A Mayor In Major Minor

October 2, 2012

Today marks the start of what is, I believe, the 4000th city council meeting Mayor Rob Ford has presided over since taking office back in 2010. (I use the mayor’s own arithmetical tools to arrive at that number.) Looking through the meeting’s agenda the thing that immediately jumps out at me is the complete and utter lack of positive input coming from the mayor and his Executive Committee. It’s almost as if he’s mayor in title only.

Where are the major initiatives? The bold going-forwards that will set out directions to deal with the city’s pressing problems? Mayor Ford? Oh right. It’s high school football season.

Anyone else? Councillor Ford? Deputy Mayor? QB Mammoliti? Anyone, anyone? Bueller?

Instead, this is what’s shaping up to be the defining moment of this week’s council meeting. “When Toronto city council kicks off its fall session this week,” Kelly Grant wrote in the Globe and Mail yesterday, “Mayor Rob Ford will have a real shot at a real win on a real issue. If the mayor’s allies succeed in postponing or reversing a plastic-bag ban that Mr. Ford has derided as ‘outright stupid,’ he will have something to celebrate after this summer’s gaffes.”

That, folks, is what you call setting the bar really, really low.

Reversing a vote which was the result of a vote that should’ve never happened in the first place as the key to rebuilding Mayor Ford’s relevance? Halting a ban on single-use plastic bags after successfully nixing the 5 cent fee that had been imposed and which many major retailers still charge can really be classified as ‘a real win on a real issue’? What next, maestro? Watch as our mayor drinks a glass of water while his dummy talks.

Read a list of the examples Mayor Ford will cite as his administration’s major accomplishments to date – cutting councillors’ office budgets, removing the VRT, contracting out waste collection, getting the TTC deemed an essential service, setting city workers’ contracts and avoiding any threat of a strike for 4 years – a pattern emerges. Under the guise of restoring fiscal sanity and respecting the taxpayers, it’s all been about cutting, reducing, eliminating. Getting government out of the business of governing.

I Cut, Therefore I Am.

Of course, none of this comes as much of surprise to anyone who watched Rob Ford during the decade he spent as a city councillor or crunched the numbers he casually tossed around as part of his mayoral election campaign platform. However else he tried to couch it in terms palatable enough to lure a plurality of Toronto voters to back him in 2010, it was always just about less. Less government. Less spending. Less taxes.

Then he ran smack dab into the hard, cold reality of municipal governance as set out in KPMG’s Core Services Review. It wasn’t really all that gravy laden down at City Hall. Efficiencies could be found certainly but nowhere near enough to offset the loss in revenues that Mayor Ford demanded in tax cuts and freezes. No matter how many different ways you tried to do the math, the answer was always the same.

Now comes the report from the outgoing Deputy City Manager and CFO, Cam Weldon, outlining a transit funding strategy. Requested in March by city council, it is chock full of ideas on revenue generation to pay for the massive investment in public transit that the city and region must undertake, and undertake ASAP. ‘Revenue generation’ you say? You mean, taxes!

Yep. It’s going to take a whole lot more than reversing the plastic bag ban for Mayor Ford to become relevant again. Transit is but the tip of the iceberg of infrastructure investment cities are facing. Ducking your head and clutching your wallet is no longer a viable option. More is the new less, and being the mayor of small things won’t be worth one lousy nickel.

generously submitted by Cityslikr

Crisis? What Crisis?

May 17, 2012

It was surprisingly calm, Joe Pennachetti’s talk yesterday afternoon at the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance. Serene, even. Reflections on Toronto’s Fiscal Health and the Decade Ahead: A Discussion with the City Manager. Toronto’s Fiscal Health? I mean, isn’t that sort of an oxymoron?

Nope, according to our City Manager we’re doing just fine, thank you very much. Still got that Double A credit rating. Our debt, hardly runaway, will peak at about 10% of our assets in 2015, a financial situation most of us personally would consider top notch. “We have a very healthy financial city at this point of time,” Pennachetti stated.

It belied the hysteria and apocalyptic noise we were subject to during last year’s budget process. And the year before that. And during the 2010 municipal campaign.

Come to think of it, Pennachetti’s presentation quietly pulled the carpet out from the raison d’être of the Rob Ford mayoralty. We have a spending problem, folks, not a revenue problem. Time to tighten our belts and Stop the Gravy Train.

(Are you as bored reading that as I am writing it?)

Now to be sure, the city manager was not averse to finding efficiencies, trimming whatever fat there was to be trimmed. The KPMG Core Services Review was his idea. Long overdue in fact. He thought it should’ve been carried out over two years not one (another sign there was never any need to hit the panic button the mayor and his allies so wanted push). Pennachetti was also onboard for the aggressive negotiating tactic we saw with the city’s workers earlier this year. Like the Deputy Mayor, he felt the city needed more control over scheduling and back end things like benefits.

Here’s the thing. If I heard the numbers right, the Core Services Review netted the city a savings of about $24 million. The labour savings? About $20 million. That’s on an operating budget north of $9 billion. Or about .5%.

I know everyone has different lines they draw. Count the pennies and the pounds take care of themselves. What’s 44 million when you’re talking billions? But a million here and a million there eventually adds up, etc., etc.

The point I’m trying to make here is those are numbers that don’t correspond to the tumult we witnessed arriving at them. No one’s suggesting finding $44 million in savings wasn’t valuable but was it worth the cost, not just in terms of money but the psychological and political warfare that preceded it? Forty-four million is simply a far cry from last October when the mayor in a speech to the Empire Club warned, Toronto’s financial foundation is crumbling. If we don’t fix the foundation now, our dreams for the future will collapse.

Mr. Pennachetti did want the assembled crowd to know that the $774 million number being thrown around at the beginning of last year’s budget debate as a spectre of this crumbling financial foundation was real. Yeah Joe, nobody ever disputed the veracity of that amount as an opening pressure. There was just a whole lot of disingenuousness in using it as the amount that needed to be cut from the budget, the shortfall needing to be made up. The number was nothing more than a scare tactic used by those wanting to cut more, to cut deeper.

Admittedly, it’s not all chocolate and roses. There are a couple ‘smoking guns’ as Pennachetti referred to them that the city needs to deal with to maintain the current fiscal balance. One is the ever increasing chunk of the budgetary pie taken by emergency services (TPS, EMS and fire department) and the TTC. The other is social housing, especially the eye-popping outlay of cash needed for the repair backlog at the TCHC, roughly three-quarters of a billion dollars.

But as the city manager pointed out, these are things we won’t be able to efficientize™ (Lucas Costello) or rationalize under control. In fact, in one moment of surprising frankness, Pennachetti expressed doubt there was more than $100 million in service efficiencies left to be found in the budget. There would be no cutting our way to a brighter, more prosperous future.

Which is where the 2013 budget debate (coming soon to the airwaves near you) is going to get really interesting. With precious left to cut, the city will be facing the need to approach balancing the budget in two ways Mayor Ford abhors. Going cap in hand to the senior levels or, as some might refer to it, hitting up a couple of fucking deadbeats for the money they owe us. Or we’re going to have to look at generating more revenue, ie raising taxes.

Consider these numbers.

If the province finally re-uploaded the cost of social housing and their half of the TTC operating budget — two things they used to be able to find the money to do – that would free up $550 million for the city which is nearly $100 million more than the estimated opening pressure for 2013. We would then start the debate in positive rather than negative territory. Any talk of cutting services, shuttering programs, finding efficiencies, layoffs would be moot.

That’s not going to happen, of course. Somehow we have found ourselves, alone in the developed world, in a position where senior levels of government contribute precious little to the well-being of their municipalities. They seem to believe that we’re not their problem and serve as little more than piggy banks, sending off money and getting nothing near the value for it.

That leaves us with no alternative but to look at different ways to generate revenue. Yes, raising taxes. This runs contrary to the mayor’s view that we don’t have a revenue problem but, let’s face it, that was an empty rhetorical tic from the get-go. Nothing more than wishful thinking on the part of a sizeable majority of Torontonians who let themselves be convinced that we were overburdened with taxation and under-serviced.

(Interesting observation from the city manager yesterday who said that if we took a picture of an average street corner, we could see at least 20 services the city provides us. Check out slide 4 of yesterday’s presentation to see just all the things you receive in return for the local taxes you pay.)

While the last two budget cycles have been all about austerity and cutting, there is very little left to excise — outside of perhaps the police services which is another topic the mayor will likely be unwilling to broach — without causing serious, irreparable pain that starts diminishing the quality of life in Toronto. It’s now time to start talking about building and growing and figuring out exactly how to pay for it. That’ll include some unpleasant words Mayor Ford doesn’t like to hear but it’s the direction he’s unwittingly taken us in.

supertramply submitted by Cityslikr

Tough Choices

January 17, 2012

It seems like just yesterday when we put Budget 2011 to bed, safe in the knowledge that we’d have a respite before its younger sibling… Budget 2012, we’ll call her… made an appearance. But then, KPMG’s Core Services Review kicked off and it seemed as if all we ever talked about was Budget 2012, Budget 2012, Budget 2012. Remember? She was going to be a beast. $774 million of unmitigated disaster if not properly housebroken. There were all night deputations, and then more deputations. Toronto just couldn’t get enough of Budget 2012 talk.

And now here we are. Sometime by late this week, Thursday very likely, we will officially be in 2012, budgetarily speaking. They do grow up so fast, don’t they?

We already know that in whatever form the budget emerges after running the city council gauntlet beginning this morning, it won’t be as draconian or Dickensian as the one initially floated by the mayor’s office. The public pushback saw to that. The non-ideologues in and around Team Ford blanched, deciding it might be political suicide to be seen going after children so directly. So things like nutritional programs were spared as were libraries, sort of, although how exactly the TPL is going to cut its budget by a full 10% without closing branches or reducing hours is a bit of a mystery. The math if fuzzy but comfy enough for centre-right councillors like Jaye Robinson to abide.

After that certainty – that the budget won’t be as nasty as it could’ve been – it’s anybody’s guess how it’ll all turn out. What we do know is, at least from the perspective of those in favour of a more cut-y, less revenue generating-y budget, whatever form Budget 2012 takes it will all be because of David Miller. The last of his administration’s surpluses – one time savings, I should say – spent, the only thing left for him to contribute is being the scapegoat.

To whit, half-wit, the Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy yesterday: Blame Miller for city’s mess! [Exclamation point added. I mean, how could they run that headline without an exclamation mark?] It’s not so much a new column as it is a Best of Sue-Ann compilation of favourite catchphrases (“Socialist Silly Hall”), numbers and percentages devoid of any context whatsoever ($400 billion! 250%!!) and long since dead horses, dug up to beat on the decomposed remains (yep, the St. Clair right of way.) Two budgets on, when push comes to shove, and supporters of the mayor are still burning David Miller effigies.

Stopping the buck by passing the buck. As if an increase in spending is the anomaly for a city that continues to grow. As if infrastructure needs only exist in the mind of spendthrift governments. As if a vibrant and dynamic public transit isn’t necessary for a 21st-century big city.

The fate of Budget 2012 will ultimately come down to whose version of being tough prevails. The mayor, the budget chief and all those who fall in line behind them will try and convince enough of the council colleagues that being tough means saying no, and saying no often, to those they perceive as ‘special interests’. Unions, low income children, artsy-fartsy artists, the homeless and the marginalized. They’ve all been coddled too long and with too much of our hard earned dollars. Enough is enough.

The other side, the ‘silly socialists’ will try to convince a majority of councillors that being tough means standing firm in the face of adversity and not tossing the weakest of us overboard in order to keep afloat. Being tough means not resorting to fatuous scaremongering (Greece! Spain!) as some form of meaningful debate. Being tough means dealing with the hand that’s dealt you by the other levels of government – times are tough; you’re on your own – and not shirking your own duty to those who elected you to represent them.

Being tough is about crafting a budget that delivers both the most benefit and least amount of pain to the greatest number of people and not simply piecing together 23 votes by any means necessary. Regardless of your opinion of the former mayor, David Miller is not any part of that equation. This week is all about Mayor Rob Ford and the kind of tough he really is.

…but sensitively submitted by Cityslikr

To Cut Or Not To Cut

December 9, 2011

I don’t think it’s too unreasonable or cynical to call this week’s public deputations before the budget committee political theatre. Deputants stepped into the spotlight to deliver their lines in defence of certain items or programs, or why cuts needed to be enacted (although, to be fair, the number of the latter could be counted on one hand that was missing a finger). Budget committee members performed the role of an attentive and, occasionally, interactive audience, listening to the players strut and fret before them. Visiting councillors acted as the play’s chorus, commenting on and interjecting with the action as it unfolded, filling in any expositional gaps in the narrative that arose.

If you believe in the power of theatre to change things, then all of that is a legitimate and necessary part of the process; something bigger and more compelling than simply a game of pretend.

To dismiss it as little more than an empty show, the mere appearance of listening to the public – that whole open and transparent business – diminishes both the deputants and, frankly, the Ford Administration. Write them off as blundering buffoons at your and the city’s peril. There was much more at work here than simply trying to seem engaged while having every intention to just ram the 2012 budget untouched through to council next month.

The key plotline in all this from Team Ford’s perspective was to get the public, an overwhelming majority of it hostile, everybody knew that would be the case, to come in, plead their case for their cause to be spared the axe and respond by simply asking, well, how are we to pay for it? The city has a spending problem, remember? That’s why we find ourselves in this current fiscal mess.

So heavy praise or sage nods toward anyone coming forward to offer up suggestions of paying higher user fees to save pools, programs, libraries. See? This is what we’re talking about. Thinking outside the box. If you want all these ‘nice to haves’, Toronto, you’re going to have to pay for them not the city.

Ignore the hulking presence lurking just off stage, the buried child. The family secret no one in charge really wants to talk about. That none of this is necessary. No individual sacrifice needed. A collective tweak here and there and everything would be OK even in these dark economic times. There is absolutely no reason we had to start chopping off limbs and tossing weight overboard to stay afloat. If there was any type of crisis it was one of leadership. They didn’t appear to know what they were doing. That, or they were hiding their true intentions.

Only when deputants pointed out this fact, that things weren’t at all like the budget committee claimed they were, did the conflict start. They were met with pure bile and mocking obstreperousness. Raise taxes? Is that all you got? What special interest do you represent? We want real solutions. Solutions that meet our very narrow definition of acceptable responses. Cuts or increased user fees. The only two options. So contestant, I mean, deputant, will it be what’s behind door #1 or door #2?

Clearly having felt they lost the momentum or upper hand after the first day, the mayor’s designated hit men were dispatched to beat back deputants who tried veering off the preferred path. Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti made an early morning, Snidely Whiplash appearance. Councillor Frances Nunziata brought her best Cruella DeVil impression, piping a single note. Gone was solicitous Councillor Doug Ford. Replaced by his braying alter ego. Budget Chief Mike Del Grande was, well, pretty much the same. Grumpy, grim and easy to revert to hectoring mode.

While perfectly happy to hear someone offer to pay higher user fees to stave off cuts, they would not so much as entertain anyone saying they’d accept a tax hike. The fairly regular demand to reinstall the Vehicle Registration Tax was also a non-starter. If there was a method set up that allowed individuals to voluntarily pay a higher tax, hey, have it. There’s one born every minute, right?

How are you going to pay for the service you’re here to defend, was the constant refrain, and no, you can’t say raise taxes. We’re already taxes to death, haven’t you heard?

It was with that approach, however, the fatal flaw was exposed. No one would come right out and say, feed hungry kids? Where the hell’s their parents? Should the city really be in the business of lending out books for free? Culture? What’s culture ever done for us?

That would’ve been the honest route to go. Instead, they pleaded poor. We don’t have the money. Where’s the money going to come from to pay for that? Our hands are tied. We have no choice.

We have a revenue problem.


See, this whole thing, this whole charade was predicated on the campaign claim of Rob Ford that the city had a spending problem not a revenue problem. We didn’t need to increase revenues. We just needed to tighten our belts. Stop spending beyond our means. There was plenty of extraneous stuff we could jettison and nobody would notice. Gravy.

That’s what they call the reveal. Anti-climactic to those of us who been watching and criticizing as this enterprise developed but, I guess, something of a surprise twist to those who didn’t. Not much to cut or excise without people noticing. As the KPMG Core Services Review laid out way back in Act Two, there was a dearth of fat to trim. The city wasn’t a spendthrift. It was revenue starved. That’s what needed to be dealt with.

In fact, not only was the city not looking at a terrifying three-quarters of a billion dollar hole this year, they had something of a modest surplus. It could’ve been bigger had we properly tended to our revenue sources but still, we had a surplus. Big enough to cancel all the cuts and shoe away a little money for a rainy day.

And when the budget chief and his vice-chair quickly went public almost immediately after deputations ended to assure everyone they had heard loud and clear that children’s nutritional programs were to be left alone and pulled them off the table, the gig was up. We did have a choice, it turned out. Across the board cuts were completely arbitrary. You want to feed hungry kids in this city? OK. We can do that. All you had to do was ask.

Of course, they will try and take that pound of flesh from somewhere else. A library, maybe? The TTC remains under very serious threat of rollbacks above and beyond the normal degree perpetrated by neglect by the other levels of government in this country. Community centres and arts funding still have guns pointed to their heads. The treacherous villains of this piece aren’t going to roll over and die that easily.

But the thing to remember is, they blinked. They were forced to come clean about what they were really up to. Austerity was always optional, never compulsory. A choice was made not enforced upon them. In the face of sustained public pressure, they conceded. Just on this one point, mind you. They didn’t throw in their cards. What we witnessed was a tactical retreat on one front. The curtain’s come down but only for intermission. The play continues.

They are on the run, however, having conceded the moral high ground of selfless duty righting previous fiscal wrongs. I mean, the same person who claimed to be only looking out for the little guy lunged at vulnerable children for chrissakes. There’s really no going back on that. The mask slipped. We all saw it.

They will try to continue to play the role of sound fiscal managers. It’s just that we now know that’s what they’re doing, playing a role. They’re not who they claim to be. So, let’s stop pretending they are.

dramatically submitted by Cityslikr

Ford Nation Notion

October 19, 2011

The good news, after reading Trish Hennessy’s post over at Framed In Canada, Mythology: Ford Nation, one year later, is that the great urban-suburban, car-bike, conservative-progressive divide that we all presumed existed may be overblown, misunderstood and little more than a scary figment of our collective imagination. Hoo-rah! The bad news? Well, there may be a division much more pernicious and tough to bridge.

Looking on the bright side first, let’s just set aside all that talk about de-amalgamation, shall we? It’s unhelpful, pretty much unrealistic and quite possibly detrimental to our future well being as a city and region. Rather than a Ford Nation, we all are a Leafs Nation, united in quiet pride at almost getting it right and fumbling with what was once a great franchise. Here’s to being in constant rebuilding mode.

“As regionally divisive as the election of Rob Ford might appear,” Ms. Hennessy writes, “most of the Ford voters we listened to identified as being Torontonian first. Most have either lived in different parts of the city or have to cross the city for work and they feel some responsibility for Toronto as a whole.

Rather than wanting to see their city fall into decline, these Ford voters expressed a hope and vision for the city that is positive, united, safe, clean, green, diverse, welcoming, vibrant and easier to get around in. Some even dream of having more bike lanes, as long as they’re safe for both cyclists and drivers.

They want a city that works together, for a common purpose.

They still believe in the value of public services, and many want better public services – especially when it comes to public transit, which is becoming a symbol of a city in need of a fix.”

That those wanting all of that for the city saw in candidate Rob Ford someone who’d deliver such things is, for those of us who didn’t, the crux of the mystery. Green? Diverse? Welcoming? Where did they see that in Ford’s campaign? Wasn’t he the one who said Toronto couldn’t afford any more people? And Mr. War On The Car green?

It’s almost as if we were talking about two completely different candidates for mayor. Those of us seeing Rob Ford as a destructive force for this city and those who, to again quote Trish Hennessy, “…believed he was willing to fight the establishment on behalf of the people…He [Ford] made them feel hopeful that positive change was coming; that he was going to punch a hole into the bubble of the elites.” How was such a gaping cavernous dichotomy of opinion possible?

Bringing us to the bad news I took away from the post. I read and reread it a few times and nowhere did I see the Ford voting participants in the Environics focus group talk about taxes outside of “…a simmering sense that they have been paying more taxes and user fees while getting less or worse public service in return.” Ford’s Gravy Train “…was considered a symbol for city finances in need of restraint, for people at the top of the city hall food chain abusing power – the ones they read about in the newspaper [italics ours]…” All those fat cats, Rob Ford railed against. “In terms of job cuts, their expectation is that Ford would go after the people ‘at the top’ of the scale.”

What I didn’t find in Ms. Hennessy’s post was any talk of if there was no gravy or not anywhere near the amount candidate Ford claimed he could find — like say 10%, in each and every city department — would they be willing to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, the ‘simmering sense’ they felt about paying more taxes and user fees ‘while getting less or worse public service in return’ was unfounded? “While participants support the notion of some service and job cuts to balance the budget, they raised several points that indicate most won’t support across-the-board massive cuts.” So would these Ford supporters pay more to avoid ‘across-the-board massive cuts’? If so, how much more? A 30% property tax increase the mayor and his strict adherents are now throwing around?

I don’t know if such a question was asked of this small Ford voting cohort by Environics. How much are the services that they believed the public relies on worth to them? The same? More?

That, I think, is the fundamental divide we’re facing right now. Between those believing we’re paying more or just the right amount for the services we want and demand from the city and those who aren’t as convinced that’s the case. We in the latter camp never, the 53% of Torontonians not casting their ballot for Rob Ford last year, never “… believed Rob Ford when he said he could cut government waste without affecting city services.” Nearly a year later we see the proof of that conviction in the pudding. The KPMG core services review backed that up. The mayor’s slash-and-burn proposals provides further evidence that the city, despite some of the instances of wasteful spending and other seeming excesses that are regularly trotted out as examples of profligacy, is delivering services at very reasonable rates. Perfect? No one ever claimed that. Value for money? Overall, it’s looking more and more like it.

In her post, Ms. Hennessy uses turns of phrases like ‘whether the facts add up or not’ or ‘when in reality’. About cancelling the Vehicle Registration Tax, she suggests “Few [of the focus group participants] associate the cost of that tax cut with the city’s budget woes today.” It suggests a disturbing gap between belief and reality. Even now, a year into Rob Ford’s mayoralty, some of those who voted for him are holding on to the notion that we can have all the amenities our city offers without paying the price necessary to maintain them. They seem to think there’s an easy fix that doesn’t involve having to pay more.

To my mind, that’s the gap needing to be filled. Rob Ford promised gain without pain, a shift of blame from our unrealistic expectations onto manufactured bogeymen who either weren’t real or weren’t sticking it to the honest, hardworking taxpayers to the degree he claimed. Ford voters were duped which is a hard pill to swallow and not a constructive point of departure in reaching out in going forward from here.

The question is, how do we bridge such a chasm of perspective?

wonderingly submitted by Cityslikr