The unreliable narrator is a device used by authors to undercut the legitimacy of the usual authoritative voice of the teller of the tale. Is what we’re being told actually true? If not, why not? It adds a degree of mystery, leaving readers or an audience uncertain about the veracity of the story they’re being given.
Reading through yesterday’s city staff briefing note, 2007 — 2014 Budget Reductions and Other Budget Balancing Strategies, it struck me that for the past 4 years or so we’ve been following along with a story told to us by an unreliable narrator, many unreliable narrators, in fact. The conclusions drawn by the city manager and CFO draw a starkly different picture of the fiscal stewardship of this city than the one that’s been painted for us over the past 4 years. Everything we’ve been told to believe since 2010? Not so much. It’s a little more nuanced than all that.
Let’s go back to the outside workers’ strike in 2009 because I think that’s where much of this story started. At its conclusion, the general consensus was that the then mayor, David Miller, had caved in to his union brethren. Handed over the keys to the city vault, out of control spending, disrespecting the taxpayers, yaddie, yaddie, yaddie.
Our fiscal foundation was crumbling, Rob Ford would then claim, having taken control of the narrative during his successful mayoral run. We needed to tighten our collective belts. What this city had was a spending problem not a revenue problem.
Now, we know why he spun the tale this way without any regard to facts or the truth. It was politically advantageous for him to do so. But I also think he actually believed it. If we’ve learned nothing else from the past 4 years it should be that Rob Ford doesn’t understand how government works. He inherently hates government. He sees it as nothing but a burden, an imposition on our lives. Somehow his math works out to less of government=more for us.
According to William Riggan (summarised by Wikipedia for me), Rob Ford had a bit of all 5 of the unreliable narrator traits to him. The Picaro, or the braggart. The Madman, pretty self-explanatory. The Clown, see The Madmen. The Naif, a limited or immature point of view or perspective. The Liar, see The Clown.
Why so many of us took him seriously enough to elect him mayor is equally as apparent. Who doesn’t love a good fairy tale? Yes, the city faced problems and challenges, we were told, but none of them were our fault. Fixing them would be easy and we wouldn’t feel a thing. A happy ending all round!
Here’s what we know now, four years on.
Yes, the Miller administration taxed us at a higher rate than the Ford administration. It dinged us with other revenue streams like the Land Transfer and Vehicle Registration taxes. It collected more from us in user fees including bigger hikes in transit fares.
But the thing is, in terms of an overall budget, spending has increased under Rob Ford. During his time in office, city council has curbed the rate spending increased but not the total amount. The same can be said about property taxes. They may not have gone up at the same percent as they did under David Miller but we still, on average, are paying higher property taxes now than we were in 2010.
Part of the reason for that is that the Ford administration cut and froze other sources of revenues like the VRT. If you’re not cutting spending but are reducing revenue, how do you make up the difference? Cut services you’re providing. Have you taken a bus or subway over the last 4 years? You know what I’m talking about.
City council in Rob Ford’s first term as mayor has spent more than it did in the previous term and delivered less. That’s how it patched budgetary holes. That is his legacy.
The real kicker – no, wait. First, the penultimate kicker. According to this briefing note, David Miller, he who caved into the unions back in 2009, saved more money for the city in his 2nd term as mayor through collective bargaining agreements than Rob Ford has during his time in office. I know, right? How is that even possible? Weren’t we told Miller opened the vault and just started tossing around money? Isn’t taming the union demands an important cornerstone of Rob Ford’s re-election campaign? Now we’re hearing that Miller the Profligate saved the city more money from union deals than Rob Ford?
Which takes us back to the real kicker.
In terms of closing the operating budget gap, from the opening pressure to the final balance, the Miller administration found more “savings” in its last term than the Ford administration did, to the tune of some $432 million over four years. Now, here’s where this gets even trickier and murkier. Using a budget’s opening pressure as the benchmark isn’t exactly what you might call, reliable. Much of it is based on educated calculations and estimates. Both David Miller and Rob Ford used looming opening pressures as political scare tactics (although it is interesting to note the difference in motives. Miller threatened services in order to get revenue increases to pay for those services while Ford threatened higher tax increases in order to cut services to maintain lower taxes.)
Out of all this shaky narrative, however, a couple salient facts need to be noted.
The David Miller administration wasn’t the fiscal laggard popular political fiction made it out to be. It instituted a long term economic strategy that included a broader base of revenue and increased involvement by other levels government. A strategy that helped Rob Ford initially deliver his campaign guarantee of low taxes and no service cuts.
The Rob Ford administration wasn’t the sound fiscal steward it’s claimed to be. While rejecting one time funding sources like the previous year’s surplus and maintaining revenue streams at the rate of inflation, it relied heavily on a regular reduction of services to balance the operating budget. It’s sustainable only as long as residents are willing to put up with getting less and less from City Hall.
It’s that fact that’s made so much of the political story in Toronto so unreliable. Unreliably told by those seeking office on a platform that would be unpalatable to most voters, and believed by those not willing to accept the basic truth of the matter. If you want a great city, David Miller once said, you have to pay for it.
— truthfully submitted by Cityslikr