opposite. This is all about the over-weening sense of entitlement and primacy in the minds of those using their private vehicles as their sole source of getting around the city.

I attended a seminar last night given by Jarrett Walker, author of the book and blog site, Human Transit. He talked about ‘symbolic transit’ and symbolic decisions made about transit based on incomplete information.

For at least two generations now, the Car has been presented as a symbol of freedom. That which will get you wherever you want to go whenever you want to go there. There are car advertisements attesting to it. carcommercialSleek machines blowing down the open roads, never another car in sight.

I remember that happening with me behind the wheel once. Driving in Montana. When was the last time you experienced that commercial sensation making your way through Toronto or the GTA?

The fact is, the primary source of congestion on our streets now is the over-abundance of private vehicles, and the position where they sit at the top of our transit policy decision making. Streetcars aren’t the problem. Not even the St. Clair disaster. Not bike lanes. Not scrambled pedestrian intersections.

Cars, and our continued catering to those who drive them.

Of course, you can say this until you’re blue in the face, trot out studies to back up the case but those fixated with their cars will simply tighten their grip on the wheel and demand the removal of anything they perceive that impedes their forward motion. redqueen1The Deputy Mayor’s response to the TTC CEO’s thinking? Replace the King streetcars with buses. How would that be better? Who the fuck knows other than they can get out of the way of cars when they pull to the curb to pick up and drop off passengers.

But a car driver’s sense of their right to the road is boundless.

Who else demands a space to stop their car right in front of the place they’re stopping? I live on a street that neither buses nor streetcars run down. I have to walk to where they are. And then, when I arrive where I’m going, I have to exit at the nearest stop to my destination and walk to it.

Why do drivers expect preferential treatment?

And why do people look around and see congestion on King Street, or Bathurst Street or Dufferin Street, Bloor Street and Finch Avenue, all roads with different modes of public transit, snarled in traffic, and come away saying, get rid of the streetcars/buses/build us a subway? When the one common element is cars and the excess of them on our roads?

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It’s car madness, frankly. A steadfast refusal to admit the obvious and be open to real solutions in alleviating the problem. Problem, what problem? I don’t have a problem.

The first step to dealing with it is to admit you have a problem.

Unfortunately, we still seem not to have hit bottom quite yet.

sanely submitted by Cityslikr


A Tale Of 2 Community Councils

June 19, 2013

The downtown versus suburbs pissing match flared up again this week, ignited by the usual suspects, councillors Doug Ford and Giorgio Mammoliti, pissingmatchover the redevelopment of a northern portion of St. Lawrence Market.

“When it comes to the downtown part of the city, it freaks me out,” Councillor Mammoliti spouted, “it freaks me out that everybody can find money to be able to do these things when the rest of us are told no.”

“We’re going out and we’re spending (a) disproportionate amount of money downtown all the time,” Councillor Ford mouthed. “Etobicoke North we get crumbs,” the Toronto Sun’s Don Peat quotes the councillor saying, “people out in Scarborough get crumbs.”

It’s a very easy political fight to pick. All appearances would back the councillors’ claims up. crumbsAttending the North York Community Council meeting yesterday, it was wrapped up before lunch. On its agenda were some 56 items, accompanied by about 10 deputations from the public.

This allowed for enough time to get back downtown to City Hall and take in the Toronto-East York Community Council meeting when it resumed after lunch. Its agenda included 128 items with over 20 deputations for one item alone. (For the record, the Scarborough Community Council meeting dealt with 37 items and the Etobicoke-York Community Council, which both councillors Ford and Mammoliti are part of, had 52 items before it.) If you’re counting along at home, the 3 suburban community councils had just 17 more items combined than their downtown counterpart.

Certainly the Toronto-East York Community Council represents significantly more of the city’s population than the other three, with just under 1/3 of the entire population of Toronto. And without question, it’s the area of town getting the lion’s share of the development, what with the business core within the boundaries while sitting on a good chunk of the waterfront. pieceofthepieThis is where a majority of the action’s at, baby.

But that somehow this translates into receiving a disproportionate piece of the total budget pie? The claim never really comes with any concrete proof or reliable sources. It’s cache comes purely through the repetitive chant not any actual facts.

We’ve written a few times about the study commissioned back in the day by Councillor Norm Kelly, Fair Share Scarborough. Ostensibly it set out to see if Scarborough was getting its fair share of city services under amalgamation. Turns out there was no solid proof Scarborough was either getting ripped off or making out like bandits in the situation. A wash, let’s call it.

Nothing since that study has surfaced to prove otherwise.

Yet that doesn’t stop the likes of Doug Ford or Giorgio Mammoliti (Councillor Frances Nunziata is also a avid proponent of the divisive tactic) from trying to make political hay out of it.

Oh, but what about all that Section 37 money the downtown gets and the suburbs see nothing of? The slush fund. The dirty bribe money. section37moneyWhy does it only go to the wards where the development is?

“Distribute the money equally to all the boroughs not just downtown all the time,” Councillor Ford demanded.

Fair’s fair, right? All for one and one for all, yeah? We’re all in this together.

Except for the development part of the equation.

Seems the likes of Councillor Ford is all for section 37 funds as long as the development that provides it goes elsewhere in the city.

Next time the councillor from Ward 2 Etobicoke whines about his share of section 37 funds ask him about Humbertown.

 “We’re all in consensus, we’re going to kill this thing.”

So spoke Councillor Ford at a public meeting about a proposed development in his neck of the woods.

It seems that you can suck and blow at the same time.crybabies

There are many residents of this city who can rightfully claim that they are being left out of the politics, the planning, the development of Toronto. Their claim is legitimate. But politicians like Doug Ford and Giorgio Mammoliti are simply piggybacking on that grievance, attempting to leverage it for political gain. They’re looking for others to do the heavy-lifting of governance and city-building while they just squawk away noisily in their little corners of the city.

submitted by Cityslikr