Everything’s fine. Everything’s under control despite the assault on reasoned municipal governance endured by the city of Toronto over the past 4 years.
Storm clouds on the horizon?
Queen’s Park and Ottawa have to get more seriously involved in both the transit and housing files. The province needs to return to the table with its share of half the TTC’s annual operating budget. The feds, well. No country in the developed world is missing any sort of national participation in social housing (not to mention public transit) except this one. Cities should not, cannot be expected to foot the lion’s share of funding to provide affordable housing for its residents. Without serious partners on this, City Manager Joe Pennachetti suggests, sooner rather than later, we will be forced to start closing down housing because there will be no way to keep all of it safe and inhabitable. He calls this the “smoking gun”, threatening Toronto’s fiscal sustainability.
Local politicians also need to wean themselves off such a heavy dependence on the property tax base as a source of revenue. No, no, no. This doesn’t mean keeping them low. Our residential property tax rate remains the lowest in the entire GTA. We have to diversify, tap into other ways of paying for things. The city manager is partial to a local sales, income or corporate tax. Discuss amongst yourselves but we need to stop pretending that Toronto doesn’t have a revenue problem. It was a catchy phrase that was the complete opposite of the truth.
And with that, Mayor Rob Ford solved the city’s inequality and social disparity. Just like that. Just three words. We have enough.
The mayor was speaking about the city staff’s report on expanding what used to be referred to as Priority Neighbourhoods and now re-dubbed Neighbourhood Improvement Areas. If OK’d by city council, they’d also grow in number from the current 13 to 31. In short, it means increased investment directed at neighbourhoods, targeting various social, economic and infrastructure factors that contribute (or don’t, as the case may be) to inequities throughout the city.
Of course, the mayor was having none of it. Priorities neighbourhoods are where you go to campaign and show that you’re always looking out for the little guy. As an elected official you don’t actually try and solve any of the problems. That’s what the private sector’s for. Government is just there, to sit back, stay out of the way and keep taxes low.
While Mayor Ford is the poster child on city council for this way of thinking, he’s far from alone. More than a few of his low tax, no spend colleagues represent wards in which these priority neighbourhoods are located and they resent the designation, believing it discourages investment because, I guess, business types don’t care for the poors. Way back in the early days of the Ford administration Matt Elliott summarized the move by the likes of councillors Crisanti, Mammoliti and Nunziati to try and rid their wards of the stigma of neediness designated by such a distasteful moniker.
End inequality by renaming it.
Even doing that, however, hasn’t placated Mayor Ford. Despite staff’s best intention to make their findings more thorough and robust, more inclusive to the hurdles people face living and working in this city, he shrugs it off in three easy-to-remember words. For him, calling it something else only expanded the numbers, made the problems seem worse.
What he refuses to accept, what every adherent to his low tax, spending not a revenue problem political philosophy refuses to accept is that it is this very approach that has exacerbated the problems. Chronic underfunding in both hard and soft services that go toward enhancing everyone’s ability to make the most of the opportunities available to them living in this city – from transit to housing, parks to daycare – have created the unhealthy and insecure situations giving rise to our ballooning priority neighbourhoods. There is no other alternative.
We’ve gone through the pretty much useless exercise of finding efficiencies that helped sweep Ford into power. Take whatever number he wants to throw at you as the number he’s saved while mayor, $400 million, a billion, it doesn’t matter. There’s nothing left to tap. It’s done. No more juice to squeeze.
Don’t believe me? Ask the fiscal hawk of a city manager who’s obediently followed the mayor’s instruction to stop the gravy train. “I believe we’ve gone as far as we can without impacting services,” Joe Pennachetti said in December. While some of us would argue services and programs have already been more than impacted, the statement still stands. We’ve gone as far as we can down this ruinous route of penny-pinching and cheapening of our civic life.
The complaint often heard during Rob Ford’s mayoral run in 2010 was that with all the spending going on under then mayor David Miller (who, it should be noted from the above article, Mr. Pennachetti applauded for beginning the fiscal reforms at City Hall) there was little to show for it. Untrue on a number of points especially with substantial increases in transit services to name one, it was entirely ridiculous to think that 7 years of increased spending was going to immediately reverse decades of under-spending. The first 3 years of property tax freezes under Mel Lastman. The actual costs of amalgamation and provincial downloading. Transformation was not going to happen overnight.
Not to mention the history of low tax and pay-as-you-go services and programs pursued by many of the former municipalities making up Toronto’s inner suburbs.
Now, I know there are multiple factors at play here. The concentration of wealth and businesses in the downtown core. A certain continued disregard emanating from there outward to the city’s perceived hinterlands.
But look at the map. It cannot be a coincidence that many of the former priority neighbourhoods and many of the new additional Neighbourhood Improvement Areas sit in those former municipalities. Etobicoke, Scarborough, York. Traditional home to many of the city’s most anti-tax, small government zealots. Such zealotry continues to be represented on city council today.
The mayor, his brother, the afore-mentioned trio of Crisanti, Mammoliti and Nunziata. Throw in the budget chief, Frank Di Giorgio. The former budget chief, Mike Del Grande. Budget Committee members, councillors Gary Crawford and Ron Moeser.
Councillor James Pasternak, also a member of the Budget Committee and fiscal hawk, bemoaned the loss of a priority neighbourhood, Westminster-Branson, in his ward in the new configuration. “This is not a time to cut back, when you make certain headway,” the councillor said. “You keep the funding to make sure there’s no sliding back.”
Yeah well, Councillor Pasternak. Maybe you should’ve thought about that when you fought to keep our property taxes low, tossed out the vehicle registration tax, put money toward a totally unnecessary subway. Didn’t you ask for a report exploring the possibility of reducing the Land Transfer Tax, another source of city revenue, next year?
So here we are, with the lowest property tax rate in the GTA, under-utilized and always under threat sources of possible revenue, staring at huge infrastructure needs and growing segments of the city woefully under-serviced, isolated and alienated. We’ve tried scaling back our efforts and investment in the hopes of somehow, miraculously, turning things around. We haven’t and we won’t until we accept the fact and responsibility that improvement in our city’s physical environment and quality of life doesn’t just happen, doesn’t come for free or even on the cheap.
We have enough? How about, We’ve had enough? Respect for Taxpayers was a real nice, catchy slogan but it’s done fuck all for an increasing number of residents of this city. It’s time to stop pretending and accepting responsibility to make things better for all of us, not just some of us.
If you take nothing else away from the first day of the 2014 budget debate, let it be this:
From City Manager Joe Pennachetti, we have about reached cap level in finding savings for the city through efficiencies. There’s no more fat on the bone. Any further efficiencies will result in service and program cuts.
Also from the city manager, any continuation of raising property taxes at less than the rate of inflation (at least without some other source of revenue to fill the gap) is not sustainable. It is not fiscally responsible. It will lead to further reductions in services and programs in the long run.
Beware the city politician who now comes to you and says we can maintain all the services and programs we want, need and must provide through finding efficiencies and keeping tax increases unsustainably low.
They are selling you a bill of goods.
That’s what you need to take away from Wednesday.
Oh, and Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti is a douche. A malignant force on the political life of this city. A do-nothing elected representative unable to grasp even the most basic concepts of municipal governance.
And about efficiencies and low taxes.
And another thing. Councillor David Shiner is intent on further gutting the ability of the city to deliver the services and programs it is obligated to. He sees gaps in job vacancies at City Hall and its inability to fill them as needed as some sort of failure to deliver those services and programs to the public. He demands a refund. Starve it and kill it.
And Councillor Doug Ford. See, Mammoliti, Giorgio above.
And one more thing. Budget Chief Frank Di Giorgio has absolutely no place being budget chief. He understands the numbers less than I do. And I’m not budget chief.
Remember all that as we go forward. Remember, all these councillors either don’t care or don’t know that the policies they’re pursuing are hindering the city’s ability to deal with the growth it’s experiencing in any sort of fair, healthy or sustainable manner. They all claim to respect the taxpayer, to be looking out for the taxpayer yet don’t seem to give a toss about the financial wherewithal of the city they’re elected to represent to manage and its ability to deal with the future.
Remember all that going forward.
That, and Mayor Ford is in legal trouble again. Again.
It is days like these I am amazed these arsonists have not yet managed to burn this place to the ground.