Let’s Go Over This One More Time.

It’s inconceivable to me that this discussion still has to happen, that a reporter for a local news station feels compelled to shoot a segment on such an obvious topic. saigonshitToronto needs a property tax hike to pay for crumbling infrastructure. Yet, there it is.

As the video shows, a wall of bricks showers down from a community housing building, concrete chunks off a major thoroughfare, subway closures occur frequently due to fires and floods, water mains rupture, roads sinkhole. Splice the visuals together with appropriate smash cuts and you’re left with the impression of a crumbling city, apocalypse now. Toronto. Shit.

Everybody’s got an opinion about why this situation has come to be. A bloated, fat cat bureaucracy, gorging itself on big fat bonuses while the most vulnerable residents live in slum-like conditions. Out-of-control spending on public works projects, over-budget, heavily delayed. Nathan Phillips Square revitalization. The Yonge-University-Spadina subway extension. Pick your favourite bugaboo. Pink umbrellas and boulders from northern Ontario.pointingfingers

None of these complaints are wrong, necessarily — except for the pink umbrellas and rocks down at Sugar Beach which only reveals a myopic inattention to the bigger picture. Public spending should be heavily scrutinized.  Misspending and misappropriation only heightens an already suspicious belief out there in the public sector. It’s a negative feedback loop, feeding into an always ready to pounce anti-government sentiment.

Yet, do the math and in the scheme of things, added all together, none of these projects or particular bones to pick will make even a dent on the infrastructure needs this city faces. Sure, every little bit counts but every little bit is just that, a little bit, and they don’t count for much, maybe millions when we’re taking billions. We face a far deeper crisis than the easy nickel and dime solutions offered up by the apostles of outrage. We’ve grown content living on the cheap, and living off the hard decisions and sense of community obligation by previous generations.

Amidst all the tales of infrastructure decline and dissolution in Avery Haines’ news segment came the stark fact that we’re paying, in real inflationary adjusted dollars, less in property taxes now than we did back in 2000. That’s right. Less. In 2000, 3 years after amalgamation, 3 years in which there was a property tax rate freeze. hillofbeansWe’re still paying less than that.

Toronto residents pay less in property taxes than many of the GTA’s other municipalities, in some cases significantly less. This is not particularly news to anyone disinclined to think any property tax is too much property tax. During this year’s budget debate Councillor Gord Perks wrote in the Toronto Star that owing to inflation, this city has effectively cut property taxes by 12.4% since amalgamation. Inflation keeps inflating. City council keeps on not keeping up to it. Even all of those ‘through the roof’ over-the-rate-of-inflation property tax rate increases by the profligate David Miller couldn’t help the city’s coffers keep pace.

And Boom! goes the Gardiner. Boom! the brick façade of a TCHC building. Gush! goes the water spout from the busted water main.

And our new-ish mayor, John Tory, shrugs. He was elected by the voters of Toronto to keep property taxes below the rate of inflation. Why? Because he told them anything more than that would be unnecessary. sweepundertherugPlenty of money in the efficiency banana stand, I guess.

“The property taxpayers of Toronto should not be asked to bear those expenses and investments on their own,” Tory said yesterday. “The property tax was never meant to do that.” The mayor’s not wrong. In referring to downloaded social costs like housing and major infrastructure investment in things like public transit, municipalities with their limited revenue gathering base largely on property taxes aren’t supposed to be expected to pay for those big ticket items. Here in Toronto, up until 1995, the provincial government even paid for half of the TTC’s annual operating costs. In 2015, the city is putting nearly $480 million up for that cost. That’s almost one-quarter of a billion dollars that should, in a properly function system, be coming from Queen’s Park. Multiply that by 20 years and, yeah, no wonder our transit system is barely limping into the future, let alone all the other infrastructure needs the city has.

So we can get all pissed off about city council’s quick decision to step up with $90 million to cover shortfalls with the Spadina subway extension, as Ari Goldkind does today in the Star, but it misses the larger debate. cheshirecatThe city shouldn’t be paying for any part of a major transit build. It shouldn’t be contributing anything to the Union-Pearson airport link. Why are we putting up money to renovate a regional transportation route like the Gardiner Expressway?

The province has walked away from its traditional obligations, leaving cities to pick up the slack. That’s what we should really be angry about. That’s the fight we need to be engaged in.

But then we allow the province (along with the federal government to a lesser extent) off the hook, we provide them with their one bit of buckshot of ammunition when we campaign and govern on under-taxation. We’ve given you these revenue tools to deal with the added responsibilities, the province tells Toronto. Why not use them instead of always coming to us for money?

Disingenuous, accompanied with a Cheshire cat grin? You betcha. Download both the obligations and the taxing powers so loathed by the public. citybuildingThank you very much.

Like it or not, that’s where we’re at. By standing idly by, talking about moral and business cases for more investment by the senior levels of government, while deliberately chocking off your own sources of revenue even those not part of the property tax base, is simply being an accomplice to the crumbling of the city. You know there are ways to help, at least, bolster the state of disrepair. They won’t be immediately popular (made even less so by irresponsible campaign pledges that helped get you elected). The alternative, however, is untenable. Unless, of course, you’re comfortable overseeing a city that will continue to decline.

repeatedly submitted by Cityslikr

Unreliable Narration

Bear with me as I venture momentarily into unfamiliar territory here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke, baronmunchausenthat of literary theory.

The unreliable narrator is a device used by authors to undercut the legitimacy of the usual authoritative voice of the teller of the tale. Is what we’re being told actually true? If not, why not? It adds a degree of mystery, leaving readers or an audience uncertain about the veracity of the story they’re being given.

Reading through yesterday’s city staff briefing note, 2007 — 2014 Budget Reductions and Other Budget Balancing Strategies, it struck me that for the past 4 years or so we’ve been following along with a story told to us by an unreliable narrator, many unreliable narrators, in fact. The conclusions drawn by the city manager and CFO draw a starkly different picture of the fiscal stewardship of this city than the one that’s been painted for us over the past 4 years. Everything we’ve been told to believe since 2010? Not so much. It’s a little more nuanced than all that.

Let’s go back to the outside workers’ strike in 2009 because I think that’s where much of this story started. throwingmoneyaroundAt its conclusion, the general consensus was that the then mayor, David Miller, had caved in to his union brethren. Handed over the keys to the city vault, out of control spending, disrespecting the taxpayers, yaddie, yaddie, yaddie.

Our fiscal foundation was crumbling, Rob Ford would then claim, having taken control of the narrative during his successful mayoral run. We needed to tighten our collective belts. What this city had was a spending problem not a revenue problem.

Now, we know why he spun the tale this way without any regard to facts or the truth. It was politically advantageous for him to do so. But I also think he actually believed it. If we’ve learned nothing else from the past 4 years it should be that Rob Ford doesn’t understand how government works. He inherently hates government. He sees it as nothing but a burden, an imposition on our lives. fairytale1Somehow his math works out to less of government=more for us.

According to William Riggan (summarised by Wikipedia for me), Rob Ford had a bit of all 5 of the unreliable narrator traits to him. The Picaro, or the braggart. The Madman, pretty self-explanatory. The Clown, see The Madmen. The Naif, a limited or immature point of view or perspective. The Liar, see The Clown.

Why so many of us took him seriously enough to elect him mayor is equally as apparent. Who doesn’t love a good fairy tale? Yes, the city faced problems and challenges, we were told, but none of them were our fault. Fixing them would be easy and we wouldn’t feel a thing. A happy ending all round!

Here’s what we know now, four years on.

Yes, the Miller administration taxed us at a higher rate than the Ford administration.  areyousure1It dinged us with other revenue streams like the Land Transfer and Vehicle Registration taxes. It collected more from us in user fees including bigger hikes in transit fares.

But the thing is, in terms of an overall budget, spending has increased under Rob Ford. During his time in office, city council has curbed the rate spending increased but not the total amount. The same can be said about property taxes. They may not have gone up at the same percent as they did under David Miller but we still, on average, are paying higher property taxes now than we were in 2010.

Part of the reason for that is that the Ford administration cut and froze other sources of revenues like the VRT. fordnationIf you’re not cutting spending but are reducing revenue, how do you make up the difference? Cut services you’re providing. Have you taken a bus or subway over the last 4 years? You know what I’m talking about.

City council in Rob Ford’s first term as mayor has spent more than it did in the previous term and delivered less. That’s how it patched budgetary holes. That is his legacy.

The real kicker – no, wait. First, the penultimate kicker. According to this briefing note, David Miller, he who caved into the unions back in 2009, saved more money for the city in his 2nd term as mayor through collective bargaining agreements than Rob Ford has during his time in office. I know, right? How is that even possible? Weren’t we told Miller opened the vault and just started tossing around money? fingerscrossedIsn’t taming the union demands an important cornerstone of Rob Ford’s re-election campaign? Now we’re hearing that Miller the Profligate saved the city more money from union deals than Rob Ford?

Which takes us back to the real kicker.

In terms of closing the operating budget gap, from the opening pressure to the final balance, the Miller administration found more “savings” in its last term than the Ford administration did, to the tune of some $432 million over four years. Now, here’s where this gets even trickier and murkier. Using a budget’s opening pressure as the benchmark isn’t exactly what you might call, reliable. Much of it is based on educated calculations and estimates. Both David Miller and Rob Ford used looming opening pressures as political scare tacticsemptypromise (although it is interesting to note the difference in motives. Miller threatened services in order to get revenue increases to pay for those services while Ford threatened higher tax increases in order to cut services to maintain lower taxes.)

Out of all this shaky narrative, however, a couple salient facts need to be noted.

The David Miller administration wasn’t the fiscal laggard popular political fiction made it out to be. It instituted a long term economic strategy that included a broader base of revenue and increased involvement by other levels government. A strategy that helped Rob Ford initially deliver his campaign guarantee of low taxes and no service cuts.

The Rob Ford administration wasn’t the sound fiscal steward it’s claimed to be. While rejecting one time funding sources like the previous year’s surplus and maintaining revenue streams at the rate of inflation, it relied heavily on a regular reduction of services to balance the operating budget. stoppullingmylegIt’s sustainable only as long as residents are willing to put up with getting less and less from City Hall.

It’s that fact that’s made so much of the political story in Toronto so unreliable. Unreliably told by those seeking office on a platform that would be unpalatable to most voters, and believed by those not willing to accept the basic truth of the matter. If you want a great city, David Miller once said, you have to pay for it.

truthfully submitted by Cityslikr

(Mis)Governed

I’ve been mulling over our state of governance these days. Spurred on by the news of Councillor Adam Vaughan’s planned departure for federal politics, ponderingI kept wondering why anybody would make that particular jump. Sure, there’s the clout and prestige. In theory, the real levers of power are operated from Ottawa.

In theory.

Reading through John Lorinc’s piece today about Vaughan and the role the federal government plays in the running of cities, I have my doubts about the efficacy of delivering effective municipal policies from the federal level. You can offer up money, maybe even ideas. But hands-on tools to contribute directly? That’s a little more complicated.

According to a document that’s nearly 150 years old and a handful of court rulings during that time span, municipalities are nothing more than “creatures of the province” and “exist only if provincial legislation so provides…” dustydocumentCities fall in that place of dark matter between federal and provincial jurisdiction. To propose any sort of strategy, say housing or transit, for municipalities, Ottawa could be seen to be stepping on provincial toes. Why risk antagonism if you can just ignore these issues instead. We’d really love to help but our hands are constitutionally tied.

There have been attempts, for sure. The Liberal government’s New Deal For Cities Municipalities Communities (or whatever it wound up being called) under Paul Martin delivered increased funding that remains in place but little in terms of clarity. Nearly a decade on, cities remain without any sort of national housing or transit strategy. According to the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), cities face more than a $200 billion infrastructure deficit.

Frankly, it’s hard to imagine how a change in government in Ottawa is going to reverse that. powerlessAt least, not in the short term.

I was boring family and friends over the long weekend, talking about this particular challenge of governance. Citing a certain Paisley Rae who had paraphrased Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi for me, talking about the importance of the various levels of government in our lives. (If I get this wrong, it’s all on me). Imagine if just out of the blue our federal government disappeared. Poof! Suddenly gone. How long would it take you to notice a real impact on your life? A month? Do the similar thought experiment with the provincial government. Poof! Gone. You’d notice in about a week? Now your elected representatives at City Hall. Vanished into thin air. Almost as soon as you step out the door, their absence would be evident.

Of course, it wouldn’t be that simple. It would depend entirely on where you lived and other circumstances. There’s much more overlap than that.

Still.

I think the role of our municipal level of government is highly under-valued and egregiously under-funded. oldendays1They are expected to do things that they have no jurisdictional command of or the fiscal tools to deal with. As the above article points out, the FCM claims that Canadian cities receive only 8% of the country’s tax revenues but are responsible for 60% of the infrastructure.

I’ve long contended that this political mismatch between the responsibilities demanded and the lack of capacity to deal with them has resulted in an increased presence of buffoonery at the local level of representation. Of course, we can elect somebody like Rob Ford because, in the end, it doesn’t matter. There’s no real power invested in that office. When we do dare to elect somebody with ambitious ideas for our cities, David Miller for example, they are destined to disappoint us because, in the end, they lack the real power to fully enact their plans.

What is clearly needed at this point of time is a complete constitutional overhaul. This isn’t 1867. Much, much has changed including where the majority of people live in this country. kickupafussCities. The hierarchy of revenue and power needs to be shuffled and rearranged.

Of course, that isn’t going to happen any time soon. So politicians like Adam Vaughan with ambition and big ideas gravitate to where positive change is possible even if it hasn’t been much in evidence, well, during our lifetime. All we can do is cross our fingers, wish him well in his endeavours and look for new politicians to represent us at City Hall who aren’t content with the severe limitations that will be placed on them, and who have their own plans to shake up the status quo that serves fewer and fewer of us.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr