The Recumbent Incumbent

September 3, 2013

Gawd! These infernal pre-campaign polls. Story generators produced by those without caller ID on their phones, onthephonewilling to engage with anyone who dials their number. Idle speculation meant to fill in the gap between actual stories.

The only folks these polls are intended to help out are those mulling over a mayoral run. An informal testing of the waters. Polls establish front runners, differentiating them from those without a hope in hell of becoming the city’s next mayor. Hey. Possible candidate X was seen having lunch with John Laschinger at Spadina Garden. How would they do in next year’s election matched up against candidate Y?

The funny thing is, if the history of amalgamated Toronto is anything to go by, such polls conducted so many, many months before the actual election are pretty much meaningless aside from confirming the name (or names) of the candidates to beat. In 2003, John Tory and Barbara Hall. wiltsIn 2010, George Smitherman. All lost the subsequent elections to candidates few had on their radar when the campaign actually commenced.

So beware everyone currently placing their bets and hopes on the likes of John Tory (again), Olivia Chow, Karen Stintz. Our recent electoral history has not treated early front runners well.

I think the one certainty we can take from the likes of Forum Research’s most recent poll for next year’s municipal election in Toronto is that the incumbent, unlike his predecessors, is going to find himself in the midst of a bruising battle to keep his job. In 2000, Mel Lastman was as good as acclaimed for a second term, facing no politically established opponent in the campaign. In 2006, Councillor Jane Pitfield stood as little more than a sacrificial lamb in her attempt to deny David Miller another go-around at the job.

It ain’t going to be so easy for Rob Ford. The one caveat is that both Lastman and Miller went into re-election mode after only two years (of a 3 year term)donnybrook in office, perhaps seeming a little more fresh-faced than our current mayor who’s had an additional year of public scrutiny in office before his re-election campaign begins. Perhaps this will be the new norm with 4 year council terms now. A one term mayor facing an uphill battle in a bid for re-election.

For many incumbents that might seem a little daunting but may be this is nothing but good news for Mayor Ford. He loves playing the underdog, the outsider. The little engine that nobody said could and nobody better think of writing off as an impossible long shot again. Every indication suggests that 2014 is the mayor’s election to win. Just like 2010.

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If you didn’t know any better, you’d almost think that’s the exact spot he’s positioned himself to be in at this juncture. Failing miserably toward a second term

cassandraly submitted by Cityslikr


Credit Not Where It’s Due

July 11, 2013

This is not Mayor Rob Ford’s debt. Don’t give him the credit. He doesn’t want it. dontlookatmeHe doesn’t deserve it.

As was pointed out in at least a couple corners (Matt Elliott here and Rob Granatstein here) yesterday, the Toronto Star’s headline, tagging the mayor with the increase in debt for capital spending was misleading at best, flat out wrong at worst. The city sets out a 10 year plan for capital expenditures which it adjusts annually. Incoming administrations inherit capital plans (and costs) from the preceding one and can only tinker so much with them. Such is the case currently. Mayor Ford took on much of the debt run up by the Miller administration.

AND THERE’S ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT!

Among other things, the city is getting a new fleet of transit vehicles including much needed streetcars rolling out next year as part of the capital spending that’s lead to the debt. This is neither unusual nor a bad thing. Governments, businesses and individuals rarely purchase big ticket items with cash up front. notthattheresanythingwrongwiththatIt makes no sense to do so especially with things that are going to be used over long periods of time like streetcars.

But almost all government spending is anathema to politicians like Mayor Ford. Debt is a red flag to him, proof positive that the gravy train chugs on and wasteful liberals are out of control. Since becoming mayor, he has done everything in his power to roll back the city’s debt including diverting money from the operating budget to pay off capital purchases outright.

(Everything, that is, outside of ensuring a proper revenue stream. There was a compelling argument as part of Matt’s Twitter stream above that by reducing revenue in the form of freezing property taxes and cutting the VRT, Mayor Ford had, in fact, contributed to the growing debt. moneydownthedrainThat’s not an unfair assessment.)

While certainly there is a bump in the city’s debt load currently, in looking over the various 10 year capital projections, you get a sense of, if not an overall decrease in debt, a definite flat lining of it. I think it’s safe to say that the mayor has successfully wrestled our debt to a stalemate. Done his best to put a lid on it.

Hold your applause, folks.

There’s nothing admirable in the mayor’s approach to debt. There’s nothing even remotely fiscally responsible about it. As was pointed out today in the probably not left leaning magazine, Canadian Business, congestion could be costing the GTA as much as $11 billion a year. Congestion caused by decades and decades of inaction on transit building.

And as was pointed out to us by the undeniably non-partisan storm on Monday evening, our sluggish investment in infrastructure under our streets is costing us millions and millions of dollars as well. “We’re hanging on by a thread,” said our debt-averse mayor in reaction to the damage inflicted by the heavy rains. Shut off your lights and power down your computer. floodTO3Half measures, long after the barn doors’ been kicked from their hinges, called for by a mayor unwilling to spend the money on real solutions.

The truth of the matter is, in his obsessive drive to reduce government to little more than a police force that keeps our roads paved and clear of anything but cars and trucks, Mayor Ford is limiting our chances in dealing with some serious changes that have already arrived while we’ve been pretending not to notice. Councillor Janet Davis pointed out that over a billion dollars was cut in the 10 year capital plan for the city’s Wet Weather Flow Program in this year’s budget.

What’s that you ask?

“Toronto’s Wet Weather Flow Master Plan (WWFMP) is a long-term plan to protect our environment and sustain healthy rivers, streams and other water bodies. And it’s about reducing the adverse effects of wet weather flow, which is runoff generated when it rains or snows.”togridlock

“The adverse effects of wet weather flow…” Ring a bell for anyone whose basement flooded Monday or who hoped to go for a swim in Lake Ontario this weekend before this week’s massive sewage dump? Adverse effects? What adverse effects?

Earlier this year, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, chair of the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee – the committee that oversees much of the substantial, debt-inducing spending that helps keep the city up and running properly – floated an idea to cap the revenue brought into by the Land Transfer Tax. It was intended to be a compromise between the mayor who wanted the tax eliminated entirely and those councillors who saw it as an important piece of the budget puzzle. The net effect, if it had been adopted by council (it wasn’t), would be to ultimately reduce city revenue.

We’re hanging on by a thread, and our mayor and chair of one of the most important committees in terms of building for the future are busy figuring out ways to generate less money. As if somehow, magically, leaving more money in the pockets of taxpayers will rebuild aging infrastructure and new transit lines and not simply rewrite the formula for inaction that it’s been for decades now.

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So stop trying to discredit Mayor Ford with our increased in capital debt. It’s none of his doing. He hasn’t earned such praise.

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Trapped In An Endless Loop

July 4, 2013

After spending the better part of 13 hours or so in a committee room, I don’t think it unreasonable to expect some sort of return on that investment. dalieyeA little nugget of wisdom. A soupcon of insight. I’d even settle for just one witty bon mot.

Yesterday’s beyond lengthy Executive Committee delivered on all that and more. Without resorting to any Doug Fordian detached from reality over-statement or hyperbole here but I think I can safely say that, by meeting’s end, I had caught a glimpse into Toronto’s troubled, tortured soul.

Yeah OK. I could still be a little fuzzily delusion. It was a long day.

On the one hand we’re like this place itching to be taken seriously as a world-class city. And world-class cities have subways-subways-subways, ferris wheels, casinos and an airport on the waterfront. But in the same breath, if the debate turns to something like the struggles of BIXI with an analysis of how similar bike-sharing programs are working in places like Paris and New York, the response is always, well, we’re not Paris or New York burtlancaster(or London or Chicago), are we.

Small town minds with big city dreams, as Burt Lancaster might’ve said in some movie from the 1950s. In fact, he probably did and I’m lifting it.

So the sense you get is a dog chasing its own tail, going in circles, believing something will be different this time around. Hours and hours Wednesday were taken up on stuff we’ve been rehashing for years. The island airport. Another report on the possibility of extending a subway further into Scarborough. Repealing a tax instituted in 2008.

Governance of the undead. Issues never die. They just lumber forward in search of brains.

Which is exactly why we’re still talking about a Scarborough subway instead of having one, or an LRT that was good to go five years ago. Volumes have been written about our lack of nerve in building needed transit since about, oh I don’t know, when Bill Davis was premier of the province. scroogeLack of nerve combined with a tightness of wallets might be a fairer assessment of the situation.

We are witnessing that inclination to the extreme currently at City Hall. The Executive Committee, the mayor’s handpicked cabinet of sorts, represents the most radical example of this city’s penchant for both fiscal and policy penury. We got great plans, folks. As long as it doesn’t cost us a dime.

Translation? We’re not going to do anything much other than keep everybody’s taxes detrimentally low.

Many of these guys made their mark railing at any and all the initiatives of the previous administration of David Miller and have essentially spent the better part of the last 3 years ripping them to shreds, regardless of the economic consequences or setbacks. Canines — when not chasing their tails — marking their territory and ruining the carpet in the process. Doesn’t matter to them. holdonsecThey can’t smell anything anyway, having cut off their noses and all that.

But it was interesting to note, that when the subject of reducing the Land Transfer Tax came up deep into the evening, there was far from unanimity in the crowd. Mayor Ford’s Executive Committee hasn’t exactly been a band of brothers for some time now (although it most certainly is a bunch of bros at the moment), and it appears as if it’s not regrouping for him on what was a key election issue back in 2010. He promised to get rid of the LTT and has since scaled back on that, eyeing a gradual elimination, starting with 10% next year.

Not so fast, said some key members of his Executive including, and arguably most vocally, councillors Denzil Minnan-Wong and David Shiner. Councillor Minnan-Wong pointed out that, while understanding the mayor’s ‘enthusiasm’ to start repealing the LTT, it wasn’t a campaign promise he had made. Any loss of revenue from the land transfer tax was probably going to have to be made up with higher property tax increases which the councillor was dead set against.

Councillor Shiner was even more adamant in his opposition. He’d spent much of the meeting thundering about the need to find a way to start building transit. canttouchthis“Subways, subways, subways? Where’s the money, money, money?”

We cannot any longer sit on our bottoms and do nothing,” Shiner said during the LTT debate.

While the item was eventually passed along to the budget committee for its deliberation, it’s really, really hard to see it with much of a life expectancy.

Of course, 2014 election watchers will see that and begin to worry about how Mayor Ford will happily use the rejection of any sort of reduction of the Land Transfer Tax as a campaign cudgel. Any loss is a win at this point. Over at The Grid yesterday, Edward Keenan scared the bejesus out of everyone with an article mulling over the very real possibility of Mayor Ford’s re-election next year. Nothing seems to dampen the man’s rock solid base with polls having him at exactly the 47% approval rating he won with in 2010.

But I see some real problems brewing for the mayor going forward.

While he most certainly will hold any defeat of his push to reduce the LTT aloft and blame city council for ignoring his mandate and blocking the will of the people, Mayor Ford won’t be able to just paint City Hall with a simple tax-and-spend brushstroke. armyofoneLast time out, I think fellow conservative travellers like councillors Minnan-Wong and Shiner sat back and let their colleague do his thing in the hopes he’d clear the stink of Millerism out of the place. They’d happily assume positions of power that had been denied them since 2003 or so.

This time out they might not be so quiet.

If conservative councillors like Denzil Minnan-Wong and David Shiner vote against any reduction of the LTT, I imagine they’ll be very forthright explaining to their constituents why. The city can’t afford to lose the revenue especially if it’s actually serious about building public transit. The scenario will be such that conservative councillors in suburban ridings the mayor needs to win will be campaigning against the mayor’s agenda.

Who will Mayor Ford be running against then? Everybody. dejavuAnd that’s a mighty high hill to climb even for an incumbent starting from a solid base of support.

Before embracing what might be a little glimmer of hope, however, it would do well to remember that our city does have a tendency to turn on itself. If history is anything to go by, we could be back having this exact conversation a year, two years, five years, a decade down the road.

repeatedly submitted by Cityslikr

 


The Real Tax Bogeyman

June 10, 2013

A local anti-tax advocacy group responded to the news of an updated $248 million surplus as proof that we are ‘very, very over-taxed.’ taxburden1It’s a sentiment that pretty much parrots the thinking of Mayor Ford who saw the surplus as a sign he could begin trimming the Land Transfer Tax in order to make partially good on his campaign promise to eliminate it all together. It wasn’t a promise out of line with most of his opponents. George Smitherman talked of how the city was nickel and diming residents. Joe Pantalone — David Miller’s deputy mayor – hopped aboard the anti-tax boat mid-stream, pledging to ditch the vehicle registration tax he’d helped to usher in.

It’s hard to be a tax-and-spender these days.

Why? BECAUSE IT’S MY MONEY, DAMMIT!! Unlike the streets, the schools, the police, etc., etc. taxationisthefttax money goes to providing for everyone.

This anti-tax pressure is especially acute at the municipal level.

Why? Because municipalities in this province are forced to rely so heavily on one form of taxation as its primary source of revenue. Property taxes.

There’s something really visceral about paying property taxes. It’s like an attack on your home and hearth. An article flagged by Rowan Caister today about the 35th anniversary of California’s Prop 13 which severely restricted the state’s ability to utilize property taxes as a source of revenue suggests to me that it was the source of a generation’s groundswell of anti-taxation fervour. Not to mention an important factor in the steady erosion of California’s economy over the past three+ decades.

(And doesn’t Howard Jarvis, the proposition’s point man, bear the same classic phenotype as almost every other anti-tax, anti-government zealot who has come after him?)

howardjarvis

Since property taxes make up such a big slice of Toronto’s revenue pie, it’s intuitive to then assume we’re paying too much or are being gouged. Nearly 40% of the city’s revenues came from property taxes (page 28 of PDF) in the 2013 budget. That’s a lot of taxes we’re paying, right?

Well…

Here in Toronto we still pay lower residential property taxes than any other municipality in the GTA. Even factoring in property values, the city winds up right in the middle of the pack. (Check out Joe Drew’s excellent analysis.) taxmanSo when someone claims that we are very, very over-taxed, I have to ask: Compared to… ? Not our municipal neighbours, surely. What then? The 1950s?

This is not a call necessarily to raise our property taxes although I will call bullshit on anyone claiming ours are too high already. Property taxes are not the ideal revenue tool for adapting to changing economic situations. They tend to be years behind reflecting reality. They’re relatively inelastic, I think the economic term is.

We need to diversify how we generate revenue. Consider how other municipalities around the world are equipped to do so. Check out Table 2 in Enid Slack’s  A Report to the London Finance Commission. In addition to property taxes, there are sales taxes, land transfer taxes, hotel taxes, beer and liquor excise taxes, income taxes, payroll taxes. Tokyo even has something called a ‘hunter tax’. taxesareevilA hunter tax?!

Of course, for Mayor Ford and all his acolytes, this has never been about reforming Toronto’s system of taxation. We were heading in that direction with the power bestowed in the City of Toronto Act. The Vehicle Registration and Land Transfer taxes (hardly unique by international comparison) took steps toward revenue diversification but were roundly defeated in the 2010 election campaign.

The only good tax is a dead tax, it seems. And I ain’t talking an estate tax neither. Councillor Doug Ford summed up the ghosts of Howard Jarvis sentiment perfectly last year when he declared all taxes to be evil.

Such short-sighted selfishness has held sway for too long now, and much to the detriment of our crumbling infrastructure and sorry lack of recent transit building. It just isn’t good enough anymore to cross your arms and shake your head no. It doesn’t get subways built or roads paved.

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It simply sponges off the sacrifices made by previous generations and stiffs future ones with the bills we were too cheap to pay.

freeloadingly submitted by Cityslikr


The Emptiness of Empty Protests

April 26, 2013

Those must have been heady political days in the late-60s, early-70s, here in Toronto. stopthespadinaA citizens group forms to stop the move to pave neighbourhoods and put up an expressway. It coalesces into a bunch of reform-minded politicians who take control of City Hall and run it for the next decade or so.

The dream of grassroots activists everywhere!

Faint echoes of such a movement occurred in 2003, with David Miller’s broom representative of sweeping out the cronyism and incompetence that had consumed the Mel Lastman administration. But truthfully, that really only resonated at the mayoral level. The make up of council did not change that much. Thirty incumbents were re-elected. Only four defeated. And of the two new faces entering City Hall, Mike Del Grande and Karen Stintz, would hardly be considered Millerites.

No. The real descendant of the David Crombie-John Sewell municipal populist movement would have to be – gulp! – fordnationRob Ford. Yes, Rob Ford, dammit. In 2010, not only did he handily win the office of mayor, thumping the outgoing Deputy Mayor in the process, but five incumbents are tossed including the speaker, Sandra Bussin, a couple more are scared into submission with squeaker victories in their respective wards and a majority of the nine other rookie councillors initially falling in line to support the new mayor’s mandate.

Ford Nation, folks. Brimming full of respect for the taxpayers and come to stop the gravy train at City Hall. It’s what a grassroots insurgency looks like in the 21st-century.

But it seems in the intervening 40 years or so between the Crombie-Ford eras the protest portion of populism’s DNA has subsumed the reformist urge. noWhile David Crombie’s CivicAction Party began as a protest against the proposal to bring the Spadina Expressway downtown, it grew into something that actually governed the city.

Now into its third year in power, the Ford Administration shows no similar ability or inclination even. Governing is what professional politicians do. One-note outraged howls of protest are for the self-proclaimed amateurs.

Take a gander at Councillor Doug (Imma Businessman Not A Politician Folks) Ford’s op-ed on proposed transit funding today here and here and here. Or just read one. It’s the same thing spread over three of the city’s four dailies. Go figure.

Or let me summarize for you if you’re pressed for time.

No. No, no, no. No, no, no, no. NoNoNoNoNoNoNoNoNoNo. No. Uh-uh. Nope. No, no, no. Not on my watch. Over my dead body. NoNoNoNoNoNoNoNoNo.

Not a word about alternatives. No other options offered up. johnnystrablerYou’d think with all that free press at his disposal, the councillor might use the opportunity to lay out a transit plan that has been lacking for the three years since his brother announced his intentions to run for mayor. A plan?! We don’t need no stinkin’ plan!!

We just say no.

Name an initiative Team Ford has put forth that hasn’t been about cutting or dismantling.

It’s never about building. Theirs is a protest of destruction not construction. The anti-tax foundation on which Ford Nation is built extends to anti-everything. They took the ‘pro’ out of protest. Let’s call it the antitest.

I thought about labelling this movement the Johnny Strablers after Marlon Brando’s character in The Wild One. “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?” Mildred asks. “Whaddya got?” Johnny answers.

But there’s too much retro-cool in that. stubbornThe Ford brothers might take it as a compliment.

So I’ll go further back, into the 19th-century, and the nativist Know-Nothing political party. Ford Nation shares quite a bit in common with them but it’s not a perfect fit. So let’s dub them the No-Nothing party. You want new transit? No. Need to open additional shelter beds? No. Hey, Mayor Ford. You going to march in this year’s Pride Parade? No.

Don’t get me wrong. They’re all for brand new shiny stuff if you convince them it won’t cost the city a dime. A casino? You betcha. Jets flying into the island airport? Okey-dokey. But any talk of reaching into our pockets and contributing to the broader public commons? No.

This is the inevitable outcome of protest built on pure negativity. We voted for someone with a long list of what’s wrong but an empty column of how to fix it. Opposition with no solutions is just opposition. Nothing gets done. Everything grinds to a halt.

strutsandfretsIt’s a situation any parent will immediately recognize. We are living through a two year old’s temper tantrum.

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