Keeping Up With The Joneses

January 18, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There’s Really Nothing Up His Sleeve

January 21, 2015

Yesterday’s 2015 budget launch left me feeling a little discombobulated. That sense you get after watching a magician try and pull the wool over your eyes for a couple hours. magicactFlim-flammed, bamboozled even.

It was different than the budgetary voodoo Rob Ford attempted while he was mayor. Trust me, folks. This won’t hurt a bit. Those aren’t service cuts. We call them ‘adjustments’.

No. Mayor John Tory’s first kick at the can was all about, what did he repeatedly call it? “The largest investment in service improvements in recent history.”

And credit where credit’s due.

Both public transit and Shelter, Support and Housing (or, at least, shelter and support) received nice bumps in spending, the TTC especially so. It will see service restored to 2010 levels. “Stabilizing of transit,” City Manager Joe Pennachetti called it. misdirectionA step forward in order to be running on the spot.

In total, it’s about a $1.8 billion increase in spending from last year’s operating budget, leaving some to call it ‘left-leaning’.

But here’s the thing. It’s not immediately obvious where the money is coming from to pay for that spending. In order to balance the operating side of the budget (which, I’ll remind everyone again, it is provincially mandated for municipalities to balance their operating budgets), the city has to come up with the revenue to the penny. $11.4 billion spent. $11.4 billion must be found in revenue.

This staff recommended budget proposes a below-the-rate-of-inflation property tax increase. So it doesn’t cover the inflation-adjusted cost of the delivering of services and programs. That means, in effect, a reduction in the money available for those services and programs. (Here, let Councillor Gord Perks explain it for you. Or Neville Park. Or Alex Mazer.)

Not to mention Mayor Tory’s directive to departments to find 2% efficiencies and city staff’s demand that department’s also ‘absorb the inflation’. nothingupmysleeveThis, despite the fact, that the city manager, as he was heading for the exit last spring before mayor-elect John Tory convinced him to stay for one more budget cycle a few months later, told us there was no more gravy to be found, no more fat to be trimmed. Apparently, retirement wasn’t the only thing Mr. Pennachetti reconsidered.

It’s a little of the ol’ robbing Peter to pay Paul. You want improved transit and more shelter space? Well somebody’s got to pay for it, and don’t expect it to be property owners. The pie got bigger but the slices became a little more uneven.

While the budget was a little tax-shy, let’s call it, it certainly embraced user fees. There’s an increase of $14 million in unidentified ones in the document right now. Plus, a good chunk of the TTC improvements this year will be covered by the proposed fare increase, one campaign pledge Mayor Tory seemed comfortable breaking.gobbluth

On the other hand, drivers are getting the Gardiner Expressway repaired 8 years earlier than scheduled to the tune of nearly half a billion dollars in the capital budget with nary a word about having to chip in a little more to cover the costs. The roughly $60 million the Vehicle Registration Tax once brought into city coffers multiplied by those 8 years would’ve more than covered those costs. Apparently some users are more preferred than others, even in John Tory’s Toronto.

A couple glaring holes still stand between the city and a truly balanced budget. There’s the $86 million one, created when the province decided to end the practice of pooling payments to Toronto to help pay for many mandated social services. Not to worry, the city’s Chief Financial Officer, Robert Rossini, excitedly told us yesterday, a big announcement was coming, talks had been very productive with the province about settling that amount. Everything’s under control.

Turns out, the big announcement seems to be a $200 million line of credit extended to the city from Queen’s Park, including market rate interest charges. swordboxOr what some of us might consider a deferred tax increase or user fee. Line up that can so we can kick it down the road a bit.

The other shoe dangling there, waiting to drop is the police budget. While the staff recommending a flatlining of it — I know, I know. That kind of thing always happens. And by always, I mean almost never – the city and the Toronto Police Services are currently negotiating a new collective agreement which almost always results in pay increases for the police. Budget Chair Gary Crawford assures us that money has been set aside for that contingency. How much? He won’t say. (Why would he as it might tip the city’s hand in terms of the ongoing negotiations.)

But as Ben Spurr pointed out in NOW, over the past 10 years, the police budget has gone up some $241 million. So it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect at least a $20-$30 million bump this year. But again, don’t worry. Everything’s under control. Even after the $86 million, there’s still over $100 million on that line of credit from the province.

Look. It’s not a terrible, terrible budget. Even Councillor Gord Perks says so. rockyandbullwinkleThere is a big investment in vital needs of the city. But Mayor Tory is still trying to pretend these things can happen magically, without having to say the word ‘taxes’ above a whisper. He’s putting a glossy patina on the Rob Ford maxim of governance. Sure you can have things. And we can get somebody else to pay for them.

It’s fundamentally dishonest and only serves to put off the inevitable, leaving the mess for somebody else to clean up.

unmesmerizedly submitted by Cityslikr


The Essential Eight — Council Challenger Endorsements VI

October 8, 2014

Our next installment of city council challenger endorsements begins in Etobicoke. Seems we’re always starting in Etobicoke. Maybe Etobicoke is the nexus of change at City Hall this October. (A different, more positive change than the one that came eastward in 2010.) As Etobicoke goes, so goes Toronto?

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Ward 5 Etobicoke-Lakeshore

This one landed on the radar late in the campaign. An open ward left vacant by the departure of Peter Milczyn (not necessarily in a hurry) for the provincial legislature at Queen’s Park. The only “names”, such as they are, vying to replace him are a former staffer in the former councillor’s office and the runner-up in Ward 5 in 2010 who came within a hundred votes or so of defeating Milczyn.

But the real deal in Ward 5 is Raymond Desilets. I cannot say enough good things about his candidacy. He is a pro-growth, urban-minded challenger with a platform full of ideas to revitalize and renew neighbourhoods and communities in the ward. How many candidates have you heard make this kind of statement? Property Taxes – I’m Not Complaining. He’s even got a streetcar proposal to provide relief to transit users commuting to and from work downtown.

Perhaps my favourite bit of information about Desilets — Spoiler Alert! This story is contained in the post I wrote about him a couple weeks ago – is how, when mulling over a possible run, he took 4 months to put together his reasons for running and held a mini-Town Hall for 35 friends and family to see what they thought. Fortunately he got a thumbs up from them.

We here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke endorse Raymond Desilets for city council in Ward 5 Etobicoke-Lakeshore.

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Ward 18 Davenport

Alex Mazer is in an odd kind of uphill battle in the Ward 18 race. He’s facing a not entirely awful one-term incumbent but a wholly uninspiring one. Ana Bailão may be one of the most inconsistent, flippy-floppy councillors of the past term.

As we discovered in our talk with Mazer back in June, his is a dynamic campaign built on a foundation of increasing civic engagement. He wants to push forward the concept of participatory budgeting, opening up the budget process to wider public input. He’s a fierce supporter of using schools as community hubs and is strong in his defence of not selling off school properties for simple residential development.

While I don’t think there’s much of an age gap between Mazer and the incumbent he’s looking to replace, their respective ideas on city building seem generations apart. Alex Mazer represents a new era. Ward 18 could use the change.

We here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke endorse Alex Mazer for city council in Ward 18 Davenport.

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Challengers To Watch IV

June 26, 2014

Walking along Bloor Street West in Ward 18 Davenport with Alex Mazer, I was struck by a thought. This is like strolling in my own backyard. railpathWhich it kind of is since I live right next door in Ward 19 Trinity-Spadina. I have played baseball in the parks in Ward 18. I have drunk in a few of the bars in Ward 18. I have cycled Ward 18’s railpath.

Su warda, mi warda.

(I hope that totally made-up Spanish on my part doesn’t actually mean anything rude or derogatory.)

I met Alex last year when he hosted a Better Budget TO event. It’s a group advocating for participatory budgeting, a more open process of determining how local governments spend money that actually includes not only community involvement but community decision making. (See what Councillor Shelley Carroll’s doing with Section 37 money in Ward 33.) participatorybudgetThe movement has gained traction in cities like New York and Chicago.

Participatory budgeting is also something more conducive to local governments than either the provincial or federal levels, both where Alex has spent some time working previously. Their budgets are dropped, fully formed, take it or leave it, folks. Municipal budgets, while dense and arcane, go through a few stages including one where the public gets to express its opinion, before being finalized by city council.

It’s this relative openness that has drawn Alex toward municipal politics. An ability to interact and work with constituents on issues that directly affect their quality of lives on a daily basis. Budgets, schools, public spaces, transit, the state of our roads and the constant construction. Oh, the construction.

Like many of us, Alex would like to figure out a way to better co-ordinate construction throughout the city in order to avoid what seems like a regular tear up and rebuild along his ward’s stretch of Bloor Street.

bloorstreetwestWhile not as intense as some neighbouring wards to the east or south of it, Ward 18 is experiencing similar kinds of pressures that come from growth and intensification, beginning with the need to deliver new infrastructure and maintain the old. The development along Queen Street on the edge of Parkdale is already in place. There’s a mixed used plan on what is now derelict land running beside the railpath right next to the Nestle chocolate factory near Dundas Street West and Lansdowne that’s been years in the making and looks ready to go. The Union-to-Pearson rail link will have a stop in Ward 18.

It’s going to be a serious hub, Ward 18, bringing with it all the opportunities and conflicts inherent in that. Continued pressure on employment lands. Cars versus transit versus biking. Like the old days versus new density. Electrification versus diesel.

You might think, why put all that into the lap of a newcomer? The current councillor, while only finishing up her first term, has worked in the ward for a while now, dating back to her time as Executive Assistant to longtime former councillor, Mario Silva. nestleLet’s just stick with the steady hand of experience.

The thing is, from my perch watching city council over the past 4 years, Councillor Ana Bailão has not shown herself up to the task. While not a destructive force certainly, she has regularly landed on the side of issues that truly mystify. Sure, there was voting to rescind the Vehicle Registration Tax which, while politically popular, hasn’t done much for the city’s revenue stream. She also voted to freeze property taxes in 2011, contract out waste collection west of Yonge (but against awarding that contract to Green 4 Life), eliminate the plastic bag fee, initially voted to keep the bike lanes on Jarvis but then voted to re-confirm the vote she’d voted against to tear them up (??) The councillor voted for the Scarborough subway.

Little rhyme nor reason or pattern. There doesn’t seem to be a there, there.

Even on her signature item, chair of the Affordable Housing Committee, nothing much happened. It might’ve contained the fire but certainly hasn’t put it out. TCHC management remains a mess. The state of good repair continues to grow. No recommendations have been put forth to deal with what is a pressing, pressing situation.

In truth, Councillor Bailão has been something of a disappointment. Not at all dependable on the important issues facing the city. dupontbusMaybe a change in tone and function at City Hall would reveal a different Ana Bailão but it’s hard to see much evidence of that possibility.

And if Ward 18 is counting on change for better representation, why not go whole hog and elect a new councillor?

Alex Mazer?

He’s certainly bringing a lot to the table. Clearly engaged and on top of the issues directly affecting the ward and the wider city, Mazer wants to open up that engagement further, bringing the public into the decision-making process sooner, whether it’s the budget or local development plans. Anyone who ‘deeply disagrees with the Ford agenda’, as Mazer stated a week or so ago on Reddit, would be a step in the right direction from the ward’s current representation.

But I’ll let you decide for yourself, leaving you with candidate Mazer’s own words:

Change is happening — there’s no question about it. There are a lot of good things about this change — I think that most residents in the area that I talk to feel optimistic about the future of their neighbourhoods.

But despite this optimism, I also hear from renters, artists, newcomers, middle class families, and more, who feel that they can no longer afford to live downtown — who feel that they will never be able to afford to buy a home in the area. This is part of a broader challenge that our city faces — that people’s opportunities are increasingly shaped by their postal code (U of T’s David Hulchanski, among others, has done some great work on this).

City government can’t stop this change, but we can manage it better I believe. One of my priorities is to take a more proactive approach to managing development in the ward, working with communities to identify the types of growth and change they want before the ‘development application’ signs go up and they’re left scrambling to have their voices heard. A good example of this is the need to work with the community and other levels of government to preserve public space at Dufferin and Bloor.

A better affordable housing policy can also help. See some of my thoughts on this.

I think we need to focus more on the growing inequality in our city. It’s troubling that inequality has taken on a more prominent place in the American political discourse but remains a relatively minor part of the public debate here in Toronto.

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