What Are We Willing To Pay For?

December 16, 2013

At this week’s 2013 final gathering of the tribe, one of the items on city council’s agenda will be boringmeetingthe rate supported budget for next year. This is separate from the operating and capital budgets the budget committee has been publicly wrangling with since late-November, covering water, waste and parking. As ‘rate supported’, technically, these items aren’t funded from the tax base but are maintained by users of the services. Pretty much pay as you go and pretty much by everybody living and/or working in this city.

I won’t get into the details because, well, they’re so bo-o-o-o-r-r-r-r-r-r-ing, except to say that this is the model some members of council would like to see spread through more of the city budget. Taxpayers only paying for those services and programs that they use. During the staff presentations at budget committee last week, certain user fees were recommended to be hiked as high as 6% (2.25% inflationary plus 3.75% additional). devilsinthedetailsOn Friday on Twitter, The Grid’s Edward Keenan pointed out that the ratio between property taxes and user fees that make up the city’s budget jumped from 2.5:1 in 2000 to 1.2:1 in 2014.

We all know the property tax base is not the sharpest tool to use in generating revenue for governments. Property taxes rarely reflect the reality of the current economic climate nor do they always represent accurately those with the best (and worst) ability to pay. It makes sense for a municipality to try to diversify its portfolio of revenue streams.

And, in some ways, the blunt force of something like a consumption tax which, I’d argue water and waste rates based on usage are – the more you use, the more you pay and vice versa – goes toward modifying behaviour. Who doesn’t want to reduce the amount of water we use or how many landfills we fill? In the long run, such measures will prove to be economically beneficial.

But…But… And here’s the tricky part. Should the onus for such an approach fall disproportionately on those most susceptible to changes in cost? waterChances are that if you live someplace with 4 bathrooms (3 of them full) and a extensive sprinkler system in the lawn, you’re going to be less sensitive to increases in water rates than somebody living with their family in 900 square feet and one bathroom. Conservation is simply an economic decision.

We’re also very selective at this point about which users pay more fully for the services and programs they want. You want to use a city run sports field? That’s going to cost you more this year. Drive on the roads? Hell no! We won’t pay!

Next month when council debates the 2014 operating budget we’ll hear much yelling about reducing the Land Transfer Tax. This, we will be told, dampens the market for home buying and selling, although little proof will be offered to back up that claim. nickelanddimeMoreover, the LTT is a burden on those desperately struggling to put together the last few thousand dollars in order to purchase their first home and to seniors, ready to sell their family home and downsize into smaller digs.

I’m not insensitive to those arguments but I’ll just say that it is a concern we should extend to other aspects of living in this city. An individual’s ability to pay for a service or program versus the collective good of that service or program. It’s always a delicate balancing act and one that seems to be trending toward a more pay as you go kind of city. Let’s have that discussion and make sure if that’s the direction we decide to go, it’s applied evenly and fairly so that everyone is paying properly for everything the city provides for them.

monetizingly submitted by Cityslikr

Rightward Ho!

December 15, 2013

As someone not a stranger to undercutting my own arguments with grand overstatement – overreactionRemember that doozy of mine when I criticized our mayor by stating that the guy must be on crack or something? – I’m not prepared to write off the entire premise of Matthew Hays’ Guardian article because he suggested Canada has ‘devolved into some rightwing hellhole’. I imagine the state of Mississippi to be the model of a righwing hellhole. We’ve crept closer to that fiery crevasse than I would’ve imagined a few years ago but we’ve still got a ways to go in my estimation.

Still, I believe Mr. Hays offers up a useful mirror to peer into especially those of us of a certain age who grew up basking in the beneficent warmth of the Pearson Peace Prize-Trudeau Just Society. We were peacekeepers not warriors. Reasonable stewards of the earth. Beloved by all nations. We proudly attached maple leafs on our backpacks as we roamed the planet, spreading the gospel of hockey and our tolerant non-judgement all over the world.goodolddays1

It was never all that, of course, but it’s hard to dispute that there’s been a drift away from what we believed were Canadian ideals of fairness, justice, compassion and collective cooperation. Hardly the ‘welfare state in the worst sense’, our current Prime Minister once claimed it was, we have though tilted a fair bit rightward from the days when our Tory blue glowed a little redder. It’s worth noting on this day when Nelson Mandella is laid to rest that it was our then Progressive Conservative prime minister who broke ranks with many of the rightwing luminaries of the time in his calling for an end to apartheid in South Africa.

Maybe, I don’t know, it’s just a case of youthful rebellion. Children, growing up to petulantly reject the beliefs of their parents, spreading their wings to cover new territory. It’s not so much that we disagree in principle with what we were taught. We just need our own space to evolve, grow.

So in electing the likes of Stephen Harper and Rob Ford we’re doing nothing more than acting out, establishing our own personalities distinct from our predecessors. It’s a phase. We’ll grow out of it.

If we have become, as Mr. Hays asserts, “…crude, swaggering, bungling, irrational and mendacious”, who else would those adjectives describe? ignoramusAmericans. Yeah, sure. Remind you of anybody else? Teenagers! Exactly. Self-indulgent know-it-alls prone to exuberant mood swings of wild proportions. We’re still developing, trying out different personas to see which one fits us best.

As any good parent or guardian should be, I think Mr. Hays is rightly concerned at some of our more excessive outbursts of anti-social behaviour. We have embraced a love of irrationality, eliminating from our diet anything that might challenge our firmly held beliefs. The long form census? TMI. We’ve rejected the notion of consensus-building in favour combativeness. It’s now a black-and-white world out there, populated by potential enemies not allies. Israel, good. Iran, evil. The country’s maintained a teenager’s love of a messy bedroom, however, comfortably promoting a dirty agenda of fossil fuel exploitation and ignoring pleas to try and clean up, just a little, like we promised to back in the day.

These are worrisome inclinations on our part if a loss of what some of us believe to be positive Canadian ideals matters at all. crudeandswaggeringWhile Matthew Hays might be a little over the top in his reaction to our current pattern of bad manners, there’s nothing wrong in sitting us down and trying to get some sort of explanation about why it is we’re doing what we’re doing. The warning signs are all there.

I mean, if Rob Ford and Conrad Black are the type of people others think about when they think about Canadians, there can be little question that this place has become unrecognizable to many of us.

sadly submitted by Cityslikr

Evading A Solution

December 13, 2013

It should be easy. At least, it should be easier. There is a problem. The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area has become bogged down in congestion. easyAs it stands now, the region’s public transit network is not up to the task of helping alleviate the situation.

So… ?

Build more transit. Pretty straightforward. It won’t be cheap, in the short term. In the long run, however, the savings will manifest themselves with a general increase in productivity that comes from increased mobility.

Besides, investing in major infrastructure isn’t exclusively about saving money. It’s about paying it forward. Investing in the future, in your children’s future, your grandchildren’s future. Playing your part in posterity like previous generation did with the roads you now use, the subway tunnels that get many of us around from point A to point B.

The details will always be prickly. The wheres and the hows will inevitably be politically loaded. (At times like these, it’s good to go back and re-read Jamie Bradburn’s great Historicist piece in Torontoist, Opposing the Subway.) Paying for shit we need is never a slam dunk case to make.

But it gets done because common sense and fair-mindedness prevail. Nobody loves paying taxes. giveandtakeThey’re just grudging necessities if we don’t all want to live in hovels in the hills.

Unfortunately, we have been living in an era where common sense and fair-mindedness are in short supply. This is how we’ve arrived at the state we’re in. Everybody hates paying taxes. They’re no longer grudging necessities but rather, egregious burdens on our lifestyles. All taxes are evil, as one of our local representatives has informed us.

In the face of such ill-will, our politicians have grown cowardly. With yesterday’s arrival of the funding report from the provincially appointed Transit Investment Strategy Advisory Panel – appointed by the province to undercut put distance between counter-balance the revenue generation report from another provincial government body, Metrolinx – the general consensus is, no political party is going to push ahead into a very likely election year with a platform of tax increases. Electoral suicide!

While it’s easy to blame them for such displays of cravenness, this is really nobody’s fault but our own. For a generation now we’ve swallowed the notion of low taxes and small governments as a path to prosperity. taxesareevilNot coincidentally, the very same generation where we’ve invested comparatively little in the public sphere. We sit behind the wheel of our cars, stuck in traffic, and wonder why. We wait half an hour for a bus before squeezing onto the crammed vehicle when it finally arrives, and wonder why. Bridges and overpasses crumble, and we wonder why.

This is the urban definition of the tragedy of the commons. We want and need something of a public service – i.e. transit – but think somebody else should pay for it. Gone is any sense of the greater good. Don’t look at me, jack. I already gave at the office.

There is little doubt that the ruling Liberals at Queen’s Park have for 7 years now, since the inception of Metrolinx, been doing their damndest to avoid the issue of funding public transit expansion in the GTHA. It was very much the very last piece of the puzzle they sought. When it came time to finally have the discussion, they desperately searched for partners to participate in what would definitely be tough talk.

And everybody blinked, looked the other way, made like it wasn’t their problem to help solve.

Toronto city council demurred to put in their two cents, choosing instead to draw up a list of we’d prefer nots.passthebuck

The provincial NDP said the revenue should be generated solely from the corporate sector. Details to follow.

The PCs, now the fossilized remnants of the political movement that kick started the divestment in the public good, assure us we can totally pay for the transit we want by tightening our belts and dipping into the pools of unnecessary current expenditures to build capital infrastructure. Translation? Since Bill Davis, we are the party of could give a fuck about public transit.

There can be little doubt that the parties and their pollsters have delved deep into this issue and concluded beyond the shadow of a doubt that taxing (even dedicated taxing) and spending (even on something we should be spending on) remains a losing campaign platform. Nobody’s convinced Transit Champions will put their party over the top.

Before we tsk tsk our politicians for their unwillingness to nobly go down to defeat fighting for a good cause, maybe we should try and figure out how we can contribute to making it more of a winning atmosphere for pro-transit building proponents. rollingrockEfforts have started with organizations like the CivicAction Alliance, Toronto Board of Trade and the city’s Feeling Congested. But 30 years of conventional wisdom that’s told us governments are the problem isn’t effortlessly overturned. It’s difficult convincing people that their long held, self-centred, narrow focus is working at cross-purposes to their best interests.

It will seem as if we’re beating our heads against a brick wall because we, in fact, are. Eventually though, even the hardest stone breaks. You just have to keep pounding away at it.

loudly submitted by Cityslikr

Death By Carcentricity

December 12, 2013

There’s a building at the top of the street. It’s a nice building, mostly office, I think. I’ve never been inside. thumbsup2My guess is, it’s a converted warehouse or maybe light industrial something something.

It gives off a good vibe as a place I’d be happy going to and working in everyday. Easy to get to too. A couple streetcar route stops within a two minute walk, another maybe four minutes. There’s a subway stop about fifteen minutes by foot in one direction and a second, I don’t know, twenty minutes the other way?

A downtown elitist’s dream location.

Earlier this fall, the tiny front piece of land underwent what I assumed to be some landscaping work. The yard was dug up, a pile of bricky flagstone material brought in. Gussying up the curb appeal, I imagined.

Well, wouldn’t you know it. Instead what the place got was a parking pad. A parking pad where a Range Rover now sits, no less. Pushed aside, now unusable in its current position is a 6 bike parking stand that used to be where the car’s now parked. uponblocksMaybe there’s another spot planned for it but it certainly isn’t going to be sharing the space with an SUV.

I don’t know why this bugs me as much as it does – Oh! Did I tell you? There are also two pay parking lots, one outside and the other underground, just steps from the building? No wait. I do know why it bugs me.

Who the fuck would do this, aside from some jag off Range Rover driver. Oh yeah. I forgot. There’s another street level parking lot a minute’s walk behind the building.

But no. Somebody’s got to have parking right in front of the building. Just hillybillying up the streetscape. Why? Because car. If you own one, drive one, it is an inalienable right to park it as close to where you’re going as possible. Otherwise, you might as well be taking public transit.

It all just comes on the heels of the news that the city’s at a 10 year high for pedestrian fatalities, currently sitting at 38, I think it still is. deathrace2000(42 if you throw in the 4 dead cyclists.) And according to Christopher Hume, 70% of the pedestrians were in the right when they were run over and killed.

The first impulse always, of course, is to blame the weather, the change of seasons, not enough brightly coloured apparel. As our mayor once said back in his councillor days when talking about cyclists being killed, at the end of day, well, swimming with sharks, yaddie, yaddie, yaddie. The roads were meant for cars.

This overweening sense of entitlement continues, I’d hazard a guess, at least in part because of this administration’s victimization of car drivers and its embrace of the fanciful notion of some War on the Car. Yeah! We’re tired of being told we have to share the roads! You heard the mayor. As a matter of fact, we do own the road.

A walk along College Street yesterday, at 3 intersections, I’m finding myself either having to stop or speed up my pace because cars turning right or left have just pushed aggressively into my space at a perfectly legal crossing. asamatteroffactMove it! Move it! Move it! I’ve got places to go!

“The lights are just not adjusted for seniors,” says 92 year old Howard Cable. “They’re adjusted for traffic.”

Sorry, Mr. Cable. Our roads (and front yards), our entire transportation system is adjusted for vehicular traffic. Until we change that priority, we all just have to accept the risks of venturing outside if you’re not behind the wheel of a car. Sometimes you’ll make it safely across the street. Sometimes you won’t.

But remember, even the hardest of hearts will bleed for you if you don’t.

mournfully submitted by Cityslikr

There’s Always A But

December 11, 2013

“I love the trees but…”ilovetrees

Councillor Doug Ford statement started yesterday at day one of the budget committee’s 2014 program review. It echoed similar sentiments that Councillor Vincent Crisanti made earlier in the meeting when he asked city staff when all the tree planting was going to end.

I love the trees but… I love nutritional programs for the kids but… I love extended library hours but…

It’s what follows the but (and my inner 10 year-old boy snickers) that’s important here. I love [fill in your program or service of preference here] but I don’t want to pay for it. Having stuff in the city is all fine and dandy but, please, stop reaching into my pocket where I keep my hard-earned dollars.

This, I think, is what’s referred to as the tragedy of the commons. The demand and use of public services and programs minus a willingness to pay for them. Or, the belief that, in fact, you more than pay your fair share. You want something else? It’s on your dime.

Which explains why, while the budget committee members are relatively comfortable (short a few notable exceptions) with a below the rate of inflation increase in property tax, minemineminethey’re totally cool about user fee increases far exceeding it. A whopping 6% (inflation plus 3.75%) in fact, on the various user fees discussed yesterday. We’re becoming a pay as you go city, folks. That’s respect for the tax not fee payers.

And, you know, if that’s your particular bent, so be it. I’d just say let’s be fair and apply that reasoning across the board. So we can bring back that vehicle registrations tax fee, right? Nickel and diming. Nickel and diming.

As it stands, the proposed budget is pretty much status quo given the last 3 years. Very few enhanced or new services and continued attrition and reductions around the horn. Certainly no noticeable overall improvements and the corrosion continues at an almost imperceptible pace.

Still that’s not enough for some on city council. The mayor and his brother have been very adamant about only wanting a 1.75% property tax increase as opposed to staff’s 2.5%. Seemingly out of the blue, budget committee member Councillor Ron Moeser wanted staff to go back and give him the numbers for a 2% property tax increase. texaschainsawmassacreTo his credit, Budget Chief Frank Di Giorgio gently guided his colleague away from that line of questioning by pointing out, that staff had worked very, very hard for many, many months on this particular budget. The time for that kind of drastic ask had passed.

This was the same budget chief, however, who a little while later took a break from the meeting to meet with the mayor in front of the cameras to announce he’d be introducing a motion later on to reduce the Land Transfer Tax by 5% this year. That’s something like $17 million in lost revenue – poof! – just like that. Sorry about that hard working staff. Maybe we need to rethink that $14 million in new and enhanced services.

Because, technically speaking, cutting eliminating not introducing new or enhanced services is not a cut which this administration guaranteed it would not do. candyfromababyWe all love the new and enhanced services but…

For a group of people who spent an inordinate amount of time trying to ferret out the profligacy of providing breakfast and nutritional programs to children who may not actually need it, it’s obvious the only thing a majority of this particular budget committee really love is paying as little money as possible into the pot that we use to build a stronger, more vibrant, equitable and healthy city. The public good is for suckers. You want to make things better? Don’t look at me. I’ll just come along for the ride.

selfishly submitted by Cityslikr

Under The Microscope

December 10, 2013

Today the city begins the next stage of the 2014 budget with 4 days of program and service reviews. microscopeBasically a line by line breakdown of what and how City Hall is spending our money. Our hard-earned tax dollars.

The mayor, in his official capacity as visiting councillor, and his brother, the vice-chair of the budget committee, should both be present if for no other reason than to fully explain how they plan to cut the proposed staff budget in order to deliver on their 1.75% property tax increase (including a .5% for their beloved Scarborough subway). Exactly where is all this gravy that’s been leaking back onto the scene since council stripped the mayor of his power to find efficiencies and respect the taxpayers? Show us your work, gentlemen.

The chances of that happening, of course, are remote. Instead, any appearances the Fords may make will be intermittent at best with periods of heavy grandstanding. $18 million! robbingpeterSurely in a budget of nearly $10 billion we can find .0018 in efficiencies!

No doubt we could but the question this time around should be, should we, and if we do, how be we call them what they really are, cuts.

That’s the reality of even a 2.5% property tax increase with that half percent dedicated to the subway. Another budget below the rate of inflation, so there’s really no new money over all. Just a whole lot of robbing from Peter to pay Paul. For three years now, we’ve been running, grinding really, to a standstill. As this week will show, there really is no more meat to pick from the bones without threatening the vital organs.

Last week, deputant after deputant talked about the inadequacy of the city’s child care and nutritional programs. Our social housing portfolio has shown few signs of improvement. And transit. Well, transit.

It should be clear to anyone that we are not funding our city properly. We cannot, as some have claimed, cut back our way to prosperity. The rollback and freezing of revenues has resulted in reductions of services and programs the city provides. miserly(Ed Keenan shows just a few of the holes Mayor Ford has shot through his laughable 2010 campaign guarantee of no service cuts.)

And hey. If that’s the city you want to live in, where it’s pretty much everybody pay as they go with everything? Have it. Come clean and be up front about it.

I do not want to pay for that.

That should be a campaign platform, frankly.

I’m Not Paying For That.

Actually, that was pretty much what we heard in 2010. I’m not paying for retirement parties, bunny suits, councillor snacks or having plants watered. All stuff that didn’t amount to jack shit except for bad optics. Getting rid of it made no dent in anyone’s tax bills but it sure felt good. We showed those fat cats.

Let’s stop pretending it did anything other than that, however.

badmath1We have stalled in our ability to meet the city’s growing needs, both in terms of population and keeping pace with operational costs. Simply put, there are more of us and the cost of providing the services and programs we want has increased. We are not improving the quality of life for the average resident in Toronto. While there are always tough choices that need to be made, proper city building isn’t a zero sum game.

That should be the theme of this week’s budget program review. How we’re making do with less and somehow expecting better. The numbers simply don’t add up. You can’t have what you’re not willing to pay for. The question going forward is what is you’re willing to pay for?

profligately submitted by Cityslikr

Shouldn’t You Be Dead If You’re Taxed To Death?

December 9, 2013

With the Toronto Star’s Tess Kalinowski reporting over the weekend that the Anne Golden-led seriousdiscussionTransit Investment Strategy Advisory Panel will be recommending some sort of corporate tax as part of an overall funding plan to start building transit, I say, good. Can we now start seriously discussing our transit needs and how to pay from them? Can we? Huh? Please?

One of the sticking points so far, at least for some progressive voices on the left side of political spectrum, was the very conspicuous absence of ‘A Corporate Tax’ option in the funding columns of either the city’s Feeling Congested and Metrolinx’s discussions earlier this year on revenue streams. This was a non-starter for many who legitimately wondered why individuals alone were being asked to shoulder the cost of new transit projects that would also serve to help the needs of the business community. An oversight, let’s call it, made even more fishy since one of the biggest cheerleaders for a massive regional investment in transit infrastructure was the Toronto Board of Trade.

Hey everybody (but our members)! We’re in this together (except for our members). Dig into your pockets and pay for the transit we so desperately need!*cavedwelling

But now it’s there on the table, and for anyone using its previous lack of presence as an excuse not to talk or even so much as consider a discussion about taxation as a means to fund transit expansion, well, time to step out into the open. Your cover’s been blown. I commend you for putting corporate taxation back into the mix but it won’t pay for everything. Let’s start talking turkey.

I won’t get into the nitty-gritty yet as the panel’s recommendations don’t go public until Thursday but let’s just say that my hope is that this can kick start a wider discussion beyond just transit needs to reclaiming the idea of taxation from its current status as some filthy word spat out in disgust.

At last week’s budget committee deputations, retired teacher Don Quinlan referred to Toronto as ‘a rich city that doesn’t act like it.’ taxesareevilThat’s borne out by the fact residents of this city, on average, pay below the GTA average in property taxes. When given the opportunity to relieve pressure off the property tax base with other revenue streams, i.e. the Vehicle Registration Tax, we couldn’t elect a city council fast enough to repeal it. The Land Transfer Tax remains under constant threat.

For a generation now (at least), we’ve been trying to run a city on the cheap and then find ourselves surprised at the lack of good state of repair in almost every aspect of our infrastructure. Crumbling roads. Decrepit social housing. Bursting watermains. Substandard public transit. How did this happen, we ask ourselves, and immediately begin looking around for the easiest answers that won’t cost us anything. Lazy unions. Profligate spending. Inefficient bureaucracies.

To be fair, municipalities have been largely abandoned on many of these files by senior levels of government that operate, not at all coincidentally, on a similar Taxes Are Bad approach. Shit rolls downhill, leaving governments with the least amount of financial flexibility to deal with the ugly results. This has lead to a nasty zero sum race to the bottom with city councils facing tough either/or choices between vital services and programs. Public housing or public transit? Child care or after school programs?

The grim situation, however, only gets exacerbated when we mirror such anti-tax sentiment. freeClearly, many self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives believed our tax intolerance was not such that we’d mind an annual half percent property tax hike to pay for a Scarborough subway extension. So let’s keep that conversation going. What else is on our wish/to do list?

Enough already with the burden of taxation. At this point, we’re getting exactly what it is we’re willing to pay for. We either accept that and live with it without complaining or we start putting our money where our collective mouth is. Anything less than that is a shirking of our responsibility and just plain flat out freeloading.

— seriously submitted by Cityslikr


*excluding Board of Trade members