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


The Faces Of A Thousand Tiny Cuts

January 16, 2016

Want to see what years (decades even) of a relentless, tightfisted, penny-pinching, nickel-and-diming assault on a so-called ‘soft service’ looks like? Take 20 minutes of your day and watch this.

(h/t to Juliann Garisto and Women in Toronto Politics for alerting me to the presence of this video.)

angrily submitted by Cityslikr


Lost In A Forest Full Of Trees

January 15, 2016

It has come to my attention that, perhaps, I have lost perspective on Mayor John Tory. forestforthetreesAfter reading a couple news items on the 2016 budget process and an upcoming SmartTrack report last night and this morning, I let fly with some intemperate Twitter remarks that weren’t particularly well thought out. In my defence, they only contained one swear word in the lot of them.

“Tory hopes to balance Toronto budget by funding less than half of new commitments,” was the headline in a Metro article by Jessica Smith Cross.

My initial reaction?

Indignation, of course.

How hard is it to balance a budget when you decide to fund only 40% of the commitments, promises and pledges that you and your council colleagues have made? blowmylidYou know that thing we all thought was a really good idea? Well, we still think it’s a good idea but I’m not prepared to pay for it. But props to us for thinking it’s a good idea, right?

It’s about picking priorities, came one response to my outburst. That’s pretty much what every budget is about. That’s what City Manager Peter Wallace put before the budget committee with an unbalanced budget of at least $67 million in unfunded council requests and implementations. The mayor and city council have to choose their priorities. Mayor Tory’s simply choosing his.

“John Tory’s SmartTrack transit plan for Toronto getting smaller, cheaper,” was the headline in Oliver Moore’s Globe and Mail article this morning.

My initial reaction?

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

Millions of dollars on a report that essentially confirms what every critic of SmartTrack thought from the time it was released as a headline grabbing, yellingatcloudsill-thought out plan back during the 2014 campaign. My head exploded, and I fired off some of my own headline grabbing, ill-thought opinions, undercutting possible benefits in the report for Scarborough transit users and overplaying the mayor’s embrace of the report. “The issues you reference are still being studied and staff have not yet provided recommendations,” Amanda Galbraith, Mayor Tory’s spokesperson, told the Globe.

So, there’s plenty of time still for the mayor to ignore expert advice and stubbornly insist on doing SmartTrack his way. It was unfair of me to respond in a way that suggested he’d accepted the findings in this new report yet. If he does, it will be a better SmartTrack project, probably, at least the “new” western spur which would become, essentially, a Transit City proposal from way back when. At least, it can’t be worse than the SmartTrack he used to get elected.

Maybe they have a point. (Except for the ‘love nonetheless’ business. It’s an established fact that Tim Falconer detests me for my youth and rugged good looks.) Maybe I can no longer see the forest for the trees. Better, if not good, policy should always be preferred to bad policy. humbledIt’s amazing to me that I actually find myself writing such a sentence. And the politics of budgeting has always been about trade-offs and prioritizing. None of this is anything John Tory has ushered onto the scene.

I guess the source of my frustration and resentment is that while it’s a political landscape John Tory inherited, he’s chosen instead to navigate it rather than challenge it. In the post-Ford scorched earth environment of low-taxes-at-any-cost and non-reality based transit plans, Mayor Tory has played along. Prioritizing that unfunded $67 million in the budget is a whole lot harder because he’s refused to entertain reasonable discussions about property tax rates and other revenue tools. We’re piecemealing together a more acceptable transit approach not because of Mayor Tory’s reasonableness but because, for nearly two years now, he’s also been playing along with his predecessor’s unrealistic belief that transit comes for free and shouldn’t interfere with our ability to drive around the city.

Is that an improvement? Maybe. I’m not entirely convinced, though. What Toronto needs right now is an injection of pure, unadulterated aspiration and methods necessary to achieve that. What we’re getting from Mayor Tory is a placebo.

It might work. There’s scientific evidence suggesting such a positive effect can happen. drinkingaloneAfter 4 years of backsliding on almost every conceivable front, any step forward, no matter how small or circuitous, should be seen as progress. Dampen your expectations and things look a lot less bleak. Always remember. It could be worse, in two words: RobDoug Ford.

I just have to learn that, when drowning my sorrows in a self-pity binge of What Could Bes, my booze filled glass is half full not half empty.

humbly submitted by Cityslikr


Bully Budgeting

January 14, 2016

It was just a coincidence, I’m sure, that I was reading through Torontoist’s 2015 Heroes and Villains list while listening to the first of the public deputations on the 2016 budget. TPLTorontoist(Truth be told, I’d held out following the annual Torontoist series as, once again, I’d been snubbed despite my unrelenting and uncompromising work covering the politics of this city. Hero or Villain. It didn’t matter to me. Just a little recognition might be nice, Torontoist.) As it so happened, I was just getting to the final reveal – Superhero of the Year – when the library workers union president, Maureen O’Reilly, sat down to speak to the budget committee.

No, really. That’s exactly how it happened. Sometimes life can be that serendipitous.

Read what Eva Hd wrote about the Toronto Public Library, in nominating it as Superhero of the Year:

The individual branches’ lovingly curated and topical displays, whether tying in to contemporary political issues such as Idle No More or featuring mystery Valentine books wrapped in red tissue paper for February 14, always amaze and amuse. On any given day, TPL’s librarians can be heard giving tips to adolescents on how to find books and movies about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, showing seniors how to use the internet, guiding researchers through the archives, and telling homeless people where to find the bathroom with equal amounts of patience and grace, while the security guards interact respectfully with everyone and will often be seen helping out at kids’ story time.

Now here’s David Nickle writing about Maureen O’Reilly’s budget committee deputation:

“It’s 2016. It’s no longer acceptable to underpay the ladies of the library and to continually cut them.”

O’Reilly was referring to the Toronto Public Library Board’s recommendation to save $250,000 by cutting 6.7 full-time equivalent page positions – a move that would mean between 12 and 14 of the minimum-wage pages would lose their jobs.

The pages, said Reilly, are bearing much of the weight of a cut in library staffing that she said amounts to 25 per cent since 1992. The position of page was traditionally a part-time job for high school students, but currently, the average age of a page at Toronto Public Library is 43. They do the work of reshelving materials and helping at checkouts.

That’s what you call working ‘harder and smarter’ with less. It’s just what budget hawks like our mayor (like so many mayors before him) love to hear, love to tout. See, Toronto. texaschainsawmassacreWe continue to nick and cut at library services, and they still keep providing exemplary service to residents of this city. It can be done!

Libraries, and those who work so diligently to make them the key community hubs that they are, represent the kind of soft services line-by-line, always searching for efficiencies, nickel-and-dime politicians love to go after. Easy targets. Libraries don’t directly provide life-or-death support to residents. They aren’t grand infrastructure symbols elected officials can cut ribbons at.

Actually, that’s not quite true. Almost any politician who isn’t a Ford – Doug was convinced there were more libraries than Tim Horton’s in his ward and would’ve slashed them ‘in heartbeat’ — loves to oversee the building of a library. The 100th TPL branch was opened in Scarborough last year. It’s the funding of their operations that’s so tempting to shave, trim and hack at.

So, working at the library for many falls into the precarious employment category. Half of the workers are contracted, meaning benefits, a living wage and the like are but a pipedream. library2At Tuesday’s budget deputations, library worker Tori MacDonald talked about scrambling to branches all over the city in the search of hours. For Ms. MacDonald, the librarian’s lot in Toronto was not one where she could see buying a home, raising a family.

Bully for them, those of us with plenty of space at home to find a quiet spot to work, with easy access to all the internet we need, with that book we want one Amazon click away, with our own communities already carved out, will say. What’s a librarian’s job anyway? Checking out books. Putting them back on the shelves when they’re returned. Why should we pay a premium for that?

But read the Torontoist piece and realize that our library system represents much more than that to many residents of this city. In fundamentally important ways, our libraries and those (wo)manning the desks, counters and stacks – Yes, 75% of library workers are female. Women and precarious employment. Surprise! — serve as, if not gatekeepers, librarythen the welcoming committee of this city for newcomers and other oftentimes marginalized segments of our community. Libraries provide both a physical as well as social shelter for this city.

How much should that be worth to us?

It’s easy to embrace the big gestures, the grand symbols of our civic well-being. The shiny new transit projects and plans, the high rise office towers, the beautiful, “world class”, outside public spaces. What we always overlook, however, in our seemingly perpetual chest-beating, looking out for the taxpayer push to scrimp toward balanced budgets is the vital element of the human scale. “Finally,” Hd writes in the Torontoist, “TPL locations are also some of the last places in Toronto where you can still get a glass of water and use the bathroom for free, a not insignificant attribute in our increasingly precious metropolis.”

Our libraries and the people working to make them cornerstones of neighbourhoods and communities are indeed significant attributes ‘in our increasingly precious metropolis’. libraryWe need to defend them from those intent on only counting costs and ignoring the benefit side of the ledger. A strong library system is not simply a nice-to-have. It is a need-to-have, and we have to start treating it as such, beyond just the easy to spot and promote bricks-and-mortar, to the people inside, working to make it the remarkable enterprise it is.

bookishly submitted by Cityslikr


Can’t Or Won’t?

January 11, 2016

During a budget Twitter discussion last week, Torontoist’s David Hains boiled the process down to 140 characters.

(If you want it in greater detail, I cannot encourage you enough to read his property tax analysis from a couple years ago.)

In essence, for a couple key reasons, the keyest being municipalities, unlike their provinical and federal counterparts, cannot run annual operating deficits. Their books must balance. A dollar amount is chosen — This is what we’re going to spend this year! — and you then walk back to where the money comes from. pickanumberProperty taxes make up a large portion of that revenue, in and around 40% usually, so to get 40% of x dollars, the property tax rate has to be y.

More or less.

For a mayor, their administration or the city council to determine what that property tax rate is going to be ahead of spending projections essentially subverts the process. Mayor Tory’s campaign pledge to keep property tax at or below the rate of inflation, and then claiming a public mandate for that after winning office, is simply saying there’s only going to be this much money regardless of needs or other promises and improvements made. You want something new, a service enhanced, some shiny bauble or other nice-to-have? You have to cut something or somewhere else. mathAn ‘offset’, as they say in order to not state the word ‘cut’.

This is especially true since the mayor and his team are refusing to even discuss other sources of revenue. Aside from selling off assets  like Toronto Hydro and city-owned parking spaces, that is, or increasing user fees or squeezing more pencils and training costs from the city. Today on Metro Morning, the budget chair, Councillor Gary Crawford crowed over the possibility of finding an additional $5 million in savings by an exhaustive line-by-line search through office expenses. $5 million in the face of an identified $67 million shortfall in funding for promises and requests already made by Mayor Tory and city council.

By a pre-emptive determination of what the property tax rate will be, thus fixing 39% of the operating budget in place, Mayor Tory is stating just how much he is willing to spend on the city. gotyourbackThis and only this amount. Any addition must be matched by a subtraction. Or found through efficencies, 10s, 100s of millions of dollars paid for by chump change belt tightening.

Two years ago, John Tory picked an arbitrary number he thought would help get him elected mayor of Toronto. It was a number that represented his political well-being not the well-being of the city he wanted to lead. By refusing to budge (much) from that number, and digging his heels in like his predecessor had, Mayor Tory is showing exactly whose interest he’s really looking out for.

frankly submitted by Cityslikr