Toronto’s Taxing Problem, Part Infinity

May 27, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

That said…

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

NYCTaxes2009

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

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

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

2016TOBudgetFinal

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

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

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

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

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

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

repeatedly submitted by Cityslikr


Transit Zeros (10 Of Them, In Fact)

March 26, 2016

One of the things I can’t get my head around while winterly situated here in Los Angeles, on the city’s westside is, despite the area’s affluence, your nearby Beverly Hills, your Bel Airs, Brentwoods, Santa Monicas, waitingforthebusthe whole Westside scene, I’m living in a relative rapid transit desert. Lots of bus service, for sure, but the nearest LRT stop is the better part of a half-hour bus ride away, and the subway nearly an hour. It takes a long time to use public transit to get to almost anywhere else in the city from here.

This is pretty much the complete opposite from my regular place of residence in downtown-ish Toronto. While not as entirely upscale as this area in Los Angeles, it’s doing alright, thank you very much, and it is awash in access to public transit. Buses, streetcars, subways, you name it. You can get everywhere but to some of the farthest reaches of the city in a not entirely unacceptable period of time.

Ease of transit access with plenty of mobility options is a fairly standard characteristic of desirability in neighbourhoods and cities these days except when it’s not. waitingforthebus1Like on the westside of Los Angeles which has had history of fighting any invasion of rapid transit, from subways to bus lanes. But these places are more enclaves than neighbourhoods, existing outside or above the notion of city rather than as part of it.

Despite such resistance, however, rapid transit is continuing its slow march to the Pacific. In May, the Expo LRT line will open up an extension westward into Santa Monica. There are plans to continue burrowing the Purple Line subway under Wilshire Boulevard in order to eventually connect the woefully underserved UCLA Westwood campus and Ronald Reagan hospital complex. If, that is, the latest ballot initiative, a successor and extension of the 2008 Measure R, gets the thumbs-up from 2/3s of voters when it goes before them in November, to bump the L.A. County sales tax another half-a-cent which would raise $120 billion over the next 40 years, all dedicated to building transportation projects. waitingforthebus3Lots and lots of transportation projects.

The passage of this measure, finalized for consideration this June, would usher in yet another frenzy of transit building in Los Angeles, a city already something of a frenzied madhouse of transit building for a couple decades now. More than 3 dozen mass transit and highway improvements over the next 40 years, according to the LA Times’ Laura J. Nelson. Pretty much 40-in-40 if you can get your head around that degree of expansion.

“What we’ve been saying is, everyone is going to get something, and no one is going to get everything,” a Metro Transportation Agency representative said.

Fair enough, on the face of it. $120 billion is a lot of money, $3 billion a year over 40 years, but it is still a limited resource. Not everyone will be completely satisfied. Just how unhappy some are, however, will determine if this proposed measure passes muster in November.

Early indications are not particularly encouraging. waitingforthebus4For anyone familiar with the Toronto Scarborough subway dogfight, the downtown-suburban divide that’s emerged over what would get funded and when throughout the some 88 municipalities within L.A. County with the new money is a very familiar one. “The system is certainly stacked against (small) cities,” said [James] Ledford, the mayor of Palmdale [a city of about 160,000 residents, about 100 kilometres northeast of Los Angles]. … “The downtown interests are certainly being taken care of.”

Routine territorial resentment aside, there is some irony in that fact that the westside of the city which has long resisted subway expansion (albeit, a fight lead almost exclusively by the municipality of Beverly Hills) could get not one but two subway lines, projects that are sitting atop the proposed list. While the argument in favour of them is persuasive, a denser population area with job hubs and a natural transit locus at UCLA and nearby hospitals, should the rest of the county, waitingforthebus5step aside and wait their turn because the transit need here is, at least in part, self-inflicted?

It’s not like some of the westside cities are being particularly gracious about the arrival of rapid transit either. With the coming of the Expo Line LRT to Santa Monica in May, there’s a “slow-growth” group, Residocracy, attempting to raise funds and signatures for their own ballot initiative, Land Use Voter Empowerment (LUVE) that would put the development process firmly into residents’ NIMBY hands. Thanks for the rapid transit, L.A. Make sure your asses are on that last train out of here when you leave.

Transit planning is so political. That’s not a novel observation, not here in Los Angeles certainly. When they began the big transit build in earnest with the first subway back in the 90s, the Bus Riders Union formed and eventually won a landmark civil rights case against the transit agency for using funds to construct shiny, high-end projects at the expense of much needed bus service throughout the rest of the city, waitingforthebus6establishing the idea of transit equity, transit justice. Transit planning is so political, with a dash of class conflict thrown in.

Metro’s approach to contend with that reality this time around seems to be to overwhelm everyone with the sheer scale and number of projects that it would seem impossible for anyone to ask: What’s in it for me? The question the initiative’s proponents may have to answer, though, is: What’s in it for me before I die at a ripe old age? A 40 year horizon is pretty hard to see, to grasp, to pitch to your constituents. 2056?! That’s like the title of some sci-fi B-movie.

If this ambitious plan is to proceed, starting with winning enough votes in November, project priority may have to be reworked, based not on sound planning principles but political necessity, not to mention fairness and actual need. waitingforthebus7Where is the biggest captive transit ridership in the county? Probably not on the westside of Los Angeles.

In an ideal world…but that’s not where we live, is it. Transit planning isn’t ultimately about best practices. It, like almost every other aspect of politics, is rife with compromise. Getting things done right gets truncated to simply getting things done. You accept that and hope the difference between one word doesn’t translate into having got things wrong.

by-the-numbersly submitted by Cityslikr


Stumbling Toward Progress

January 22, 2016

Wow!

And what a week it was.whirlwind

Under the steady, competent and business-like stewardship of John Tory, this kind of wild ride at City Hall was supposed to be a thing of the past. Granted, not your garden variety, crack-fueled, more-than-enough-to-eat-at-home sort of melodrama we’ve previously witnessed. Purely political, up and down the daily calendar. But still.

It all began with a fairly standard bit of annual budgeting that’s happened for the past few years. Ix-nay he-tay alk-tay bout-ay ew-na evenue-ray. Pilfer reserve funds. Continue to squeeze a little harder on the stone in the hopes of getting blood this time around. Circle three times, click you heels twice. Declare the budget balanced in the fairest, most reasonable, prudent manner possible.

Then it started to rain staff reports and the going got crazy.

SmartTrack. Redrawn options for the Gardiner East hybrid. The Scarborough subway extension. New numbers and projections. countNew configurations. New realities. New respect for expert staff advice, depending on the project, of course. Proposed compromises that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars more than the original plans. Fewer subways. More LRTs. More developable waterfront land. Tighter turn radii.

Somewhere in the midst of all that doubling and tripling back mayhem, the man who should be chief of police leveled a broadside against his organization, demanding fundamental reform of the way it goes about its policing business. He then went silent or was silenced. The head of the Police Services Association responded with a public pout. The former reform-minded chair of the Police Services Board filed a complaint against the actual chief of police and the Police Services Board for not clarifying statements the police chief made during a year end interview questioning the accuracy of statements the former TPSB chair made about implementation of proposed reforms. joustingWe then learned the police were deploying some 50 combat ready assault rifles for front line officers as tools of de-escalation and in no way was militarizing policing in the city.

Mayor Tory deemed it all to be reasonable. Nothing to be alarmed at. As you were.

You could look at all this and conclude that it was simply the result of an industrious administration dealing with the inevitable array of issues that come from governing a growing and busy metropolis. Shit happens, am I right? Roll up your sleeves and get down into the goo. This city isn’t going to run itself.

But it doesn’t feel like that at all to me. At week’s end, it kind of feels like a reckoning. Bills have come due and need to be paid.

The mayor’s refusal to have a serious discussion about proper revenue streams, holding tight onto his campaign promise of keeping property tax rate hikes to at or below the rate of inflation, continues to hamstring the city for yet another year in dealing with a wall of serious fiscal matters, both on the capital and operating sides of the ledger. madscrambleIt’s even more ridiculous in light of how he’s backtracked on other hare-brained campaign promises, mostly revolving around public transit. He’s insisting on putting off a tax and spend conversation that will only get more difficult the closer we get to another election.

On the policing front, the mayor took his spot on the board rather than designate a council colleague in his place. So he was right there, hands on, to change the culture both on the board and in the services itself. A shot at serious reform, which he keeps talking about, within reach. A new, forward thinking chief waiting in the wings, reports and recommendations for implementation of change on the table in front of him.

But he blinked, retreated, embraced the status quo. More business as usual.

Where there is some brightness, some hope for more positive outcomes is on transit, a file the mayor, and as a candidate before that, made even more problematic and difficult to negotiate, layering on additional fanciful talk and plans in his bid for the job. headlesschickenBut he’s backtracked on SmartTrack. He’s rethought his once adamant support of the Scarborough subway extension. Having joined the crowd in politicizing transit planning, he’s now attempted to hand it back, tattered and somewhat worse for wear, to those who actually know a thing or two about transit planning.

The retreat comes with some potentially good results. The city could end up with an Eglinton Crosstown running from Pearson airport right through to the Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto. We might build fewer subways in Scarborough and more LRTs. So much new transit could be in the offing that we as a city will have no choice to not only talk about new revenue sources but to actually implement some in order to help pay for and operate it.

This comes, unsurprisingly, with a whole boatload of caveats. The new SmartTrack mock up is still so dependent on unknown variables like capacity and fare pricing as to remain highly theoretical, and yet, is something of a linchpin for the new proposed Scarborough subway alignment to work properly. chaseyourowntailIs $2 billion (or more) for one subway station too steep a price to pay to try and ensure a non-fractious majority of city council buy in? All the delays and false starts have pushed timelines further and further down the road, past upcoming elections cycles, leaving most of today’s proposed projects susceptible to future political interference, still just lines on a map.

Unlike the budget process and the policing news, however, I don’t see this week’s transit resets as steps back or no steps taken at all. At least in the light of recent transit upheavals in Toronto, what’s occurred over the past few days is something akin to progress. If not forward momentum, let’s call it forward motion.

It shouldn’t have to be this fucking hard, and I will not absolve Mayor Tory of any blame for contributing to the ongoing difficulty. fingerscrossed1If he had’ve met the parochial chest-beating of the Ford’s head on, and not derided and sneered at his opponents who did so, none of this would’ve been necessary. We wouldn’t have lost so much time and money while he and his team pretended SmartTrack was actually a thing, that the Scarborough subway had any legitimacy whatsoever.

But, there it is, and here we are.

Try as I might to wrap this up on an optimistic note, I can’t bring myself to do it unless you consider It’s Not All Bad News upbeat. In the flurry that was this week, there may be some cause to be hopeful. Maybe. When it could be worse is not good enough, it will have to do.

Open ended. That’s all I’ve got.

unfinishedly submitted by Cityslikr


Physics Lesson

January 19, 2016

Think budgeting in this city has evolved under John Tory, out and up from the morass of political sloganeering and accounting sorcery of the Ford administration? clownsinavolkswagenThink again, mes amis. Here’s a pre-masticated chunk for you to chew on.

In the rate supported solid waste budget already approved in December by city council, there was a savings of a little over $2 million with the elimination of the city rebate for those XL garbage bins some households have. You know, the ones the size of a fucking Volkswagen. A family of 7 clowns could comfortably live inside one. City staff thought maybe we shouldn’t be subsidizing people to throw away a lot of garbage that costs all of us to haul away and store in landfills especially since it seems that those with XL garbage cans recycle and green bin their organics less than others.

Council agreed. But now, with a submission to committee yesterday, the budget chair, Councillor Gary Crawford (presumably with Mayor Tory’s blessing) headscratcherwants that $2.23 million XL garbage bin rebate “reinstated”. This, while they’re raiding reserve funds, demanding $5 million more from the TTC and not funding about 60% of the promises and pledges council and the mayor have made. The budget chair wants to remove $2.23 million from the proposed operating budget back to rebate XL garbage bin users. (h/t to Matt Elliott for explaining the nuanced dance of rate and tax supported budgets.)

Maybe it’s simply being used as a bargaining chip, to be given up during the horse-trading that’s going to only intensify between now and mid-February when city council finalizes this budget. Still. It seems impossibly, I don’t know, short-sighted and… dumb. There’s not a word in my arsenal I can summon to describe it.

I get that XL garbage bins are used in multiunit residences, like rooming houses for example. Surely though, we have the technology to determine between those and single family homes using this type of receptacle, and can adjust the rebates accordingly. Because, right now, in 2016, there’s no way single families shouldn’t be paying full cost for the use of XL garbage bins. None. Zip. aimlesslyForget about it.

It’s a tiny, tiny matter in the bigger $11 billion picture of the 2016 budget for sure but it just epitomizes for me the amorphous direction of this administration, two budgets into its term now. Keeping taxes low is the only touchstone, exactly like the Ford years, with big promises of improvements to our quality of life but woefully short on the follow through. Outside of that (and keeping talk of new sources of revenue at bay), anything goes. Just meet that property tax rate increase cap, and it’s all good.

Actually, what it feels like, and forgive me the sports analogy here, is a baseball manager’s long, deliberate walk from the dugout toward the mound, taking his time to make sure the bullpen arms are good and ready to jump in and offer immediate relief. Mayor Tory’s stalling, waiting, hoping for money to start flowing in to the city’s coffers from senior levels of government, fullclosetespecially the feds who seem itching to start spreading infrastructure money around in order to help out the teetering economy. If he can just string things out a little bit longer, keep things duct taped together for one more budget cycle, until the cavalry arrives…

That would be welcome, of course, and long overdue. But it isn’t realistic to think either Queen’s Park or Ottawa is going to fill our every need, is it? Should they? Yes, they should be redirecting money back to cities on things municipalities should never have been paying for off of the property tax base in the first place including affordable housing and a transit system that provides a regional service. Arguably though, we aren’t even properly funding the things we should be paying for, like parks, planning and libraries, off the top of my head, forcing ourselves to make hard choices about need-to-have versus nice-to-haves through our collective refusal to reach a little deeper into our own pockets.

John Tory promised to bring a more clear-headed, rational, reasonable way of doing things to City Hall. We gave him a mulligan on his first budget, as we tend to do to most new mayors, as they are inheriting somebody else’s work in progress, let’s call it.bulldurham Second time around, however, we’re expecting a little more ownership, a sense of purpose, a manifestation of a mandate.

What’s on offer right now from Team Tory is a black hole, sucking the operation of this city into it. A patchwork of cuts here, additions there, amounting to little more than numbers summing up to zero for no other seeming purpose than because they have to. Governance entropy, waiting, fingers crossed, for an injection of life and energy from somewhere out there in the cosmos.

nonevently submitted by Cityslikr


Keeping Up With The Joneses

January 18, 2016

It’s odd to wake up on a Monday morning, read through your local news and information and realize there’s a lot of change in the air. goodnewseveryoneDeputy Chief Peter Sloly suggests a complete overhaul of our approach to policing. Former city council candidate and Better Budget TO co-founder Alex Mazer raises the possibility of some ‘fiscal honesty’. Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat has plans on completely re-imagining King Street from Dufferin all the way east to River.

Oh my. I think I just gave myself a case of the dizzies. So much… possibilities!

This comes after a weekend of occasional contemplation on what seems to be the inevitable strategic retreat by Mayor Tory on his heavily touted (by he and his team, at least) SmartTrack transit plan. On Friday stories began to emerge about scaling back and spending less on it. The always dubious ‘western spur’ dropped and replaced (Fingers Crossed!) by the westward extension of the Eglinton Crosstown to the airport. The eastern branch north of the Kennedy subway station quietly binned. stepbackLeaving some sort of expanded GO train-like service tracing the much more desirable Relief Line route, the slightest impression acknowledging SmartTrack even once existed as a concept.

I wondered what the campaign architects of SmartTrack were thinking now. Was this pretty much how the saw things happening? They knew, along with a solid majority of everybody else, that the plan was wholly unworkable. Just get their guy elected, go through the motions, not to mention millions, pretending he was serious about building SmartTrack. When it hit smack dab into the wall of reality, revealed to be the sham it was, stitching together a couple good ideas into an ill-fitting and grotesquely expensive cloth, walk it back, on the advice of the experts that weren’t, apparently, available during the 10 month long campaign.lipstickonapig

SmartTrack was an election scheme in no way meant to refute the heavy-rail, off-road transit vision of John Tory’s main rival for the job, Rob-then-Doug Ford. That’s why it was referred to as ‘Surface Subway’. That’s why John Tory backed the Scarborough subway. John Tory refused to confront the political pandering that sat deep in the heart of the Ford approach to transit planning. Instead, he chose to wrestle it into his own image.

So, I look at today’s news, the transformative opportunities, and temper my immediate enthusiasm. Just how willing is John Tory, essentially, to buck the status quo, to grapple with the ghost of the Ford administration? Little so far would indicate his willingness to do so. Every restoration of TTC service he announces is more than equaled by expedited expressway repairs, Gardiner hybrids and traffic flow announcements. Do we really expect him to stand strong in the face of the inevitable outrage at the chief planner’s plans to de-emphasis car travel along King Street and in the downtown core?

Fiscal honesty? I write this as I’m following along with the budget chief’s lunchtime presser. “We did not have to use revenue tools on this budget,” Councillor Crawford told reporters. putalidonit1All the while keeping property tax rate increases impossibly low, raiding reserve funds and insisting on line-by-lines cuts to office supplies and travel costs in order to try and plug the inevitable holes in the operating budget. Sound familiar? It should. That’s what’s been passing as ‘fiscal honesty’ at City Hall for the past 5 years or so.

And as mayor, John Tory sits on the Police Services Board that passed over the opportunity to appoint reformer Peter Sloly as Chief of Police, all the while holding the door open for the similarly reform-minded chair, Alok Mukherjee, to make an early exit. He’s already had the chance to help affect much needed change and dropped the ball. Well into his second year in office, it’s difficult not to see Mayor Tory as anything but an obstacle, no less than his predecessor.

Of course, it’s hard to look forward when you’re constantly checking back over your shoulder to see what your competition’s up to. Ultimately, it’s of cold comfort that John Tory defeated Doug Ford to become mayor if, in the end, there’s little to differentiate between the two in matters of policy. kipMaintaining the status quo is maintaining the status quo even if you can’t see the gold chain around somebody’s neck.

If John Tory really wants to establish an enduring legacy during his time in office, he could do so by challenging the Ford city building and governance mystique head on, bury it six feet under the ground where it belongs. The possibilities in doing so are in evidence in today’s news. But, for me, the mayor’s motivations remain opaque. Like with SmartTrack, he seems more intent on a simple redesign, keeping a uninterrupted message, only delivered by a different messenger.

not anticipatingly submitted by Cityslikr