Democracy By The Square Foot

August 28, 2015

As summer cools and fall looms, the options report for Toronto’s ward boundary review begins to sink into focus. (I’ve written – dare I say it? – voluminously about it . Most recently here.) wardboundaryreviewoptionsreportJust now, I am struck by a thought.

Should city council be the ultimate decider on this? How wards get reconfigured may have, will have, a direct impact on more than a few sitting councillors. It’s difficult not to see something of a conflict of interest inherent in this process.

It’s a horse that’s already left the barn, obviously, but you can see the optics of even the most well-meaning councillor being called into question, read it in the comments section of any news story about the issue. No politician will decide to get rid of their own job! Less pigs at the trough not more! The Jays are going to fold just like they usually do! Oh, yeah. And I hate politicians!!

Such a specter of negative public perception will most definitely hang over the proceedings. The consulting group responsible for conducting the public meetings, writing the reports and making the recommendations have taken the two most contentious and illusorily logical options off the table. Simply cutting the ward numbers in half elicited little, if loud, public support. thumbthescaleAligning ward boundaries with the new federal ridings failed to address the voter disparity, the democratic deficit that served as the ultimate reason for reworking our ward boundaries.

This doesn’t mean city council can’t revive them. Staff and expert reports are rarely treated as sacrosanct especially if they get in the way of politics. It would be naïve of anyone to think politics won’t play a part, a significant part, in this when all is said and done.

One political angle has already emerged. It emerged early on in the first round of public consultations and popped back up in a CBC article a couple days ago. “Residents of towers [high rise apartments and condo buildings, I guess] rarely interact with their councillor,” Ward 4 Etobicoke Centre councillor John Campbell said. apartmenttower“Most interaction we have I would say are residents calling about property issues. They are homeowners.”

Homeowners. Property issues.

In response on the Twitter, John McGrath made a very interesting and telling point. “Almost everywhere, municipal government is about and for single-family homeowners, with everyone else shoehorned in where necessary.” Councillor Campell’s mistake was just saying out loud what is true but nobody wants to talk about.

Homeowners. Taxpayers. Hardworking taxpayers.

In response to my rather pointed, shall we say, social media queries at the councillor about his comment, he informed me that in Ward 4 there are 14,000 homes versus 6,000 apartments, roughly a 70:30 ratio. densityandsprawlYet his office only gets 5% of calls from apartment/condo residents requiring work of some sort from him. Thus, to his mind, “equal distribution [of residents/ward] will not provide equitable representation.”

Setting aside the fact that on the city’s website, the Ward 4 profile (according to the 2011 census) has it that just under 47% of households are technically considered “apartment buildings”, a significantly different ratio than the councillor stated, Councillor Campbell seems to be equating representation at City Hall with how much work he is called upon to do for a resident. Homeowners demand more. So homeowners’ votes should count for more.

Or something.

Perhaps a more generous interpretation would be that, in Councillor Campbell’s view, an uneven distribution of residents per ward is warranted since different built forms demand different levels of work for councillors. If your ward is dominated by apartment towers, full of residents making fewer demands because, apparently,towers apartment dwellers are more content than those forced to mow their own lawns and shovel their own sidewalks, that councillor can not serve more of them.

“Capacity to represent” is certainly one of the considerations being factored in to the ward boundary equation but should hardly be the sole determinant in calculating full “effective representation” the report is striving toward. It’s the customer service aspect of serving as a city councillor, the crowd pleaser. Surely, there’s more to the job of being a city councillor than completing work orders, isn’t there?

If some of Toronto’s residents aren’t engaged with City Hall, maybe it’s because they haven’t figured out they can or why they should even bother. Shouldn’t at least one aspect of this “capacity to represent” be about proactive engagement by our local representatives? suburbs50sIf Councillor Campbell is only hearing from a very small section of Ward 4 residents living in apartment buildings, maybe he ought to wonder why rather than conclude, It’s all good.

As difficult as it might be to believe, given the last 5 years or so around these parts, civic engagement isn’t only about airing out our grievances. There should be a much more positive exchange. Of ideas and opinions rather than just complaints.

There’s also a bigger political question at play here. While certainly Toronto’s population and development growth isn’t concentrated just in the older legacy part of the city, people are moving in and moving on up in the southern part of Etobicoke, along the lake just under Ward 4, as well us up north in Willowdale and the northeastern part of Scarborough, there can be little denying that a critical mass are heading to a few wards right smack dab downtown. More people could translate into more wards in that area. shutthedoorIt would stand to reason and only be fair if we have even a passing interest in “voter parity” or the old rep-by-pop saw.

Such a demographic and democratic shift could well threaten to upset the ruling coalition of suburban council votes that has been a mainstay in Toronto since amalgamation, and even under the previous Metro form of governance when the population had migrated from the core of the city. Power shifts to where the people are, and I’m not just talking geographically. The reign of traditional ‘homeowners’, as Councillor Campbell defines them, detached, single-family houses, living the Cleaver lifestyle, is under threat. There’s no room anymore in Toronto. What there is now is all there will ever be.

In order to resist such change councillors like John Campbell, and Scarborough throwback, Jim Karygiannis who voiced similar flippant disregard during the first round of public meetings for those deemed not to be real homeowners, will have to work to diminish non-homeowners’ status as residents of this city. viewPeople living in apartments and condo towers have their own building management at their beck and call, the local councillor from Ward 39 Scarborough-Agincourt opined. Granting them equal representation at City Hall would be just unfair.

Democracy by the square foot, in other words. Nothing new, of course. But we need to call it what it is.

size mattersly submitted by Cityslikr


Security Detail

April 30, 2015

With today’s release of the City of Toronto’s Ombudsman’s Report, An Investigation Into Toronto City Hall Security, ombudsmanwe’re sure to get another dose of noise from our Tales of the Mayor Behaving Badly tickle trunk. Just comes with the territory when you elect a drinker and drug abuser to public office. Messy shit happens.

And no question, messy shit happened, lots and lots of it.  Much of it reported earlier. Except I don’t remember hearing previously about security helping then mayor Rob Ford drive out of City Hall unnoticed while he was clearly under the influence. Aiding and abetting drunk driving, that is.

D’oh!

There I go, veering off onto the salacious detail trail. It’s so easy to get sidetracked. One could argue that, collectively, we got sidetracked for 4 years, caught up in the weeds and muck of scandal.

The thing to focus on in this Ombudsman’s report is not the instigator, the belligerent provocateur, but instead, how the system coped with a situation that the Ombudsman, Fiona Crean, referred to as ‘without precedent’. In short, it didn’t. Slightly less short, individual front line security officers were left to their own devices to deal with the unprecedented demands and overreach of the mayor’s office on them. forestforthetreesManagement, city management, did little to counter the belief that the mayor was the “head of the city” (339, page 58), so could not really be challenged by security.

In other words, individual security officers were hung out to dry by management, allowing the mayor to run roughshod over procedures and protocol. When management finally did respond, it was frequently too late and reactive. The mayor blew past all established boundaries, and in the process, redefined them.

Yeah, well. What are the chances of this city ever electing a crack smoking, drunken stupor falling mayor again, asked while regularly looking back over our shoulder, wondering if this is the thing that will re-ignite Ford Nation again. Fool me once, shame on you, etc., etc.

“It is behind us, the city’s moved on,” Public Works and Infrastructure Committee chair Jaye Robinson (and noted no friend of the Ombudsman’s office) responded when asked about the security report. Yes. Let us never speak of this again.

The thing is though, Ms. Crean and her staff have revealed not just specific structural flaws in how City Hall provides security but very basic, fundamental flaws, starting with, Who’s in charge here? nothingtoseehereNowhere in the City of Toronto Act, in the position of C.E.O. of the corporation of the City of Toronto or as head of city council, does it say a mayor can hijack City Hall security for his own personal use. The fact that, in this case, some security personal felt intimidated about reporting their interactions with the mayor out of fear of some sort of retaliation from him or his office (350, page 60), and when reports were written, they weren’t filed properly from the same reason, takes this far beyond this one mayor at this one moment in time.

Another mayor might look at this, see the matter of sheepish compliance in the face of the perceived power of the mayor’s office not only from the lower echelons of the public service but upper management itself, the very top of the city’s bureaucracy, and try to push the envelope in other, more troubling ways. Like say, I don’t know, procurement practices, for instance. The mayor lets it be known to the pertinent city department that he’s got an acquaintance with a business that would be perfect for job X. No pressure, you understand. Just a heads up from the “head of the city”. abuseofpowerHow about appointments to the various civic agencies, boards or committees? There’s this lovely lady, a good friend of a good friend. A great fit on the X board. Just some friendly advice from the “head of the city”.

Of course, we have rules against that sort of thing, just like there are rules about the role of security at City Hall. But if they are ignored, if those in charge of enforcing the rules, especially those sitting at the very top, look the other way, then those rules are meaningless, nothing but computer bytes and marks on a page. Rules made even less meaningful if, upon receiving a report detailing the flouting of those rules, our elected officials chose to undermine and attack the offices and staff empowered to investigate and report the abuse of those rules.

That’s why today’s report is important, why it can’t be simply put up on the shelf to collect dust, filed under just another episode of the Ford Follies. Mistakes were made, system failure detected. We need to reinforce the concept of just who exactly is the “head of the city”, underlining the fact that, no, no, it isn’t the mayor, any mayor.

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Let’s Go Over This One More Time.

April 8, 2015

It’s inconceivable to me that this discussion still has to happen, that a reporter for a local news station feels compelled to shoot a segment on such an obvious topic. saigonshitToronto needs a property tax hike to pay for crumbling infrastructure. Yet, there it is.

As the video shows, a wall of bricks showers down from a community housing building, concrete chunks off a major thoroughfare, subway closures occur frequently due to fires and floods, water mains rupture, roads sinkhole. Splice the visuals together with appropriate smash cuts and you’re left with the impression of a crumbling city, apocalypse now. Toronto. Shit.

Everybody’s got an opinion about why this situation has come to be. A bloated, fat cat bureaucracy, gorging itself on big fat bonuses while the most vulnerable residents live in slum-like conditions. Out-of-control spending on public works projects, over-budget, heavily delayed. Nathan Phillips Square revitalization. The Yonge-University-Spadina subway extension. Pick your favourite bugaboo. Pink umbrellas and boulders from northern Ontario.pointingfingers

None of these complaints are wrong, necessarily — except for the pink umbrellas and rocks down at Sugar Beach which only reveals a myopic inattention to the bigger picture. Public spending should be heavily scrutinized.  Misspending and misappropriation only heightens an already suspicious belief out there in the public sector. It’s a negative feedback loop, feeding into an always ready to pounce anti-government sentiment.

Yet, do the math and in the scheme of things, added all together, none of these projects or particular bones to pick will make even a dent on the infrastructure needs this city faces. Sure, every little bit counts but every little bit is just that, a little bit, and they don’t count for much, maybe millions when we’re taking billions. We face a far deeper crisis than the easy nickel and dime solutions offered up by the apostles of outrage. We’ve grown content living on the cheap, and living off the hard decisions and sense of community obligation by previous generations.

Amidst all the tales of infrastructure decline and dissolution in Avery Haines’ news segment came the stark fact that we’re paying, in real inflationary adjusted dollars, less in property taxes now than we did back in 2000. That’s right. Less. In 2000, 3 years after amalgamation, 3 years in which there was a property tax rate freeze. hillofbeansWe’re still paying less than that.

Toronto residents pay less in property taxes than many of the GTA’s other municipalities, in some cases significantly less. This is not particularly news to anyone disinclined to think any property tax is too much property tax. During this year’s budget debate Councillor Gord Perks wrote in the Toronto Star that owing to inflation, this city has effectively cut property taxes by 12.4% since amalgamation. Inflation keeps inflating. City council keeps on not keeping up to it. Even all of those ‘through the roof’ over-the-rate-of-inflation property tax rate increases by the profligate David Miller couldn’t help the city’s coffers keep pace.

And Boom! goes the Gardiner. Boom! the brick façade of a TCHC building. Gush! goes the water spout from the busted water main.

And our new-ish mayor, John Tory, shrugs. He was elected by the voters of Toronto to keep property taxes below the rate of inflation. Why? Because he told them anything more than that would be unnecessary. sweepundertherugPlenty of money in the efficiency banana stand, I guess.

“The property taxpayers of Toronto should not be asked to bear those expenses and investments on their own,” Tory said yesterday. “The property tax was never meant to do that.” The mayor’s not wrong. In referring to downloaded social costs like housing and major infrastructure investment in things like public transit, municipalities with their limited revenue gathering base largely on property taxes aren’t supposed to be expected to pay for those big ticket items. Here in Toronto, up until 1995, the provincial government even paid for half of the TTC’s annual operating costs. In 2015, the city is putting nearly $480 million up for that cost. That’s almost one-quarter of a billion dollars that should, in a properly function system, be coming from Queen’s Park. Multiply that by 20 years and, yeah, no wonder our transit system is barely limping into the future, let alone all the other infrastructure needs the city has.

So we can get all pissed off about city council’s quick decision to step up with $90 million to cover shortfalls with the Spadina subway extension, as Ari Goldkind does today in the Star, but it misses the larger debate. cheshirecatThe city shouldn’t be paying for any part of a major transit build. It shouldn’t be contributing anything to the Union-Pearson airport link. Why are we putting up money to renovate a regional transportation route like the Gardiner Expressway?

The province has walked away from its traditional obligations, leaving cities to pick up the slack. That’s what we should really be angry about. That’s the fight we need to be engaged in.

But then we allow the province (along with the federal government to a lesser extent) off the hook, we provide them with their one bit of buckshot of ammunition when we campaign and govern on under-taxation. We’ve given you these revenue tools to deal with the added responsibilities, the province tells Toronto. Why not use them instead of always coming to us for money?

Disingenuous, accompanied with a Cheshire cat grin? You betcha. Download both the obligations and the taxing powers so loathed by the public. citybuildingThank you very much.

Like it or not, that’s where we’re at. By standing idly by, talking about moral and business cases for more investment by the senior levels of government, while deliberately chocking off your own sources of revenue even those not part of the property tax base, is simply being an accomplice to the crumbling of the city. You know there are ways to help, at least, bolster the state of disrepair. They won’t be immediately popular (made even less so by irresponsible campaign pledges that helped get you elected). The alternative, however, is untenable. Unless, of course, you’re comfortable overseeing a city that will continue to decline.

repeatedly submitted by Cityslikr


Transit Treachery

March 4, 2015

Our list of municipally elected transit villains is well known. Why, just in the past 4+ years alone, names fly off the top of your head. villainRob Ford, Karen Stintz, Glenn De Baeremaeker, and all the subway lovers who enabled them. We elected them. We re-elected them. They are our responsibility, our bad.

Yet, I am going to make a bold, perhaps controversial assertion here.

They are but bit players in this sad, sad drama we call transit planning here in Toronto. Supporting actors in our mad tragi-farce, farcedy. Wilfully self-unaware fall guys, the lot of them. Patsies. Patsies, not pasties. Mmmmmmm… pasties.

The real culprits here, the progenitors of this city’s — the region’s — diseased public transit, Ian McShane’s Teddy Bass to Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan, is undoubtedly the provincial government. Ultimately, Queen’s Park pulls all the strings, fiscally, jurisdictionally. Theirs is the final yea or no although they would demur, preferring to project an image of sage partnership with its municipalities. Who us? We’re just sitting here minding our business, happily signing the cheques. Are you sure you don’t want a subway with that?

Follow the timeline with me on our current misadventure.benkingsley

In 2007, the city and province announced a grand plan, Transit City, as a step in the right direction to dealing with Toronto’s increasingly problematic congestion. We often forget that the project was more than just new LRT lines, 7 of those in total, running some 120 kilometres. New bus rapid transit routes were also in the mix along with increases to existing services. Looking at the original Transit City map, what is immediately apparent is the plan’s scope of bringing better transit into the long under-served inner suburban areas of the city.

Back then, the provincial government was picking up the tab for Transit City as part of their bigger regional transit vision, MoveOntario 2020. Unfortunately, the economic crisis and meltdown got in the way and, more attentive to politics than good governance, it scaled back Transit City to just 4 LRT lines. villain7Argue as we might about if the move made any economic sense but what we can say with a fair degree of certainty is that this change of plans instilled in Transit City a sense impermanence, assailability. Just more lines drawn on a map.

December 10th, 2010. Newly elected mayor, Rob Ford, unilaterally declares Transit City dead. That noise you heard coming from Queen’s Park? **Crickets**

Again, we can debate in hindsight whether or not city council should’ve stepped in and demanded the mayor bring the matter to a vote. Ford was as popular as he would ever be at this point. Had city council pushed, he may well have received the go-ahead to rip up the master agreement with Metrolinx and officially bury Transit City. Whether through wisdom or pure shocked inertia, city council stood pat, allowing the mayor enough time and rope to leave himself dangling.

The inaction on Queen’s Park in defense of Transit City is equally opaque and open to question. Remember though, they are the big bosses, the final arbiters, the holders of transit plans in their hands. They could’ve stepped in and stopped the insanity in its tracks. That power was theirs.villain1

Instead, they blinked. Deeply unpopular in the polls and facing almost certain defeat in the general election to be held the following year and not looking to have to face down the self-proclaimed Ford Nation flank in Toronto, the Liberal government shrugged and told the mayor and city council, Whatever you want to do. (It probably also didn’t hurt that any delays to the transit plan formerly known as Transit City would save the deeply indebted Liberals from immediately having to spend any money.)

Unsurprisingly, Rob Ford stumbled and fell flat on his face. City council seized control of the transit file from him. With only a 2 year delay to show for it, some semblance of order seemed to be on the horizon. Of course, it wasn’t. City council, led by a TTC commissioner eyeing the mayor’s office in a couple years, began dialogue on another transit plan, mostly pie-in-the-sky, unfunded schemes called One City. More lines on a map including – what the hell was that? – another Scarborough subway, this one a replacement for the proposed Transit City LRT extension of the Bloor-Danforth line.

It bears repeating at this point that, once more, the Liberal government could’ve put their foot down and put an end to the discussion. villain3They have the power to do that, rule by fiat pretty much. That is the nature of our municipal-provincial relationship. They didn’t, thereby perpetuating the farcical shitshow.

They’d been reduced to a minority status and their grip on power was tenuous. No false moves that might embolden the opposition to trigger an election. So just more of the, Whatevs.

But this is where the provincial government’s motives get really, really murky. During a by-election in Scarborough-Guildwood, the Liberals dubbed their candidate, Mitzi Hunter, the ‘subway champion’. Sorry, what?! Increasingly, Scarborough MPPs (many of whom were former Toronto city councillors) went public with their preference for extending the Bloor-Danforth line with a subway rather than LRT. Everybody now had picked up the Rob Ford chant of Subways! Subways! Subways! Scarborough deserves a subway!

It’s like the boss, when you ask if you can cut out early to take your kid to soccer practice, tells you ‘no’ while winking and nodding his head ‘yes’. villain2No. *wink, wink, wink, wink* Quitting time is 5pm. *wink, wink, wink, wink* You cannot take your kid to soccer practice. *Nodding ‘yes’*

So it went. City council took the bait, cancelled plans for the fully funded by the province Scarborough LRT, taking upon itself all the risks and liabilities of building a subway instead, beginning with about $75 million it was on the hook for for cancelling the LRT plan, the plan the province covertly encouraged them to cancel. The Liberals scored a majority government last June and then pretty openly expressed its preference for who Toronto should elect as its next mayor, John Tory, a candidate with transit plans of his own, SmartTrack which, just so coincidentally, meshed nicely with the province’s own regional rail plans, and a candidate with no plans to reopen the Scarborough subway debate if elected.villain4

Why do I feel the need to revisit this recent, sordid history now?

On Monday at the Executive Committee’s budget meeting, buried oddly near the bottom of the 2015 Water and Waste Water Rate Supported Budget, a budget that doesn’t usually get the same spotlight its operating and capital budget brethren receive, a report surfaced revealing that the city and Metrolinx (the provincial transit body) had been negotiating a $95 million bill Toronto was expected to pay for infrastructure upgrades that were happening along the Union-Pearson-Georgetown rail link. Hey! You want out-of-town visitors and commuters moving smoothly around your city? Pay up. That shit don’t come for free.

So, a city struggling to balance its operating budget (which it is provincially mandated to do) and with limited access to revenue to do that (and an even more limited propensity to access the tools it does have, admittedly) villain5is being told to come up with nearly $100 million to help pay for infrastructure improvements that will ultimately more directly benefit another level of government with increased taxation through economic growth. Oh, and the cost overruns on the main terminal of that rail link? You’re on your own, Toronto.

It is clearly evident that this city is more than capable of fucking itself. What’s becoming less apparent is why we have to continue putting up with a second fucking from a senior level of government more concerned about its own well-being than the municipalities it is purportedly looking out for. As my good friend MookieG77 said on the Twitter yesterday, this is just another form of provincial downloading onto cities.

While the idea of pushing for provincial status for the GTA remains quixotically out on the fringes of political discourse, it’s just not seeming that crazy an idea currently. For 20 years now, Queen’s Park has not acted much like a partner, albeit a senior partner in its relationship with Toronto. The dynamic is more like an occupier. villain6Happy to take our money but less interested in providing sound oversight or reasonable leadership unless it provides some tangible gain for them in return.

If we’re going to go down in some sort of ignominious flame out, let it at least be one of our own making and not imposed by a government who views us as little more than a liability, a vote rich and money laden liability.

rebelliously submitted by Cityslikr


Everything’s Fine. Ignore All Evidence To The Contrary.

March 3, 2015

I know the drill.nothingtoseehere

Take a deep breath. Rob Ford is no longer the mayor of Toronto. We are in capable hands now. We are in responsible, prudent, capable hands. Inhale, exhale.

Sitting through the morning session of yesterday’s special Executive Committee meeting to discuss, debate and amend the 2015 budget before passing it along to city council next week for a final vote, and I’m not feeling particularly reassured, however.

City staff’s message was clear. Holes have been plugged. Band aids and duct tape liberally applied as stop gap measures to balance the operating budget. But the recent approach to financing the city is not sustainable. A fiscal bullet was dodged again this year. Next year…?

Mayor Tory shrugged. Every year we hear the same doom and gloom tune. Every year things work out. Relax. alfredeTake a deep breath. The city is in capable hands now. Responsible, prudent, capable hands.

No matter the state of good repair backlog, manifested by the creaky condition of our public transit, the long, long repair list in our TCHC housing, the flood of broken watermains under duress from the extremely cold weather last month. What, me worry?

Everything’s fine. There’s no need to panic and start talking about new sources of revenue. An above the rate of inflation property tax increase? “An admission of failure,” according to the mayor.

Toronto does not have a revenue problem.

Sound familiar? It should. Because, no matter how much the appearance of responsible, prudent, capable leadership this administration wants to project, no matter how many times key members of the mayor’s team tell us that’s what they stand for (there’s some inverse proportionality to the number of times they say it to the actual reality of the claim), agenda-wise, Mayor Tory and his executive are little more than extensions of the previous holder of the office.

Think I’m exaggerating?failureisnotanoption

Of the 10 members on Mayor Tory’s Executive Committee who spent at least some of last term serving in the same role under former mayor Rob Ford, they collectively voted with Ford nearly 73% of the time (according to Matt Elliott’s council scorecard). Throw in Councillor Ana Bailão, as she worked with the Fords on the affordable housing file, and that brings this mayor’s Executive Committee overlap with Ford’s numbers down to 69%. Even factoring in the 12th member, the least Ford friendly of Mayor Tory’s Executive Committee, Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon (she aligned herself with Rob Ford less than 1 in 5 times) and you still have nearly a two-thirds consensus between the two administrations.

Of course, the mayor, his budget chief and other team spokes people point to very obvious differences. Increases in services to the TTC, for example, eventually restored to 2010 levels before Rob Ford took an axe to them. Commendable, for sure, laudatory even if it were still 2010. In the interim, there’s 4 years of ridership growth, now packed onto and into 2010 service standards.

Clawing our way back to running to catch up from behind.

Mayor Tory brushes aside demands to even discuss an above the rate of inflation property tax increase or new revenue tools wolfinsheepsclothing(aside from hikes to user fees, the mayor loves user fees except for car drivers, leave the poor drivers alone, would you) because he believes that the big ticket items Toronto has to deal with must involve getting senior levels of government to the proverbial table. Until such a time, we can trim away here and there at city operations, gently nudge revenue in a way not to piss off too many people. Make the pretense of responsible, prudent, capable governance.

He’s not wrong, at least not in the first part of that equation. Toronto (and every other city in this country) doesn’t have the revenue or governance tools at its disposal to deal with what is essentially a gaping infrastructure deficit. Without those, both the province and federal governments have to step up and chip in.

But just how realistic is that scenario?

Ottawa hasn’t really been involved in municipal matters for a generation now. And how many times already during Mayor Tory’s 3 months in office has the province basically told him to get stuffed when he’s asked for financial help? Why, just yesterday we learned that Toronto got a double-dose of fuck you from Queen’s Park and Ottawa when the city was denied any funding help for cost overruns at Union Station, only one of the major transit hubs for the country’s biggest city and region that generates a fifth of the national GDP.loosechange

Sorry, pal. We’d really like to help but we’re a little strapped right now. In fact, maybe you could spot us a buck or two…

Yeah. Adding insult to snubbery, it also came to light yesterday after a two-hour in camera session that the city is expected to chip in on Metrolinx’s building of the Union-Pearson Express-Georgetown rail link. We’re facing a bill of nearly $100 million from the province for various improvements to their regional rail plans along the lines running through Toronto.

This is the environment Mayor Tory expects to make nice and extract money for the city?

Maybe if he’d have stepped up from the start and stated that there was no way he was going to raise taxes or introduce new revenue tools in order to pad provincial coffers, I’d be right there with him. neroThose demands from the government at Queen’s Park that the city needs to start using the revenue streams it was given back in 2006 sort of ring hollow now. Raise taxes, so we don’t have to.

But Mayor Tory isn’t doing that. He’s pretending like there’s nothing wrong, like this is just a little blip, a rough patch that can be managed with a capable, prudent, responsible approach. We just need to tighten our belts, be more efficient.

If Rob Ford set the city on fire or, at least, tossed gasoline onto the hot spots, Mayor John Tory is just fiddling while we burn, hoping, I guess, for the restorative powers of fire.

consumedly submitted by Cityslikr


How High Sir?

February 19, 2015

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it 17 million times.

You want to fix City Hall? Start electing better city councillors. upthehillEasier said than done, for sure, given the disheartening results of last year’s municipal campaign. Thirty-seven of thirty-eight incumbents returned to office including one still under the cloud of a police investigation. Another, Frank Di Giorgio in Ward 12 York South Weston.

The councillor was on Metro Morning today along with another former budget chief, Shelley Carroll, to talk about the city’s need for more revenue, new revenue tools. “Do you think we need new taxes, Frank Di Giorgio?” asked the show’s host, Matt Galloway. Here’s how the councillor responded:

Not at this point. I think certainly, I think the one thing that’s important in the immediate future is that we have to support the mayor…

Say what?

That’s what’s important in the immediate future? City council needs to support the mayor? [Begins flipping frantically through the city’s Code of Conduct for Members of Council. Must support the mayor…Must support the mayor….] fealtyNope. Not seeing that stipulation.

Councillor Di Giorgio has been a local representative for almost 30 years now, at City Hall in amalgamated Toronto since 2000. This is the sum of all his civic wisdom. “I think one thing that’s important in the immediate future is that we have to support the mayor.”

If the councillor actually believes that — and he’s not alone in that way of thinking, sadly, in talking to a candidate during last year’s election who was running against another deadweight incumbent, I was told that a few years earlier in discussing with the councillor why he had voted a certain way, he was told that, You gotta support the boss — why bother with city council races in the first place? Just elect a mayor, be done with it. No messy debates to deal with, rubber stamp city council meetings, items all passed with a waxed red royal seal.

Parsing Councillor Di Giorgio’s go along to get along logic a little further, consider his 2014 re-election. At Marshall’s Musings, Sean Marshall has done fantastic work breaking down the numbers October’s election. waxsealA look at the results in Ward 12 shows that less than one in five voters there voted for John Tory. The councillor fared little better, garnering under 30% of the popular vote where just over 1300 ballots separated him from the 4th place challenger.

So, less than one in three voters gave Councillor Di Giorgio a mandate to unwaveringly support a mayor who fewer than one in five Ward 12 voters backed? It’s how first-past-the-post elections work, I get it, but it’s almost as if the councillor thinks we have some sort of presidential system at City Hall, though. The Big Guy wins. You fall in line behind the Big Guy.

Councillor Di Giorgio’s views on such ring-kissing fealty to the mayor also extends to city staff. As Jude MacDonald reminded me, back during the last administration when the councillor was still TTC commissioner and voted to fire then-CEO Gary Webster, he had his reasons. “Excellence in bureaucracy means the ability to perform tasks that are consistent with leaders of a corporation, the leaders of a city,” he declared. “It’s the ability to put forward positions that are consistent with positions adopted by the mayor.”

Your councillor for Ward 12 York South Weston, folks.  Frank Di Giorgio.

So, city councillors are elected to merely to serve at the pleasure of the mayor. Such passiveness from Di Giorgio extends to the city’s dealings with the province evidently. jumphighhowDuring the Metro Morning discussion, he said exploring the idea of more revenue tools will simply let the province off the hook for paying their share of stuff like social housing. They’ve already stopped paying, Councillor Carroll pointed out. That’s why the city’s scrambling to plug the hole in its operating budget. That’s why we need to a discussion about new revenues. It’s all on us now.

The councillor was having none of it. No need to rush. We already have revenue tools in the arsenal, like the Land Transfer Tax which is bringing in substantial amounts of money to the city coffers. Maybe we could milk some more from that cash cow. If not, the City of Toronto Act is coming up for renewal in a few years, 2018 or so. Let’s revisit this discussion then. In the meantime, don’t ‘undermine the mayor’s initiatives’ because that would be ‘dangerous’. Loose lips sink ships, I guess.

Councillors like Frank Di Giorgio are throwbacks to an era when municipalities were little more than wards of the province, where we were given the property tax to play with, to largely pay for local initiatives, roads, sewers, maybe a portion of public transit. A time when the province contributed substantially more to the overall operations of this city than it sees fit to now. As Councillor Carroll (as well as the city manager, Joe Pennachetti) pointed out, Toronto is a big boy now, closing in on 3 million people. asleeponthejobIt’s time we put on our big boy pants and realize we’ve been pushed out of the nest.

Provincial contributions to the well-being of this city will be grudging and probably when it is only politically advantageous for them to do so. We can act like two year-olds and hold our breath until we turn blue in the face in hopes of changing their attitude but, well, umm, I wouldn’t…hold my breath. But that’s what Mayor Tory has in mind, and loyal foot soldiers like Councillor Di Giorgio see it as his job to follow the mayor’s marching orders.

After all, that’s what he’s been doing for three decades now. That’s what he was elected to do.

at your servicely submitted by Cityslikr


The Source Of The Problem

August 1, 2014

So, I’m catching up on my magazine subscriptions and I come across this interesting article, toomanymagazinesCanada’s Infrastructure Gap: Funds missing to repair our deteriorating public utilities, in the June 2013 issue of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternative’s Monitor. That’s right. June 2013. I’m a little behind. Stop me if you’ve read all this before.

Not to come across the fatalist here but it’s hard to read this report and see how all the plans and platforms we’re hearing during this campaign from mayoral and city council candidates for making Toronto a better place to live are going to make a lick of difference.

You see, there’s one reason, and one reason only this city, along with every other city in the country, is facing the kind of fiscal crunch they’re facing in terms of increased congestion, affordable housing, crumbling, aging and crumbling infrastructure: the near absence of the federal government. crumblinginfrastructure3Ottawa’s where the money is and they’re not rushing to hand much of it over.

And it’s not just a Harper government thing either. For decades now, Ottawa has backed away from its traditional commitments to contributing to municipal capital projects. Liberal red or Tory blue, both have stepped away from the funding table, offering up little more than what is politically beneficial to them.

Here’s the situation, summed up in one paragraph:

In 1955, the federal government accounted for 34% of capital investment. By 2003, it had declined to 13%, the provincial share remained constant at 39%, and the municipal share increased from 27% to 48%.

Even with the bump up of federal infrastructure spending in the face of the 2008 economic crisis, it remains below the necessary level, as a percentage of the GDP, to even help maintain a state of good repair. crumblinginfrastructureThat shortfall has almost exclusively fallen onto the shoulders of cities to deal with as the provinces haven’t really picked up any of the slack left by federal neglect.

While the majority of our tax dollars are bundled up and sent to Ottawa and (in the case of Ontario) Queen’s Park, the level of government with the least ability to generate the revenue now has the most responsibility to pay for the needed infrastructure. Bit by bit, things get put off, ignored, upgrades and expansion are delayed until the work has to be done or even more drastic measures taken. Sell off public housing stock to help pay for upkeep on the rest anyone?

For many people, they make little distinction between the jurisdictional powers of our 3 levels of government. crumblinginfrastructure1For them, they pay all these taxes and watch as things get worse around them. The roads suck. The city’s a little grubbier, more garbage on the streets. Their basement’s flood when it rains. Where’s all our money going? they demand.

And the ground is made fertile for the likes of Rob Ford and his merry band of anti-government tax-haters.

The city doesn’t have a revenue problem. The city has a spending problem.

Truthfully, there’s every reason to think Rob Ford doesn’t make the distinction between levels of government, and who taxes what and where that money goes. He has proven himself to be grossly uninformed about the job he’s been elected to do for nearly 14 years now. crumblinginfrastructure2Don’t rule out the possibility that when he asks the province and Ottawa for more money to fund things like his Scarborough subway pet project, he still adamantly believes the city doesn’t have a revenue problem.

Those damn councillors’ office budgets! $12 000 for umbrellas?!

Unfortunately, cutting all those nice-to-haves won’t build all the need-to-haves to put this city back together again.

We end up fighting amongst ourselves over dollars made scarce by successive absent federal governments. We can’t afford that. And people die, homeless on the street. That’s the federal government’s job. crowdedbusAnd parents are forced to put their kids in unlicensed day-care centres. We need to find efficiencies. And people are crammed tightly together on buses and streetcars.

The fact is, even with the modest types of revenue tools Toronto was given back in 2006 — the ones many of us still rail against — the city alone cannot plug the holes that need plugging, never mind build and expand the things we need to build and expand. Even the province can’t play the white knight and slay the infrastructure deficit dragon we face although, they could be a whole lot more helpful. The federal government needs to re-assume the level of investment in cities it did 50 years or so ago. crisiswhatcrisisProbably even more so, given the level of neglect it’s allowed to happen.

Easier said than done, obviously.

Municipalities remain at the mercy of the provincial governments. Ottawa is in another stratosphere entirely. Where’s the leverage cities have to start making demands of the federal government?

But a good first step might be to recognize our commonalities rather than emphasize our differences. The problems all cities have right now in coming up with the funding to build better, stronger communities and neighbourhoods, to bring our infrastructure from somewhere back in the mid-20th century, notmyproblemstems from one source and one source only. The negligent disregard with which we are treated by our federal elected representatives.

It’s time we started to use our numbers to make our demands better heard in Ottawa. The fact of the matter is, as goes Toronto (or Montreal or Winnipeg or Calgary or Vancouver), so goes Vancouver (or Calgary or Winnipeg or Montreal or Toronto). As go our cities, so goes the country.

unitedly submitted by Cityslikr