Dear John*

August 15, 2016

Look, it’s not you. It’s me. Something’s just not clicking right now, and trying to get that spark back is so tiring and too much effort.

I thought spending a few months apart, earlier this year, putting some distance between us might give me a healthier perspective. dearjohnAbsence making the heart grow fonder and all that. Things wouldn’t look so dim and depressing with the long winter gone.

Summer’s only exacerbated the troubles, however. Made me more lethargic during the times when I wasn’t just full on angry. Angrily lethargic. That’s no way to live.

No. There’s no one else. This is only about you and me. Yes, I’ve been to other places, taken in the sights, rode other people’s public transit. You and I have never been that exclusive.

The thing is, I used to go away and return energized, full of appreciation for what we had here and excited about the possibilities of how we could make things even better. Fresh ideas. Different approaches. A new way of seeing things.

But that didn’t seem to hold much interest for you. “This isn’t there,” you’d respond whenever I made any sort of suggestion for trying something new or to improve on something that wasn’t working. We’re different. We’ve always done that this way. Change is hard. What we don’t know might be worse than what we already know.

I understand that.

It isn’t like everything’s terrible. That’s not what I’m saying. There’s lots to be happy about, plenty of examples to point to and say, Yeah, we’re doing that right. Maybe I’m just too demanding or dearjohn1(Maybe I’m just like my father too bold… HaHa. We’ll always have Prince. Oh, wait. No, we won’t.)

I just don’t think wanting to do things better should be seen as a challenge, viewed with such suspicion. We can learn from others. We need to learn from others. I’m not perfect. Are you?

I know you don’t think that you are. It’s just, you seem awfully satisfied living inside this bubble we’ve created together. The future you foresee now is exactly like the future you imagined in the past. This makes any deviation from that impossible for you to conceive.

This kind of resistant view, an unwillingness to adapt when evolving circumstances warrant, only succeeds in digging a deeper rut. You exhibit a tenacity of suspicion toward anything that does not conform to your prevailing view, demand a vigorous examination or assessment to look at all angles, consider every option. What you already believe to be true? Well, that’s just a given, and given an uncritical pass. As it was, so shall it be.

But you’ve also heard that bit about putting new wine into old wineskins, yes? Something’s got to give, is how I think Jesus put it. What once seemed to be fixes have turned out to be the source of many of our problems. Finding solutions is never easy. Realizing we need to do so should be pretty obvious.

Stop me if you’ve heard all of this before. HaHa! Zzzzzzzzzzz… Of course you have. No doubt you’re as tired of hearing me say these words as I am saying them. What we have here, I fear, is a failure to communicate. You’re not listening and I’m not explaining myself clearly enough.

In the end, that’s all on me. If I’m the unhappy one in this relationship, it is up to me to explain why that is and what we can do to try and patch things up. writingaloneI have not been able to do that over the course of our 6 and-a-half years together. My tone has become hectoring, annoyed badgering, counter-productive. It’s doing neither of us any good, contributing little, impacting even less. It is difficult to imagine anything positive coming from continuing on this way. Bitterness doesn’t become either of us. That’s just not how I want to see this story end.

(* a literary trop, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental albeit highly appropriate in this case)

sadly but clear-eyedly submitted by Cityslikr


What I’m Not Doing On My Summer Vacation

July 12, 2016

This is me…

2016-07-11 18.57.30

I’m…

2016-07-11 11.35.20

to…

2016-07-11 19.04.04

… debate public transit, bike licensing, police pride and a horror of other inane, retrograde items. You can’t make me.

To those who will be doing so, wear plenty of protective gear. Lots of bullshit will be flung around.

summery submitted by Cityslikr


Toronto Sun-shiny Ways

July 8, 2016

No place reflects the petty, small-minded, tight-fisted, stadlerandwaldorfpublic ill-will slice of Toronto thinking more than the editorial and commentary pages of the Toronto Sun. And I’m not even going to be talking about the newspaper’s hypocritical Pride and Black Lives Matter coverage here! If you want to see the birthplace of Ford Nation, this is ground zero, the temple mount, the gravy crèche.

Last weekend, before falling into its lip-smacking Pride tizzy, we were gifted with a blasé editorial about City Hall money matters. Trimming city budget by 2.6% should be routine, the Sun “informed” its readers. Because, well, that just goes without saying.

It’s pretty much standard right wing, a priori reasoning based on the simple assumption that all government spending is too much spending, so the less of it, the better. There’s some straw man arguments thrown into the mix, quoting opponents, ‘the left’, with words no one has said, arguments no one’s made in order to sound reasonable or, at least, less stridently ideological. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t even have read the tired mess except for a subsequent tweet that came across my time line.texaschainsawmassacre

An earlier Sun article by Daniel McKenzie reported that 20-25% of the subway cars on the Bloor-Danforth line would be without working air-conditioning this summer. The paper’s “Editor Emeritus”, whatever that is, an old horse unwilling to be put out to pasture? (surely you mean the glue factory – ed.), Lorrie Goldstein, was  presented with the consequences of the unrelenting demand for low taxes. Making do without those nice-to-haves like subway car air-conditioning. Mr. Goldstein’s retort? As classy and gracious as one might expect from the “Editor Emeritus” of the Toronto Sun.

Sorry, this is too stupid to even respond to. They have the money to fix them. They just haven’t been fixing them.

“Sorry, this is too stupid to even respond to,” yet Mr. Goldstein proceeds to respond, firmly establishing the Sun’s style page, as it were, for its stable of editorial and commentary writers. Two successive thoughts need not be connected. tinfoilhatJust type out words as they spring into your head. The angrier and more irrational the better.

As for the actual response?

On the level of quackery equal to those who tell us doctors and scientists have the cure to cancer but they’re keeping it to themselves because they don’t want to lose their jobs.

Mr. Goldstein is suggesting that the TTC has the money to fix the air-conditioning in its subway cars but is simply choosing not to. Why? He only had 140 characters to work with, so deeper conspiracy theories are more difficult to fully flesh out on the Twitter platform. Besides, he didn’t really want to respond at all in the first place. Such rank stupidity only deserves so much inane rambling.

(Here’s a better explanation for the lack of subway air-conditioning from Ben Spurr in the Toronto Star. IT’S STARVED FOR CASH! Uncomfortable commuters are down the list of TTC priorities right now.)

bloodfromastoneThat the “Editor Emeritus” of the Toronto Sun, a newspaper that’s part of a bigger media conglomeration mired in as dire financial straits as Postmedia is, still has a platform from which to pronounce on anything to do with fiscal fitness seems somehow apropos, I guess. A tired, disproven economic orthodoxy, clinging desperately to relevance as the ship slowly sinks. Unfortunately, you can still here echoes of the exhausted arguments in the words of some of our local decision makers.

That debate [new revenue tools] is coming and our position will be that any new taxes imposed by the city must be earmarked for specific projects, not just sent down the black hole of general revenues.

By the “black hole of general revenue”, the Sun must mean the operating budget. The one that paves our streets, pays for our emergency services, subsidizes public transit, maintains our public library and public health, etc., etc. That black hole. beancounterSo, the editors of the Sun can be persuaded to consider new taxes as long as they’re dedicated to building things but not actually running them.

Mayor John Tory has expressed similar sentiments. He’s made it perfectly clear this week to both the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star that he’s ready and willing to talk turkey about new revenue tools but they must be dedicated to infrastructure needs. As for the day-to-day operations of the city? They can do perfectly well with less. (See: Tales from the TTC, above).

Of course, for the Toronto Sun, the mayor and the mayor’s council allies, any serious talk of additional revenues can be had only under one condition:

… the idea council would consider imposing any new taxes, levies and fees beyond its existing revenue streams, without first insuring the city budget is being run as efficiently as possible, is fiscally irresponsible and reckless.

Who measures that, ‘as efficiently as possible’? Back in 2012, the audit firm KPMG concluded that, all things considered, the city was pretty tightly run. isaacnewtonTwo successive city managers, neither considered to be part of the lunatic left the Sun loves to lash out at, have said similar things. Yes, there are ways to continue containing costs, even decreasing them in some cases. But nowhere near enough to build and pay for the things a growing city needs.

That’s the argument, not some concocted fairy tale of self-serving left wingers making claims about absolute efficiency at City Hall. It’s just that the Sun and Mayor Tory and every other penny-pinching fiscal “conservative” member of council wants you to believe that if there’s any example of waste they can find, then there’s no need for any new revenue. And, in an organization as big and complex as the city of Toronto, there will always examples of inefficiency. The notion of a perfectly running system died with Isaac Newton.

Too bad for us equally as dated ideas and beliefs haven’t been similarly discarded. But I guess the Toronto Sun isn’t in the business of discarding dated ideas and beliefs. In fact, since 1971, it’s been championing them, tub thumping for them, stubborn1bearing the standard for them. Because too many of us have been listening to their anti-government screeds for too long, we find ourselves in the state we’re currently in. Loudly demanding easy answers to complicated problems, and feeling put upon to fully contribute to the public good, convinced we’re getting less from it than we’re giving.

A constantly outraged sense of grievance, our strength. The Toronto Sun way.

brightly submitted by Cityslikr


You Can’t Take What’s Already Given

June 30, 2016

In less than a month’s time, on July 25th, there’ll be a by-election in Ward 2 Etobicoke North to pick the successor to the late Rob Ford.

I know, right? Pretty much slipped my mind too. What with all the other news going on. distractedTransit madness. Budget talk. The official start of summer, lazy, hazy days. Who’s got the time or inclination to wrap their head around a by-election right now?

Besides, the general consensus seems to be, Michael Ford, nephew of the last two Ward 2 city councillors, will take this in a cakewalk. Name recognition. A brand loyalty from voters. It’s a summer by-election. So low voter turnout will compound the advantage of an established candidate. Why waste resources fighting a no-win battle?

Why indeed.

I am hopelessly naïve on many aspects of politics, never more so than campaign politics.

I would’ve thought this to be a perfect opportunity to plant a non-Ford flag in Ward 2. It’s the only council election going (as opposed to the general municipal campaign where there are 44 wards and a mayor’s race to contend with). fordnationMarshall the forces. Get behind a candidate. Challenge these Ford dynastic aspirations.

Sure, you might not win. In fact, you probably won’t. Although, this notion of invincibility doesn’t entirely jibe with the 2014 election results that saw a former mayor and 4 time Ward 2 councillor enter the race, under the sympathetic shadow of illness, and only pull in 58% of the popular vote. That meant 42% of Ward 2 voters didn’t vote for Rob Ford last time out. Seems like a base that could be worked with this time around.

But Michael Ford’s a nice kid, I hear. He’s expressed nice sentiments to a community his uncle actively disliked and maligned. Give him a chance to prove he’s better than either of his uncles.

So, in fact, it’s more of a coronation than an election. Michael Ford isn’t forced to do anything but knock on doors and issue press releases like this one about the KPMG’s Revenue Options Study.

Ward 2 residents can’t afford billions of dollars in costly new taxes; I have heard this message loud and clear at the door. While I support investment in the City’s housing and transit infrastructure, additional work must be done to find internal savings and efficiencies, and leverage private investment, before we ask taxpayers for even more of their hard earned money.

Sound familiar? Yeah, to me too. If it quacks like a duck, walks like a duck, issues statements that both his uncles would …

What gets me most about this, by-election or not, is that it represents something of a pattern I noticed going back to the 2014 municipal election. shrugI worked a little on a campaign in Etobicoke, wrote about a number of suburban candidates. These were races that, for the most part, pretty much operated under the radar. No one news organization has the resources to cover 45 races, no matter how long a campaign may be. So these candidates in the wilderness wards are pretty much left to their own devices, left to dangle, making them even more susceptible to being steamrolled by the power of incumbency and other hyper-local forces.

Then we sit back and wonder why all these terrible councillors come down to City Hall from the suburbs. What’s wrong with voters out there? See? This is not our fault. It’s theirs. Just start voting better.

And when the opportunity like this one arises to challenge the status quo in places like Ward 2 – and make no mistake, Michael Ford is the status quo, he represents zero change except perhaps in tone, style – we shrug. What are you going to do? It’s a by-election. It’s summer. Low voter turnout. Name recognition. strategyWhy waste resources on fighting a losing battle?

So in waltzes another questionable local representative for the 416 hinterlands, leaving us shaking our heads. There’s a certain self-fulfillment in all that, a self-perpetuation. And the divisions continue.

I’ve heard similar rumblings looking at the mayor’s race in 2018. The mayor’s going to get re-elected. There’s nobody out there to challenge him. We’ll just concentrate on shoring up council support. The mayor is only one vote after all. Why waste our resources on that race?

Freed up of any significant challenger, you’ll have a mayor, all decked out in his inevitability, trying to shape the council even more in his image than it is now. His time and resources spent in wards where he’d really like to see a change of councillor, undermine his opposition. wantofanailSure, the mayor is just one vote but he’s made a lot of new council friends now, removed a few thorns in his side.

Maybe this is all too for want of nail from me. It is just a single ward by-election after all. But by constantly ceding ground in areas that you don’t think you can win, it winds up putting you on the defensive, concentrating on maintaining a base that you’re forced to defend rather than attempt to expand, reactive not proactive. Winning campaigns are rarely built like that.

curiously submitted by Cityslikr


Brood Parasite

June 29, 2016

The cuckoo, it is said, deviously lays its eggs in another bird’s nest to have its young raised and reared by the unsuspecting guest parent. cuckooforcocoapuffsThe cuckoo bird either hatches earlier or grows quicker than its host’s offspring, launching its faux-siblings from the nest in an effort to become the sole mouth to feed. A survival of the fittest tactic known as ‘brood parasitism’.

It strikes me as something too sinisterly perfect to be true. More like a child’s fable. No, not the white-washed ones we heard as kids. The grim ones, told by dour Germans or the icky Brits of the 18th-century, full of impending doom, evil lurking around every corner, stranger danger. The original scared straight, morality tales to keep the children in line. Suspect everyone. Trust no one. Are they really your parents?

In that vein…

The Scarborough subway. A cuckoo’s egg laid by the Ford Administration in the nest of City Hall. cuckoobirdnestIn a bid to grow and flourish, it, in turn, lays waste to everything around it, mainly in the form of reputations of those trying to give it life, even with the best of intentions. Here, I’m thinking city staff who know what’s what, a wink’s as good as a nod, but try anyway to make the best of a bad situation. It’s not a beast of their making. They’ve tried, at times, to set the record straight. To no avail, in the end, their attempt to make it all seem legitimate only succeeds in damaging their own credibility.

For those who actually try to claim parentage of this impersonator, the result is even more unbecoming or, in the extreme case, self-immolating. It derails political aspirations. Karen Stintz. It further mocks those already prone to mocking. This is not that subway. It’s a completely different subway. Which, just so happens, to be in Scarborough like that other subway. Councillor Michelle Holland. It makes some say the kookiest things. “The subway is never going to be cheaper than it is today,” said Councillor Ana Bailão.cuckoobirdbaby

Nobody’s fooled. Everybody’s embarrassed. Maybe if we can just get past the pretense of it all, we can start having a rational discussion again.

Except that no longer seems possible because no one in any position of real power is willing to step forward and admit mistakes were made, bad decisions pursued for all the wrong reasons. At first we thought this was a good idea. Now we don’t. This was an egg that should never have been allowed to hatch.

Mayor John Tory may be in line to take the biggest hit for trying to maintain this fiction. Whatever claims to sound judgment and a sober approach to governance he may have once made are meaningless now, nothing but empty campaign slogans. With his Toronto Star op-ed on Monday, he jettisoned any semblance of good sense or consensus building. Think that’s just me talking, an avowed and self-proclaimed Tory critic? cuckoobirdbaby1Or some other left-wing tongue-wagger in Torontoist?

Flip through the pages covering the transportation beat in the Star. Still not satisfied? How about this editorial in the august Globe and Mail? Both newspapers, by the way, that endorsed John Tory for mayor less than two years ago.

Why he’s taking such a risk to nurture somebody else’s terrible, terrible idea is probably both crassly obvious and backroom murky. Your guess is as good as mine. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter to John Tory because he, and every other politician who’s calculated to make this possible, won’t be around to see it to fruition, to have the scorn heaped directly on them.

In the meantime, we all can get a glimpse at the future. That deliberately misplaced egg has hatched and the cuckoo bird has already started to squawk, demanding we feed it, we love it, respect it. The sound, it sounds just like this:

fosterly submitted by Cityslikr


Show Us The Efficiencies!

June 27, 2016

So, I’m having a quiet conversation the other day with a painter friend of mine, Donald… actually, my friend’s not a painter and his name isn’t Donald. quietconversationBut we were having a quiet conversation the other day.

I bring this up just to establish a time line of my thought process, to let you know I was thinking about this before reading David Nickle’s article yesterday, Toronto’s past public finance practices have experienced its own form of Brexit. It’s this latest broad side fired at the fiscal policies pursued for the better part of a decade at City Hall. “Folly. Pure populist folly,” Nickle calls it.

City councillors have been pretending to practice austerity and delivering at-or-below inflationary property tax increases for about a decade, while roughly maintaining services. They’ve increased some revenues, mostly through fees like transit fares. But otherwise, they’ve relied on the booming real estate market and finite help from the provincial government to keep things going.

Mayor Tory and his council allies are also continuing to trot out the shop worn claim that taxes and other revenue streams are unnecessary or unbecoming, even, until we bear down and squeeze out every last drop of inefficiency there is to be found especially in the operating budget. nostoneunturnedUntil such a time as there is shown to be absolutely no waste, or gravy as the previous guy called it, talk of new revenue will remain theoretical. This, of course, is an impossibly high goal to set which, as we’ve probably suggested before, may well be the whole point of such a futile exercise.

Bringing me to my quiet conversation with my friend the other day.

Of course there are still efficiencies to be found. No one has ever said otherwise. Here’s an example right here in a Toronto Star article from Thursday by David Rider, Audit finds waste in City of Toronto cleaning services. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars down the drain a year,” according to the Auditor General.

There you go. Although, I must point out that it’s also not good news for champions of contracting out services, like Mayor Tory, who like to tell us that the private sector, by its very nature, brings about efficiencies and automatically saves us money. Still. Hundreds of thousands of dollars. moarGet ‘er done.

Now, here’s the meat of the conversation between my not-Donald-the-painter friend of mine and me. Hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Hell, let’s call it a million bucks. Unless the auditor general or whoever else finds 50, 75, 100, 200 of those kind of examples of waste and inefficiencies, we still won’t have enough money to maintain the current services and programs we have, never mind anything new. This is what Mayor Tory’s been told by two consecutive city managers now. Efficiencies for sure but not just efficiencies. It’s not going to be enough.

Moreover, I said to my friend, I said, It’s put up or shut up time for these efficiencies fiends. You claim there’s still lots of efficiencies to be found, find them. Find them and bring them to the budget table. No more vague generalities and focus grouped catchphrases involving sides and dressings.

Anyone who’s followed along with the budget process the last 6 years or so will recognize the approach of the various self-proclaimed fiscal hawks we elect to city council. showmethemoneyPre-determine the property tax rate to give yourself a pretty good idea of what that year’s operating budget will be and then force anyone proposing new spending to make a deduction somewhere else in the budget. An offset, it’s called. This is how much we’re spending. It’s all zero sum after that.

How be this time around, anyone coming to the budget proceedings saying we have to find efficiencies, needs to bring said efficiencies to the table. You don’t want to raise the property tax rate above the rate of inflation? Find the efficiency offset. 1% property tax increase equals roughly $24 million for the city. Before you start talking about 2% or 4% or 5% cuts to budgets, you need to show some $48 or $96 or $120 million in efficiencies found.

Because across the board budget cuts are not the same thing as finding efficiencies. If we’re going to start talking about ‘unprecedented’ and ‘devastating’ cuts, texaschainsawmassacreas Nickle suggests some might be, the onus needs to be placed squarely on those pushing them under the banner of finding efficiencies. We must demand specifics, details down to the penny. Show us the efficiencies found, show us the money.

Otherwise, you’re just proposing cuts for cutting’s sake, and that’s something else entirely. That’s just ideology. That’s a completely different conversation.

demandingly submitted by Cityslikr


The Simple Truth

June 23, 2016

For the second time in about five years, the audit/advisory/consultant thingie, KPMG, was asked to answer the burning question: Does Toronto have a spending or revenue problem? tellmewhatiwanttohearFor the second time in five years, KPMG has reported back: All things considered, there’s more of a revenue problem at work than spending. The city’s pretty tightly run. To avoid seriously cutting essential and even mandated services and programs, City Hall should look at accessing increased revenues.

Oddly though, what many of our elected local representatives, including Mayor John Tory have heard and concluded is: Right. Just like I thought. We need to cut spending. Tighten our belts. To the efficiency-mobile, Batman!

Some urban legends die hard, it seems, if at all, when they run contrary to the political ideology of right wing, small government politicians. There is always more fat to be trimmed, gravy to be drained, excess to excise before we can start talking about revenue. We must learn to live within our means. There’s always money in the banana stand.

This sentiment is so strong with enough of our city council that it’s more than a little surprising that KPMG was called upon to deliver a revenue tools report at all.deaf It was and it did, the City of Toronto Revenue Options Study coming out earlier this week. A boatload of suggestions for raising revenue, some immediately in the city’s purview, others it would have to get provincial permission to implement.

I want to focus on one section of the report, 17, pages 165-170. (A PDF I cannot figure out for the life of me how to load up on this page here, so you’ll just have to follow along via this link). Property Tax Analysis.

This is another shibboleth our mayor and his council allies, and the administration before it, and pretty much every small-minded member of council since at least amalgamation, has taken and spouted as gospel truth. We pay too much in property taxes, dammit! Homeowners (as if it’s just those owning their homes pay property taxes) are already stretched to the max. They cannot afford any more hikes in their property taxes. Seniors will be chased out into the streets…

Similarly, the information presented above suggests that residential property tax rates levied by the City of Toronto and the implied burden on households, expressed both in dollar terms and as a percentage of household income, are lower than those in the majority of other GTHA municipalities. This indicates that there may be an opportunity to increase property tax rates and still maintain burdens that are below the average of the municipalities reviewed, while also considering that Toronto is the only city in the sample that also applies MLTT.

What’s that, you say? By almost any measure, Toronto’s property tax rates “are lower than those in the majority of other GTHA municipalities”? That simply can’t be. If it were, our local politicians wouldn’t be pretending otherwise. “This indicates that there may be an opportunity to increase property tax rates and still maintain burdens that are below the average of the municipalities…” youdontsay1So, why all this ‘at or below the rate of inflation’ insistence Mayor Tory’s pursuing?

Now, I get all the property tax caveats. It’s not a tax that accurately reflects or benefits from current economic realities. The city is too dependent on it and needs to diversify its revenue sources more. There are people who are house rich but cash poor, and property tax increases could jeopardize their ability to own. Toronto does have access to another form of property taxation, the Municipal Land Transfer tax, that other municipalities don’t.

All these can be addressed but the point I’m trying to make here is this determined pursuit of at or below the rate of inflation property tax rate increase simply does not measure up to reality. parrotToronto property tax payers are not already overburdened like the mayor claims, just like his predecessor had trumpeted. As Matt Elliott pointed out last month after City Manager Peter Wallace’s Long Term Financial Report came out, “Since 2010, when adjusted for inflation, the city’s overall take from property taxes has gone down by 4.8%. Homeowners have gotten a break.”

Property taxes have contributed less to the city’s budget over the past 6 years, and even keeping rate hikes at the rate of inflation will further reduce them since costs will inevitably rise higher than that. 5%, I believe the city manager told the budget committee yesterday in its initial meeting about the 2017 budget. If so, other sources of revenue will be needed to help balance the operating budget or further cuts to spending which is already down in terms of per capita numbers since 2010, as Elliott also pointed out.

Arrows heading in a different direction than the one Mayor Tory wants us to believe.

There will be new revenue tools introduced, though very likely not in time for the 2017 budget. texaschainsawmassacreThe mayor, however, has made a point of saying for capital spending which explains his spate of transit announcements this week. Softening the public up for new taxes or fees, dedicated to building all this new stuff the city wants and needs while the operating budget will continue to be squeezed.

Or, as Councillor Mike Layton quoted the city manager telling the budget committee, heading toward “direct austerity” and “smaller government”.

As the KPMG revenue options study suggests, that will be a choice Mayor Tory and his council allies will make not one made out of necessity.

factually submitted by Cityslikr


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