The Simple Truth

June 23, 2016

For the second time in about five years, the audit/advisory/consultant thingie, KPMG, was asked to answer the burning question: Does Toronto have a spending or revenue problem? tellmewhatiwanttohearFor the second time in five years, KPMG has reported back: All things considered, there’s more of a revenue problem at work than spending. The city’s pretty tightly run. To avoid seriously cutting essential and even mandated services and programs, City Hall should look at accessing increased revenues.

Oddly though, what many of our elected local representatives, including Mayor John Tory have heard and concluded is: Right. Just like I thought. We need to cut spending. Tighten our belts. To the efficiency-mobile, Batman!

Some urban legends die hard, it seems, if at all, when they run contrary to the political ideology of right wing, small government politicians. There is always more fat to be trimmed, gravy to be drained, excess to excise before we can start talking about revenue. We must learn to live within our means. There’s always money in the banana stand.

This sentiment is so strong with enough of our city council that it’s more than a little surprising that KPMG was called upon to deliver a revenue tools report at all.deaf It was and it did, the City of Toronto Revenue Options Study coming out earlier this week. A boatload of suggestions for raising revenue, some immediately in the city’s purview, others it would have to get provincial permission to implement.

I want to focus on one section of the report, 17, pages 165-170. (A PDF I cannot figure out for the life of me how to load up on this page here, so you’ll just have to follow along via this link). Property Tax Analysis.

This is another shibboleth our mayor and his council allies, and the administration before it, and pretty much every small-minded member of council since at least amalgamation, has taken and spouted as gospel truth. We pay too much in property taxes, dammit! Homeowners (as if it’s just those owning their homes pay property taxes) are already stretched to the max. They cannot afford any more hikes in their property taxes. Seniors will be chased out into the streets…

Similarly, the information presented above suggests that residential property tax rates levied by the City of Toronto and the implied burden on households, expressed both in dollar terms and as a percentage of household income, are lower than those in the majority of other GTHA municipalities. This indicates that there may be an opportunity to increase property tax rates and still maintain burdens that are below the average of the municipalities reviewed, while also considering that Toronto is the only city in the sample that also applies MLTT.

What’s that, you say? By almost any measure, Toronto’s property tax rates “are lower than those in the majority of other GTHA municipalities”? That simply can’t be. If it were, our local politicians wouldn’t be pretending otherwise. “This indicates that there may be an opportunity to increase property tax rates and still maintain burdens that are below the average of the municipalities…” youdontsay1So, why all this ‘at or below the rate of inflation’ insistence Mayor Tory’s pursuing?

Now, I get all the property tax caveats. It’s not a tax that accurately reflects or benefits from current economic realities. The city is too dependent on it and needs to diversify its revenue sources more. There are people who are house rich but cash poor, and property tax increases could jeopardize their ability to own. Toronto does have access to another form of property taxation, the Municipal Land Transfer tax, that other municipalities don’t.

All these can be addressed but the point I’m trying to make here is this determined pursuit of at or below the rate of inflation property tax rate increase simply does not measure up to reality. parrotToronto property tax payers are not already overburdened like the mayor claims, just like his predecessor had trumpeted. As Matt Elliott pointed out last month after City Manager Peter Wallace’s Long Term Financial Report came out, “Since 2010, when adjusted for inflation, the city’s overall take from property taxes has gone down by 4.8%. Homeowners have gotten a break.”

Property taxes have contributed less to the city’s budget over the past 6 years, and even keeping rate hikes at the rate of inflation will further reduce them since costs will inevitably rise higher than that. 5%, I believe the city manager told the budget committee yesterday in its initial meeting about the 2017 budget. If so, other sources of revenue will be needed to help balance the operating budget or further cuts to spending which is already down in terms of per capita numbers since 2010, as Elliott also pointed out.

Arrows heading in a different direction than the one Mayor Tory wants us to believe.

There will be new revenue tools introduced, though very likely not in time for the 2017 budget. texaschainsawmassacreThe mayor, however, has made a point of saying for capital spending which explains his spate of transit announcements this week. Softening the public up for new taxes or fees, dedicated to building all this new stuff the city wants and needs while the operating budget will continue to be squeezed.

Or, as Councillor Mike Layton quoted the city manager telling the budget committee, heading toward “direct austerity” and “smaller government”.

As the KPMG revenue options study suggests, that will be a choice Mayor Tory and his council allies will make not one made out of necessity.

factually submitted by Cityslikr


Room To Grow

May 13, 2012

One of the advantages of this thing I do to while away the hours between when its socially acceptable to drink is that I can not only riff on ideas put forth by others in order to fill up the blank pages – like a jazz musician putting his own notes on a established theme – but I’m allowed to take my ideas and run with them for a subsequent post. Acting as my own source. The ultimate insider ball.

Like say, just this past Thursday. In bemoaning the mayor’s abdication of responsibility… no, not bemoaning, exactly. More pointing it out and realizing that there’s an upside to it, I suggested that in the empty space provided, a handful of first term councillors have taken the opportunity to start exhibiting a little moxy, some chutzpah, a long cool drink of independent mindedness. They’ve thrown themselves a debutante ball.

In retrospect, being elected to City Hall for the first time in 2010 must’ve been like winning the lottery and immediately being held up at knifepoint and told to hand the cheque over. Wait… but I haven’t even cashed it yet.

The 14 newcomers were thrown into what could only be described as a bear pit. Some found their footing fairly quickly and not in the least bit unsurprisingly. There was the mayor’s brother, touting the purest form of Team Ford DNA. Others like councillors Kristyn Wong-Tam and Mike Layton were destined to be on the other side, owing to pedigree in Layton’s case and both being elected to represent wards as anti-Ford as they came.

But for the other 11, it has been a strange, strained, tumultuous, uncharted trip.

At the start, Mayor Ford was a force to be reckoned with. Defy him at your peril, mere council mortals. Fear the wrath of Ford Nation!

Sensibly, many neophyte councillors ducked for cover, quietly taking sides and hoping not to be noticed. Councillors Sarah Doucette and Mary Fragedakis usually leaning to the left, Executive Committee members Michelle Berardinetti and Jaye Robinson along with councillors Gary Crawford, Vincent Crisanti and James Pasternak lining up behind the mayor. John Tory endorsed Mary-Margaret McMahon, councillors Ana Bailão and Josh Colle made up what was soon termed (mostly derogatorily) the ‘mushy middle’, voting with Mayor Ford as often as not in the early going.

The 14th newbie, Councillor Josh Matlow broke from the pack earliest, trying to stake out a highly visible non-partisan man in a neither black nor white shade of grey suit. His timing was off, however, not to mention coming across as more than a little self serving. For the first year or so of the Ford administration, compromise and negotiation were simply not part of the equation. It was all about His Worship’s way or the highway.

Pressure was applied to play along. Projects were threatened without consultation. It was tough to learn the ropes when you were always coming under assault. Discretion, for many, was the better part of valour at this juncture. Keep heads low until the storm passes.

It started to break late last year. With Councillor Ford’s ill-advised land grab of the Portlands, the pushback began. Soft spoken Councillor Jaye Robinson took a very public stand against the move which, coming from a member of the mayor’s Executive Committee, signalled that dissent was now possible. Mayor Ford backed down on that, forging a rare council consensus that saved some face but his ironclad grip on the majority of rookie councillors had been broken.

Councillor Robinson didn’t jump ship entirely, remaining a reliable mayoral ally or, at least, not a vocal critic of him. That is, until she announced recently that at the end of the year she’ll be leaving her position on the Executive Committee. It seems she’s looking to spend the second half of her first term a little less affiliated with Mayor Ford.

Fellow ExComm member Berardinetti is travelling a similar but slightly rockier path. While maintaining a closer adherence to the Ford agenda than Robinson, Councillor Berardinetti has already bailed out of her position as a member of the Budget Committee, citing a desire to concentrate more on her constituency work as the reason. It probably also had something to do with her not being as down with the cutting and slashing especially in the face of an increased surplus since the original budget showdown in January.

Now she’s in the middle of a tussle with the mayor over the fate of the 5 cent plastic bag fee. He wants to kill it outright. Councillor Berardinetti wants to try and find a way to redirect the money to the tree canopy fund.

“I don’t know how it is going to happen,” Mayor Ford said. “I can’t support that.” I don’t get it. I don’t like it. End of discussion.

“I’m not sure if he fully understands what we’re trying to achieve here,” the councillor said, “and quite possibly he hasn’t read the full report.” Ouch. I’d call that a serious lack of deference now being shown to the mayor by a member of his very own Executive Committee.

“Berardinetti told the Sun she wasn’t surprised by Ford’s position,” Don Peat writes, “but she stressed he won’t be able to get council to scrap the bag fee.”

Yeah, that thing the mayor wants to do? He can huff and puff all he wants. It’s not going to happen.

Just like not reversing the $15 million or so of cuts in the 2012 budget. Another new councillor, Josh Colle, served as the face of that mayoral rebuff. It didn’t need to be a big setback as it was a miniscule fraction of the overall budget but Mayor Ford’s unwillingness to bend even in the slightest turned it into a major PR bomb. Emboldened, council, along with a solid majority of new members, turned its sites on the transit file in March and assumed complete control of it, sidelining the mayor to a state of almost insignificance.

How much so? Take a look at Councillor James Pasternak. A strong Ford loyalist from the get-go he’s now drifted notably from the Ford fold, rankling under the continual pressure to follow marching orders. He broke decisively during the budget debate despite the mayoral squeeze. “I would say it [pressure] was intense. Very intense,” he told the National Post. “I was looking for an opportunity to speak during the [budget] debate, but every time I’d try and get on the speakers’ list, I would be called away for another mini-caucus in the members’ lounge or in the back room.”

Perhaps in order to keep a closer eye on him or to lure him back with a plum post, Mayor Ford put him on the Budget Committee to replace the outgoing Councillor Berardinetti. So far the move hasn’t exactly brought him back into line. With an even bigger surplus than expected announced a couple weeks ago, Councillor Pasternak wants more of the cuts in this year’s budget reversed. Voted down at his inaugural budget committee meeting, the councillor was not deterred.

“There’s going to be a floor fight on council on this item,” he told the Globe and Mail. “We’re going to move it straight up there and that way all 44 councillors and the mayor have a say in what’s important to Torontonians. I think the most important thing is we have to cut through a lot of the histrionics of financial despair that were plaguing the budgetary process into the fall and early 2012.”

In the space of less than a year, one of city council’s most intimidated new councillors has not only abandoned Mayor Ford but done so openly and loudly. Labelling the mayor’s handling of the budget process histrionic and vowing a ‘floor fight’ at council in response to the budget committee’s refusal to defy the mayor, Councillor Pasternak has staked his position and, perhaps, his political future in the wide open political territory of moderation. By clinging so stubbornly to his far right comfort zone, Mayor Ford has inadvertently given plenty of room for the newcomers to stretch their wings and find their own place on the spectrum, free of coercion or bullying from an administration that, with one self-inflicted wound after another, has diminished its power to wield that sort of clout.

submitted by Cityslikr


Waning of the Thumb

December 5, 2011

(A repost of our Friday Torontoist piece. Title is all theirs.)

*  *  *

A two day meeting dragged into three. As the third day ground to its inconclusive conclusion, participants voted to defer all remaining items to the next regularly scheduled meeting in February. Decisions put off. The business of municipal governance delayed.

Perhaps it was because council members were looking ahead to the big game, the 2012 budget battle. Beginning almost immediately, today in fact, as the Budget Committee kicks off the first of seven meetings over the course of the next eleven days, including two for public deputations, to hash out a budget for city council to consider and implement next month. That’s the big fish to fry, where energy needs to be expended. This week’s council meeting was simply the warm up session, getting loose, stretching the body into fighting shape.

Or it simply could be seen as the precursor to how things are going to happen over the next little while. A war of attrition. Gone are the early, glorious days of shock and awe that saw quick and surprisingly decisive victories for the Ford administration. The VRT gone! Councillor office budgets slashed! Transit City mauled in its infancy. The mayor is still pushing ahead but it’s now become a tough slog, a slow grind. Some of the more egregious intentions are being picked off by sniper fire, some even coming from friends and allies. His opponents’ Maginot line is still holding.

Councillor Shelley Carroll amended out the possibility of large industrial water users being given carte blanche to ignore city sewer by-laws in the Rate Supported Water and Waste Water budget. It reserved the city’s right to monitor ‘effluent’ – essentially waste water dumping – and to keep aiming for water conservation targets. The mayor found himself on the losing side of what turned out to be a drubbing on that one, abandoned even by his brother and budget chief.

Mayor Ford also took it on the chin (even if symbolically) on the Rate Supported Solid Waste Management budget when Councillor David Shiner, a usual Ford loyalist, maintained the current 44 environmental days that Public Works and Infrastructure Committee wanted to chop back to 11. Certainly, Councillor Shiner’s amendment scales back the events and doesn’t threaten the mayor’s desired 0% increase in waste collection rates. It was, however, a definitive poke in the eye of those looking to do away with remnants of green initiatives in the city.

Councillor Shiner was also front-and-centre in negotiating a compromise with noted foes of the mayor, Councillors Adam Vaughan and Mike Layton on the relocation of the youth shelter, Eva’s Phoenix. It was sitting on property Team Ford has its eyes on selling as part of the revised Fort York bridge plan. The shelter poised an obstacle in the march to ‘monetize city assets’ and in finding it a new home, Shiner brokered a deal that kept both sides, if not happy, at least content.

It could also be that what we’re witnessing is the formation of a consensus building model at city council. The hitherto unuttered word since Rob Ford took office, ‘compromise’ is becoming part of the vernacular. Many of the mayor’s most ardent opponents including Janet Davis, Joe Mihevc, Kristyn Wong-Tam, Paula Fletcher and Raymond Cho made amendments to the direction of child care services in the city. Mihevc managed to get everyone present at council except for Councillor Minnan-Wong to agree to work at not closing any day care centres until hearing what the provincial government, who has been slow and unsteady holding up its part of the funding formula, will say about the matter in next year’s budget.

Compromise may be a word the mayor has to come to terms with. Winter is indeed blowing in, issuing a serious threat to further bog down his troops and heavy artillery in the muck and goo of the 2012 budget process. (Yeah, I wasn’t going to let go of the military metaphors that easily.) Talks of cuts to services at the TTC, elimination of pools and programs, reduction in library hours, all are emboldening the opposition outside council to set up and stand their ground. Within council, allies are exerting their independence and not bending to the mayor’s bully tactics. Witness just how far the moderate, small c conservative, Councillor Chin Lee has drifted from the Ford fold.

The mayor has expended on awful lot of political capital in his first year, tilting at long standing pet peeves of his that represent the worst excesses of tax and spend governing. Non-automobile forms of transit. Community engagement and outreach. The arts. The environment. Anything that smacks of ‘nice to haves’. All before it truly gets ugly for him. When that bus doesn’t arrive for that little old lady going out grocery shopping in Scarborough. When that library is closed on Sunday for that little girl looking for some quiet study time. When the family has to go even further afield to find affordable swimming lessons.

The battles are going to get more intense over the next 6 weeks, the pushback stronger and terrain more treacherous. Already besieged, it’s hard to see how Mayor Ford can simply bludgeon ahead in that damn the torpedoes fashion that has been his governing style to date. His arsenal has been severely depleted. While hardly a spent force, Mayor Ford is not the indomitable powerhouse he was earlier this year. The one that caught everybody flat-footed, surprised and easily overwhelmed. It’s now trench warfare (you know I had to go there) and any gains will come with great cost. If he fails to adapt to the new reality, the mayor may find that the 2012 budget is the hill he will die on.

repeatedly submitted by Cityslikr