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

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

His Master’s Voice

At a party Saturday night, the conversation inevitably turned to local politics as it tends to do when I find myself at a public gathering. cantshutuupSure, I can be a shout-y bore on the subject but, in my defense, I rarely am the instigator. If somebody’s going to ask me what I think of our new mayor, am I supposed to demur and pretend to admit that I don’t really follow what goes on at City Hall, that I don’t have an opinion?

I’ll spare you all the details, since you’re reading this you’ve probably heard them all before, only to tell you that the conversation’s conclusion ended with a mutual marveling at the fact that Toronto is somehow still functioning. Frequently finding itself near the top of Best Of lists and not some smoldering Rust Belt crater, it is something of a wonder how the city escapes the clutches of oftentimes terrible, terrible governance. It is what it is despite not because of the elected leadership that purports to be looking after the city’s best interests.

That is, for those of us in comfortable enough positions to enjoy the benefits on offer here. If we aren’t spending disproportionate amounts of our income to keep a roof over our heads. If we’re not trapped in a single mode of transport in order to get around. If you’re not dependent on the soft services – the nice-to-haves rather than the need-to-haves — the city provides. If living here isn’t just some daily grind that leaves us looking longingly for any possibility to pack up and move to greener, more livable pastures.livinglarge

Those are the signs of neglectful governance, of course, the loose threads of poverty and inequality concentrated throughout the city. All those shiny skyscrapers are certainly one way (and not an unimportant way) to measure civic well-being but ultimately meaningless while we ignore the homeless deaths and children going to school hungry. A city working exclusively for the Haves is just another gated community.

Reading Royson James’ article yesterday in the Toronto Star, Exploring the murky depths of Toronto’s budget making, it’s painfully clear that neglectful governance has been par for the course for this city for a couple decades now. Not just the startlingly low caliber of local representation we seem content with, almost willfully excited to put into office, no, no. Where the real power resides, at Queen’s Park, Toronto’s had to battle, at times, a deliberate attack on City Hall’s ability to serve as an effective manager of the city’s affairs.

Look at the numbers. $2 billion of the $10 billion or so operating budget goes toward provincial and federal services and programs delivered by the city. hismastersvoiceSome are voluntary while others are legislated. Some get actual funding from the senior levels of governments, some don’t. For the stuff the city either chooses or is mandated to provide that doesn’t come with money from Queen’s Park or Ottawa, the choice is both stark and unpleasant: cuts elsewhere in the budget and/or higher than desired tax and revenue increases.

For most of the amalgamated city’s history, we’ve leant more heavily on scaling back and putting off than actually doling out more in taxes. Our infrastructure suffers as a result. Our transit system can’t keep up with demand. Our social housing stock becomes more and more unlivable.

So here we are again with this $86 million operating gap created by the downloading of a bunch of social services as part of our amalgamation-warming gift from the Mike Harris government that has only been partially undone by the Liberal government that’s been in place since 2003. fightingoverthebillIt’s a depressing case of petty hot potato-kicking the can down the road where no side has been particularly responsible. The province looks to balance its budget and not appear to be too Toronto-centric in the eyes of the rest of Ontario (it’s never obvious which is most important to Queen’s Park), rightfully if greasily pointing to the fact the city is negligent in using its taxing revenue resources more robustly.

It’s all political fun-and-games until the operating budget has to be balanced, and people waiting for a bus or affordable housing and daycare see little improvement in their daily lives. “Hey soldier,” Willard asks, “do you know who’s in command here?” “Ain’t you?”

We’ve arrived at that point in this conversation when I ask if it’s not well past time we start to pose the question, What about a Province of Toronto? Ask people elsewhere in Ontario if they think it’s an idea worth pursuing. If your out-of-town relatives are anything like mine, you’ll probably get a whole lot of Good Riddance and Don’t let the door hit you…

The other common riposte to that line of thinking is a derisive shrug. You want the like of Rob Ford or Mel Lastman to be your premier? That’s a concern, for sure. aintyouOn the other hand, we endured Mike Harris, didn’t we?

Could it be that we get, not so much the municipal government we deserve but more the municipal government we think is appropriate to the responsibilities it has? As we have learned from our recent past, the ultimate authority for the functioning of this city, any city in Ontario, lies with the province. It can do anything it wants and we are pretty much powerless to challenge it. So who cares who the mayor is, our city councillor?

As it stands, most of our municipal decision-making is fraught with almost adolescent angst-filled nihilism. What’s it matter what we do? The province can just come in and scuttle everything. We’re told what we have to do, unsure if there’s any allowance coming to us as part of the deal. While you’re living under my roof… blah, blah, blah.

itsyou

As long as we have to answer to a level of government that places this city’s best interests secondary to its own, there can be no satisfactory outcome with this relationship. For 20 years now, Toronto has had to endure the vicissitudes of provincial attitudes toward us, some of it malicious, some of it benign, occasionally beneficial. There’s no way in a scenario rife with such uncertainty that we can possibly plan and build a better future. If the province can’t treat us with respect as their “junior partners” maybe the time has come to demand a more equal footing.

impatiently submitted by Cityslikr

The Bastards Keep Grinding

“I’m beginning to think politicians aren’t really looking out for the best interests of this city,” wide-eyed, naïve me writes. wideeyed(Yes. Such an aspect of this person exists.)

Jaded, cynical adult me turns and gives wide-eyed, naïve me a withering look.

“You’re fucking kidding me, right?”

This is a thing that happens, early on in the process most days. An ongoing battle between my cheery ingenuousness and the hardened pessimism about what passes as politics in these parts. Lately, it’s been a one-sided affair, and not in favour of the good guy.

“So who’s disappointed you this morning?” meany me asks.

Well, for starters, John Tory called a transit related press conference yesterday. Goodie, goodie, goodie, I thought. staringcontestMaybe now he’ll explain how his Smart Track funding will really work, because lately, some people, well, they’ve expressed some reservations about it. Mr. Gee and Mr. Barber.

“And what actually happened, sunshine?”

Well, not what I expected, OK?

It turned out to be an out-and-out endorsement for John Tory’s mayoral candidacy by the province’s Economic Development and Infrastructure minister and Scarborough MPP/subway lover, Brad Duguid.

“My Liberal colleagues at Queen’s Park are almost unanimously enthusiastic about John’s candidacy,” Duguid said. really“We see him as the guy… to provide the stable leadership to ensure that Toronto is the partner that we need.”

“Holy shit, eh?” nasty me exclaims, bursting out into a disturbingly cackle-like noise. “Imagine that!”

“Can they do that? Should they do that?”

The cackling gets louder and even more harsh on my sensitive ears.

I mean, it’s still nearly two months until the election and the provincial government essentially just came out and told voters in this city that John Tory is the mayor it wants, the candidate it’s willing to work with. Is that normal? Blatantly meddling in a municipal election is something that’s done regularly? Why not just cut to the chase and use its legislative powers to just appoint the next mayor of Toronto?

“I know, right?”

Even the soft-headed, big-hearted me can see the gears in motion, the politics at work. Pick the candidate who’s vowed not to re-open the Scarborough subway debate. Get somebody who isn’t Rob Ford into the mayor’s office to officially close up the Metrolinx master agreement on the previous LRT and sign off on the new subway plan. bodyblowFait accompli.

“Sure. That’s one way of looking at it,” cynical me says. “Don’t forget to factor in though that, above all else, Liberals hate the NDP. More than unfunded transit plans. More than nut job, far right conservatives, more than former opponent and rival, John Tory. John Tory, Tory leader, bad. John Tory, mayor of Toronto, good. How does that even work?”

No. No. I am not going to buy into such soul-crushing, naked cynicism. Cynicism? Fatalism.

Good me, hopeful me, sanguine me refuses to accept the fact that there are politicians out there so corrupted by power that they will sacrifice the interests of the people and places they were elected to serve purely for political gain. Partisan hackery above good, sound policy. I can’t. I won’t.toomuch

“Well, run these numbers around the daisy maypole of your mind, see what conclusion you can continue to ignore.” Meany me’s just taunting happy me now.

“The province gets its subway in Scarborough with both the feds and city kicking in some money instead of having to pull the full freight for an LRT. The province has already been working on its own version of Smart Track. Now here’s this guy volunteering to put up some city money to help them do it. A guy who’s spent the entire campaign deriding an opponent as ‘the NDP candidate’. The question isn’t why or how could the Liberal government endorse John Tory. The question is, what took them so fucking long?”

No. No. Nope. No, no, no. I’m not giving into this. Not again. There’s only one proper response now. drinking1Plug my ears and walk away until jaded, cynical adult me gets bored and goes out and gets drunk somewhere.

LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA-LA!!!

[Pulls bottle and glass from desk drawer, pours a nice, stiff drink] Look. It’s not like I enjoy being cynical and bitter. It’s not because it’s easy. It’s just… It’s just… [takes a drink]… Hope needs to toughen up, to smarten up. Hope needs to stop being taken for a sucker. Hope needs to start realizing who the real cynics in this equation are. It ain’t me. Not by a long shot. [Finishes the drink, pours another.] Not by a long shot.

dually submitted by Cityslikr