Show Us The Efficiencies!

June 27, 2016

So, I’m having a quiet conversation the other day with a painter friend of mine, Donald… actually, my friend’s not a painter and his name isn’t Donald. quietconversationBut we were having a quiet conversation the other day.

I bring this up just to establish a time line of my thought process, to let you know I was thinking about this before reading David Nickle’s article yesterday, Toronto’s past public finance practices have experienced its own form of Brexit. It’s this latest broad side fired at the fiscal policies pursued for the better part of a decade at City Hall. “Folly. Pure populist folly,” Nickle calls it.

City councillors have been pretending to practice austerity and delivering at-or-below inflationary property tax increases for about a decade, while roughly maintaining services. They’ve increased some revenues, mostly through fees like transit fares. But otherwise, they’ve relied on the booming real estate market and finite help from the provincial government to keep things going.

Mayor Tory and his council allies are also continuing to trot out the shop worn claim that taxes and other revenue streams are unnecessary or unbecoming, even, until we bear down and squeeze out every last drop of inefficiency there is to be found especially in the operating budget. nostoneunturnedUntil such a time as there is shown to be absolutely no waste, or gravy as the previous guy called it, talk of new revenue will remain theoretical. This, of course, is an impossibly high goal to set which, as we’ve probably suggested before, may well be the whole point of such a futile exercise.

Bringing me to my quiet conversation with my friend the other day.

Of course there are still efficiencies to be found. No one has ever said otherwise. Here’s an example right here in a Toronto Star article from Thursday by David Rider, Audit finds waste in City of Toronto cleaning services. “Hundreds of thousands of dollars down the drain a year,” according to the Auditor General.

There you go. Although, I must point out that it’s also not good news for champions of contracting out services, like Mayor Tory, who like to tell us that the private sector, by its very nature, brings about efficiencies and automatically saves us money. Still. Hundreds of thousands of dollars. moarGet ‘er done.

Now, here’s the meat of the conversation between my not-Donald-the-painter friend of mine and me. Hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. Hell, let’s call it a million bucks. Unless the auditor general or whoever else finds 50, 75, 100, 200 of those kind of examples of waste and inefficiencies, we still won’t have enough money to maintain the current services and programs we have, never mind anything new. This is what Mayor Tory’s been told by two consecutive city managers now. Efficiencies for sure but not just efficiencies. It’s not going to be enough.

Moreover, I said to my friend, I said, It’s put up or shut up time for these efficiencies fiends. You claim there’s still lots of efficiencies to be found, find them. Find them and bring them to the budget table. No more vague generalities and focus grouped catchphrases involving sides and dressings.

Anyone who’s followed along with the budget process the last 6 years or so will recognize the approach of the various self-proclaimed fiscal hawks we elect to city council. showmethemoneyPre-determine the property tax rate to give yourself a pretty good idea of what that year’s operating budget will be and then force anyone proposing new spending to make a deduction somewhere else in the budget. An offset, it’s called. This is how much we’re spending. It’s all zero sum after that.

How be this time around, anyone coming to the budget proceedings saying we have to find efficiencies, needs to bring said efficiencies to the table. You don’t want to raise the property tax rate above the rate of inflation? Find the efficiency offset. 1% property tax increase equals roughly $24 million for the city. Before you start talking about 2% or 4% or 5% cuts to budgets, you need to show some $48 or $96 or $120 million in efficiencies found.

Because across the board budget cuts are not the same thing as finding efficiencies. If we’re going to start talking about ‘unprecedented’ and ‘devastating’ cuts, texaschainsawmassacreas Nickle suggests some might be, the onus needs to be placed squarely on those pushing them under the banner of finding efficiencies. We must demand specifics, details down to the penny. Show us the efficiencies found, show us the money.

Otherwise, you’re just proposing cuts for cutting’s sake, and that’s something else entirely. That’s just ideology. That’s a completely different conversation.

demandingly submitted by Cityslikr


We Pledge Our Allegiance To Ford Nation

June 21, 2016

texaschainsawmassacre

Maybe in order to keep from descending into daily bouts of screaming madness following along with local politics in this burg, one needs to step back and accept the fact that a majority of voters in this city are small c conservatives. They expect very little from City Hall and believe (erroneously in most cases) they make very few demands upon it. Keep our taxes low, streets clean and safe and get the garbage picked up, and we’ll get along just fine.

Rob Ford’s biggest mistake as mayor wasn’t his loutish and illicit behaviour, at least not directly. The faux pas he committed was exposing us as the bumpkins we truly are in supporting such a character in the first place, the miserliness at our civic core. David Miller’s time in office was an outlier. He tried dragging us into the 21st-century and we didn’t care for it one little bit. John Tory has restored us to our natural state, explaining his continued popularity in spite of his continued mishandling of important files. No matter. As our friend John McGrath suggested earlier this year, “Toronto got exactly what it voted for in 2014: 85% of Rob Ford’s policies with 200% more syllables.”

Mayor Tory continues to dig in and boldly adhere to our traditional ways of municipal governance with his letter to the budget committee, laying out his ‘Priorities for the Development of the 2017 Budget’. Which are? High in aspiration, low in actually delivering anything other than keeping property taxes unsustainably low and further squeezing the life out of many city services and programs.

David Rider in the Toronto Star and David Nickle of Inside Toronto go into much more detail about what happens if the budget committee and, ultimately, city council follow the mayor’s lead with this. While he talks of new revenue discussions and finding savings from the biggest line item in the city’s budget, the police services, it’s hard to imagine any of that will be in place in time for this year. So in the meantime, Mayor Tory gets to shake every other tree at City Hall in the hopes of finding more low-hanging fruit despite the fact he’s been told repeatedly there’s very little left, none in some cases. Any further paring, so to speak, will only end up causing damage.

And we will cheer him on because that’s what we expect of our elected municipal officials to do. As little as possible, costing us as little as possible. If urban planner, Brent Toderian is correct when he says, “The truth about a city’s aspirations in its vision. It’s found in its budget,” what does that say about Toronto and its vision, its expectations, its aspirations? Mayor Tory’s letter to his budget committee would indicate that we remain, deep down, Ford Nation.

What other conclusion can we draw?

Below, is a copy of Mayor Tory’s letter to the budget committee with some editorial work of mine in red.

* * *

June 17, 2016

City Hall, 2nd floor

100 Queen Street West

Toronto, Ontario

M5H 2N2

To: Gary Crawford, Budget Chief, and Members of Budget Committee

Re: Mayor’s Priorities for the Development of the 2017 Budget

Toronto is a vibrant and growing city, but it is changing quickly. Our population is increasing and our demographics are shifting, bringing new pressures and expectations.

To compete in today’s global economy and maintain Toronto’s character as vibrant, affordable and liveable for all ages and income levels, the City must keep up with the pace of change and think differently about its role in people’s lives.

We must prioritize our investments and spend our money wisely, providing services with a direct, positive impact for the public.

To that end, this letter outlines my expectations of all City Programs, Agencies, relevant Corporations, and Accountability Offices for the 2017 operating and capital budgets:

The City’s tax-supported 2017 net operating budget target is zero percent over the 2016 net operating budget, meaning $3.97 billion; (No new money)

Inflationary pressures and negotiated wage increases should be absorbed within existing budgets; (In fact, even less money than last year)

Any new or enhanced services should be funded from within existing budgets; (You want to try or buy anything new? Get rid of some old stuff first)

Any new or enhanced services with a “net zero” funding impact should be reviewed for impact on staff time and planned service delivery; (Maybe your new or enhanced service isn’t “net zero” if it costs money for the city to implement and deliver. Did you ever think about that?)

Current service levels should be assessed to confirm their value for money and benefit to the public; (A nice-to-have or a need-to-have?)

Opportunities for efficiencies and alternative service delivery models should continue to be pursued, including contracting out; (See Ford, Rob, Mayor, 2010-2014) and,

Any property tax increase should be at or below the rate of inflation. (No new money. In fact, very likely, less.)

City Building Priorities

While our budget is under real strain (Self-imposed), we must continue to build the city we want (In theory). To that end, I have also identified strategic priorities to complete the mandate we have set out over the past two years.

(This following section is a house of cards built on the contradictory impulses expressed in the first sentence. All the stated intentions here are undermined by (a) the faultiness of the intentions themselves i.e. SmartTrack and/or (b) the budgetary constraints stated above. This is a zero sum game here. For any of this to happen, something else will have to be sacrificed somewhere else in the budget.)

It’s time to exert discipline and ramp up our efforts to build a modern city and an efficient, ambitious and effective government, through:

The ongoing planning, design and construction of our transit network expansion, including SmartTrack, the optimized Scarborough network and the Relief Line, which will take cars off the road, reduce overcrowding on existing transit lines and dramatically increase and improve service across the city, while protecting the existing new transit investments. This transit expansion must move forward efficiently, in order to capture the full value of the currently proposed federal infrastructure investments;

Continued investment in Toronto’s mobility network to provide safe, efficient and reliable ways to move around the city for those travelling by car, bike or on foot;

Continued implementation of TO Prosperity: Toronto Poverty Reduction Strategy investments provided for in the 2017 work plan;

Further investment in affordable housing, through our Open Door program; and,

Continued investments in building on Toronto’s standing as one of the most liveable cities in the world through support for arts, culture and public realm projects across the city. (Hoo-rah! A whole bunch of empty cheerleading)

Government Modernization

In the last two years, we have taken some long overdue steps to confront the City’s real underlying pressures without just making arbitrary cuts. (Mayor Tory’s previous call for 5% across the board cuts belies this statement)

The real waste and inefficiency in our City government is found in outdated systems and services, unnecessary duplication and a slow embrace of technology. This is why, despite the declarations of victory made by some, I continue to believe there is much work to be done making large government operate much more efficiently. (No one I know has ever said there’s no more efficiencies. As the city manager has made very clear, there are simply not enough to pay for the stuff the mayor says he wants)

And so, to achieve further real progress, I would like to see an increased focus on digital solutions, measurement and analytics, as well as the expedited completion or implementation of the following reports and reviews:

The Real Estate Review, which will provide an up-to-date assessment of the City’s real estate holdings and create important city-building opportunities;

The Toronto Police Transformational Task Force, which will make recommendations to reduce the growing TPS budget through modernization;

Procurement Review, which is examining the City’s procurement process, especially related to technology solutions;

An immediate prioritization of work that transitions the City to a data-driven organization. All work by City Programs, Agencies, relevant Corporations, and Accountability Offices should be measured, tracked and analyzed so the City can make budget decisions based on sound analytics;

City Programs should also work to meet our Open Data Strategy and targets; and,  City Programs, Agencies, relevant Corporations, and Accountability Offices should prioritize work that provides the people of Toronto with mobile friendly, technology enabled services. This efficiency will free up resources to offer direct services to those who cannot access this service on line.

There is no either/or choice between government efficiency and ambitious city building. (Again, nobody has said otherwise) We can and must contain spending and become more efficient while continuing to make strategic investments in transit, housing and vital infrastructure.

We can do this while maintaining the values and character that make Toronto great.

But it will require a new approach. (If by new approach, the mayor means the same one employed by the previous administration, then yes)

For too long, we have relied on property tax and MLTT revenues without introducing new ways to pay for the city building efforts we support. Alongside the 2017 Budget Process, we must have a serious conversation about new ways to raise revenues, especially to finance longer term capital investments like transit and housing, and we will. (Seems here the mayor is willing to talk about new revenue sources for capital spending, leaving the operating side of the equation dwindling under the weight of at or below the rate of inflation property tax increases)

In the meantime, we owe it to the public to spend their money wisely, before we ask them to contribute more. (**cough cough** Scarborough subway **cough cough** Gardiner East hybrid **cough cough** **cough cough**)

I encourage staff from all City Programs, Agencies, relevant Corporations, and Accountability Offices to help us build a truly modern city that is the envy of the world and to do it while keeping the interests of the people we serve, the residents of Toronto, first and foremost in our minds. (Define “interests”)

 

Sincerely,

John Tory

Mayor of Toronto

submitted by Cityslikr


The Explanation Gap

June 3, 2016

In amidst the most recent twist of the stomach turning, head spinning, logic defying debate over of the one-stop express (thank you David Rider for that) Scarborough subway extension headspinning– Chapter It’s Time To Talk About Expropriations – I was struck by how one local resident reacted. Scott Cole, who received a letter last week from the TTC telling him that his property could be subject to expropriation by the city if a proposed alignment of the extension ended up running along nearby McCowan Road, was, how would I put it, none too pleased. “I’m not going, they’re going to kill me to take me out of here,” Mr. Cole told the Toronto Star. A firm, first play negotiating stance, aggressive, leaving plenty of walk-back space.

But that wasn’t what really caught my attention.

“In my opinion, they’re just going to sell all of this to big developers and make tens of millions of dollars,” Mr. Cole stated.

Huh. Wow.

Of all the dark, dank angles and levels of subterfuge in this fetid debate over the Scarborough subway, this was one I hadn’t ever contemplated. moneymoneymoneyOf course, with any big infrastructure project, the possibility of somebody being involved purely for the money makes sense. But as the prime motivator at the heart of it all? That takes some genuine cynicism to get there, even if it is your house sitting under the shadow of expropriation.

That’s just how some people roll, I guess. Easy answers to complicated matters. It spares the brain from doing much heavy lifting.

I will, in this case, cut Mr. Cole some slack, however, and not simply because he’s looking down the barrel of being ousted from his home, even at fair market value. In a debate that often transgresses the boundaries of reason and common sense, there’s lots of room for detecting sinister specters. When a supposedly cash-strapped city is determined to spend a couple billion dollars on a one-stop express (thanks again, David) subway station that will move only 7300 riders during the peak morning rush hour, any grasping at straws for the reasons why shouldn’t be considered too outrageous.

Mr. Cole isn’t alone in expressing his dim views of transit building in Toronto.

Nick Kouvalis, the man who helped elect the last two mayors of this city and, I don’t think gets enough credit for his integral role in debasing the debate about public transit here over the last 5 years, jfkdonaldsutherlandtweeted out similarly baleful thoughts about another subway project when its proposed alignment went public this week. “Investigate this DRL [downtown relief line] route & land holdings of TTC Pension Fund & understand real politics.” That’s Oliver Stone level stuff, right there. Follow the money. Always follow the money.

In under 140 characters, Mr. Kouvalis manages to impugn the character and motivation of city staff and everyone else involved in pushing forward a subway project that has been on the demand table for decades now. Relief line? Relieving all of us of our hard earned tax dollars for no discernible return, amirite? That’s the kind of besmirching that earns Nick Kouvalis the big bucks and makes Scott Cole look like a rank amateur in comparison.

While I can’t figure out Kouvalis’ motives for weighing in on this subject at this time and in that manner, aside from perhaps just some simple union bashing, it reveals what I’ll call an explanation gap. With pro-Scarborough subway proponents desperately scrambling to justify the clearly unjustifiable building of their pet project, throwing out rationale after rationale, none of which hold up to much scrutiny but, stitched together with a thread of divisively parochial city building to create a loose-fitting blanket of… spidersinthebrainbecause, that’s why, there’s plenty of room left over to be filled with equally questionable ruminations. Defending politically based decisions leaves too much to the public imagination, too much space between the lines to read into.

That is where, there, be dragons.

And it just takes the one, in this case, it’s a big, $2 billion one, to throw into question the whole process. If the Scarborough subway is about nothing more than political theatre trumping good planning practices, why not the relief line too? What’s up with that? Who stands to profit?

It’s a contagion of suspicion that can cast a pall over every proposed transit project. Such a degree of mistrust will lead ultimately to a system wide paralysis. A situation, one might argue, we’ve been enduring and are currently suffering the ill-effects of. If the Scarborough subway is being used as a politically expedient route to pop open the spigot of public willingness to accept the cost of more transit building (and I’m being very generous in that interpretation), then do us all a favour and couch it in those terms.

Sure, that might lead to a whole bunch of Me-Tooisms, copycat demands for nothing but subways which, whispersas irony dictates in these cases, is one of the basis for building this subway. In the end, though, it’s probably preferable to the damaged credibility to actual, fact-based transit projects and the undercutting of legitimacy for the entire decision-making process that comes from pretending the Scarborough subway is anything but a political machination.

Don’t leave an explanation gap for people to fill because fill it they will. Once that happens, a competing narrative, regardless of how iffy and baseless, can take on an oversized life of its own. That, in fact, is how we ended up with this kind of debate on the Scarborough subway.

explicably submitted by Cityslikr


The Gold Line

March 18, 2016

It ain’t easy, building public transit in the automobile age we live in. Demands are greater. Expectations higher. proveitPurse strings much tighter to pry open.

Cars are the status quo. The status quo gets a wider pass when it comes to building, rebuilding and over-building all the infrastructure necessary to maintain its primacy. Look at Toronto lately. Want to speed up repairs on the Gardiner Expressway? Money found. Done. A billion dollars more may also be spent keeping another section of that highway elevated just right. Done, and done.

Here in Los Angeles, the local public transit builder and provider, Metro, seems overly concerned about holding drivers’ hands, assuring them that they’re driving interests are being looked after too. “Metro eases traffic by tackling bottlenecks.” “Metro eases traffic with more options for drivers.” “Metro funds $430 million worth of local improvement projects each year, from signal synchronization to filling potholes and repaving roads.”

Yet every transit decision made – subway or LRT, rail or bus, this alignment or that – seems microscopically scrutinized in comparison. Success of whatever claims are made for public transit must be immediate and absolute. therethereAn empty bus spotted running its route is seen as a failure. An empty freeway or parking lot? Not so much.

My friend Ned and I rode the Gold Line yesterday, from end-to-end, Atlantic station in the central-east, around, up and out to the newest terminus, APU/Citrus College in the more north-east. The line just opened up a new, “6 stations, 5 cities”, 11.5 mile extension into the foothill communities of the San Gabriel Mountains to much anticipation and mixed reviews. Boon or blunder/One has to wonder?, the tormented transit poets asks.

“Politics brought the Gold Line into existence,” rail enthusiast Ethan N. Elkind wrote in the Los Angeles Times this week, not at all favourably.

Better mass transit is necessary across the region. But not every part of the county has the population to support rail. In the case of the Gold Line, we’ve brought expensive train technology to a generally low-density area that could be more economically served by bus rapid transit or commuter buses running in the right-of-way.

In the LA Weekly over the past week or so, Gene Maddaus has been writing extensively about the transit future of Los Angeles, exploring the complicated politics of it. Will More Transit Actually Ease L.A.’s Traffic? he asks in one article. goldline2On the Gold Line yesterday, running alongside the packed 210 freeway for a bit, it’s hard to respond to Mr. Maddaus’s question in the affirmative. We’re building all this and traffic’s still bad? Not to mention that earlier this year, it was reported that transit ridership numbers were down. We’re building all this and people aren’t using it?

All these questions and concerns are legitimate and should be asked and not shrugged off. The 6 new stations on the Gold Line certainly do feel more like a commuter rail service. All stopped right next to parking lots. There was little sign of much street life around any of the stations (albeit, just from my view aboard the train). When we arrived at the last stop, we got out to get a coffee. goldlineINot seeing anything in the immediate vicinity, Ned asked a woman who had just parked her car and was heading to the Metro to get to the Kings game downtown (one less car on the road which is not insignificant) if there was a nearby coffee shop we could get to. “Walking?!” she responded, as incredulously as that. Not easily. Not quickly.

Should this LRT have been a bus lane instead? Maybe. But we all know the politics of that. Buses engender little love or respect. Buses in their own dedicated bus lane can draw the ire of drivers.

That isn’t meant to negate the argument. It’s just that the rigorousness applied to building and paying for public transit is rarely brought to bear when it comes to other forms of transportation, and by other forms of transportation, natch, I mean the private automobile. Conventional wisdom seems to already be that self-driving cars will relieve us all of our congestion woes. trafficcongestionHow do we know that to be a fact any more than we know the Gold Line should’ve been a bus route instead of an LRT?

In discussing the upcoming ballot initiative to raise $120 billion for new transportation projects, former Los Angeles County supervisor, Zev Yaroslavsky said, “Everything’s gotta go perfectly for Metro politically” for the measure to win. Perfectly. On a measure that includes, according to the LA Times Transportation and Mobility writer, Laura J. Nelson, nearly 20% of the proposed money would go to highway construction and enhancements. Where 80% of the 18.4 cents federal gas tax still goes into roads.

Billions of dollars being spent to build, expand and enhance roads and freeways when we know, categorically, that doing that only serves to increase driving numbers, cars on the road, congestion. stubbornBut when it comes to public transit? It’s gotta be perfect.

We need to change the terms of this debate. Driving cannot be the default mobility mode around which everything else must function. It will be an uphill battle. It will not happen overnight. That’s the thing about the status quo. It’s dug in deep. Dislodging it will take a lot more effort than it should.

confoundedly submitted by Cityslikr


Stumbling Toward Progress

January 22, 2016

Wow!

And what a week it was.whirlwind

Under the steady, competent and business-like stewardship of John Tory, this kind of wild ride at City Hall was supposed to be a thing of the past. Granted, not your garden variety, crack-fueled, more-than-enough-to-eat-at-home sort of melodrama we’ve previously witnessed. Purely political, up and down the daily calendar. But still.

It all began with a fairly standard bit of annual budgeting that’s happened for the past few years. Ix-nay he-tay alk-tay bout-ay ew-na evenue-ray. Pilfer reserve funds. Continue to squeeze a little harder on the stone in the hopes of getting blood this time around. Circle three times, click you heels twice. Declare the budget balanced in the fairest, most reasonable, prudent manner possible.

Then it started to rain staff reports and the going got crazy.

SmartTrack. Redrawn options for the Gardiner East hybrid. The Scarborough subway extension. New numbers and projections. countNew configurations. New realities. New respect for expert staff advice, depending on the project, of course. Proposed compromises that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars more than the original plans. Fewer subways. More LRTs. More developable waterfront land. Tighter turn radii.

Somewhere in the midst of all that doubling and tripling back mayhem, the man who should be chief of police leveled a broadside against his organization, demanding fundamental reform of the way it goes about its policing business. He then went silent or was silenced. The head of the Police Services Association responded with a public pout. The former reform-minded chair of the Police Services Board filed a complaint against the actual chief of police and the Police Services Board for not clarifying statements the police chief made during a year end interview questioning the accuracy of statements the former TPSB chair made about implementation of proposed reforms. joustingWe then learned the police were deploying some 50 combat ready assault rifles for front line officers as tools of de-escalation and in no way was militarizing policing in the city.

Mayor Tory deemed it all to be reasonable. Nothing to be alarmed at. As you were.

You could look at all this and conclude that it was simply the result of an industrious administration dealing with the inevitable array of issues that come from governing a growing and busy metropolis. Shit happens, am I right? Roll up your sleeves and get down into the goo. This city isn’t going to run itself.

But it doesn’t feel like that at all to me. At week’s end, it kind of feels like a reckoning. Bills have come due and need to be paid.

The mayor’s refusal to have a serious discussion about proper revenue streams, holding tight onto his campaign promise of keeping property tax rate hikes to at or below the rate of inflation, continues to hamstring the city for yet another year in dealing with a wall of serious fiscal matters, both on the capital and operating sides of the ledger. madscrambleIt’s even more ridiculous in light of how he’s backtracked on other hare-brained campaign promises, mostly revolving around public transit. He’s insisting on putting off a tax and spend conversation that will only get more difficult the closer we get to another election.

On the policing front, the mayor took his spot on the board rather than designate a council colleague in his place. So he was right there, hands on, to change the culture both on the board and in the services itself. A shot at serious reform, which he keeps talking about, within reach. A new, forward thinking chief waiting in the wings, reports and recommendations for implementation of change on the table in front of him.

But he blinked, retreated, embraced the status quo. More business as usual.

Where there is some brightness, some hope for more positive outcomes is on transit, a file the mayor, and as a candidate before that, made even more problematic and difficult to negotiate, layering on additional fanciful talk and plans in his bid for the job. headlesschickenBut he’s backtracked on SmartTrack. He’s rethought his once adamant support of the Scarborough subway extension. Having joined the crowd in politicizing transit planning, he’s now attempted to hand it back, tattered and somewhat worse for wear, to those who actually know a thing or two about transit planning.

The retreat comes with some potentially good results. The city could end up with an Eglinton Crosstown running from Pearson airport right through to the Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto. We might build fewer subways in Scarborough and more LRTs. So much new transit could be in the offing that we as a city will have no choice to not only talk about new revenue sources but to actually implement some in order to help pay for and operate it.

This comes, unsurprisingly, with a whole boatload of caveats. The new SmartTrack mock up is still so dependent on unknown variables like capacity and fare pricing as to remain highly theoretical, and yet, is something of a linchpin for the new proposed Scarborough subway alignment to work properly. chaseyourowntailIs $2 billion (or more) for one subway station too steep a price to pay to try and ensure a non-fractious majority of city council buy in? All the delays and false starts have pushed timelines further and further down the road, past upcoming elections cycles, leaving most of today’s proposed projects susceptible to future political interference, still just lines on a map.

Unlike the budget process and the policing news, however, I don’t see this week’s transit resets as steps back or no steps taken at all. At least in the light of recent transit upheavals in Toronto, what’s occurred over the past few days is something akin to progress. If not forward momentum, let’s call it forward motion.

It shouldn’t have to be this fucking hard, and I will not absolve Mayor Tory of any blame for contributing to the ongoing difficulty. fingerscrossed1If he had’ve met the parochial chest-beating of the Ford’s head on, and not derided and sneered at his opponents who did so, none of this would’ve been necessary. We wouldn’t have lost so much time and money while he and his team pretended SmartTrack was actually a thing, that the Scarborough subway had any legitimacy whatsoever.

But, there it is, and here we are.

Try as I might to wrap this up on an optimistic note, I can’t bring myself to do it unless you consider It’s Not All Bad News upbeat. In the flurry that was this week, there may be some cause to be hopeful. Maybe. When it could be worse is not good enough, it will have to do.

Open ended. That’s all I’ve got.

unfinishedly submitted by Cityslikr


Keeping Up With The Joneses

January 18, 2016

It’s odd to wake up on a Monday morning, read through your local news and information and realize there’s a lot of change in the air. goodnewseveryoneDeputy Chief Peter Sloly suggests a complete overhaul of our approach to policing. Former city council candidate and Better Budget TO co-founder Alex Mazer raises the possibility of some ‘fiscal honesty’. Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat has plans on completely re-imagining King Street from Dufferin all the way east to River.

Oh my. I think I just gave myself a case of the dizzies. So much… possibilities!

This comes after a weekend of occasional contemplation on what seems to be the inevitable strategic retreat by Mayor Tory on his heavily touted (by he and his team, at least) SmartTrack transit plan. On Friday stories began to emerge about scaling back and spending less on it. The always dubious ‘western spur’ dropped and replaced (Fingers Crossed!) by the westward extension of the Eglinton Crosstown to the airport. The eastern branch north of the Kennedy subway station quietly binned. stepbackLeaving some sort of expanded GO train-like service tracing the much more desirable Relief Line route, the slightest impression acknowledging SmartTrack even once existed as a concept.

I wondered what the campaign architects of SmartTrack were thinking now. Was this pretty much how the saw things happening? They knew, along with a solid majority of everybody else, that the plan was wholly unworkable. Just get their guy elected, go through the motions, not to mention millions, pretending he was serious about building SmartTrack. When it hit smack dab into the wall of reality, revealed to be the sham it was, stitching together a couple good ideas into an ill-fitting and grotesquely expensive cloth, walk it back, on the advice of the experts that weren’t, apparently, available during the 10 month long campaign.lipstickonapig

SmartTrack was an election scheme in no way meant to refute the heavy-rail, off-road transit vision of John Tory’s main rival for the job, Rob-then-Doug Ford. That’s why it was referred to as ‘Surface Subway’. That’s why John Tory backed the Scarborough subway. John Tory refused to confront the political pandering that sat deep in the heart of the Ford approach to transit planning. Instead, he chose to wrestle it into his own image.

So, I look at today’s news, the transformative opportunities, and temper my immediate enthusiasm. Just how willing is John Tory, essentially, to buck the status quo, to grapple with the ghost of the Ford administration? Little so far would indicate his willingness to do so. Every restoration of TTC service he announces is more than equaled by expedited expressway repairs, Gardiner hybrids and traffic flow announcements. Do we really expect him to stand strong in the face of the inevitable outrage at the chief planner’s plans to de-emphasis car travel along King Street and in the downtown core?

Fiscal honesty? I write this as I’m following along with the budget chief’s lunchtime presser. “We did not have to use revenue tools on this budget,” Councillor Crawford told reporters. putalidonit1All the while keeping property tax rate increases impossibly low, raiding reserve funds and insisting on line-by-lines cuts to office supplies and travel costs in order to try and plug the inevitable holes in the operating budget. Sound familiar? It should. That’s what’s been passing as ‘fiscal honesty’ at City Hall for the past 5 years or so.

And as mayor, John Tory sits on the Police Services Board that passed over the opportunity to appoint reformer Peter Sloly as Chief of Police, all the while holding the door open for the similarly reform-minded chair, Alok Mukherjee, to make an early exit. He’s already had the chance to help affect much needed change and dropped the ball. Well into his second year in office, it’s difficult not to see Mayor Tory as anything but an obstacle, no less than his predecessor.

Of course, it’s hard to look forward when you’re constantly checking back over your shoulder to see what your competition’s up to. Ultimately, it’s of cold comfort that John Tory defeated Doug Ford to become mayor if, in the end, there’s little to differentiate between the two in matters of policy. kipMaintaining the status quo is maintaining the status quo even if you can’t see the gold chain around somebody’s neck.

If John Tory really wants to establish an enduring legacy during his time in office, he could do so by challenging the Ford city building and governance mystique head on, bury it six feet under the ground where it belongs. The possibilities in doing so are in evidence in today’s news. But, for me, the mayor’s motivations remain opaque. Like with SmartTrack, he seems more intent on a simple redesign, keeping a uninterrupted message, only delivered by a different messenger.

not anticipatingly submitted by Cityslikr


No More Important A Key Item

November 3, 2015

At this month’s city council meeting, Mayor Tory has made the Toronto Poverty Reduction Strategy his key item. He’s talked a lot about it. He appointed one of his Deputy Mayor’s (“Deputy Mayor”?), Pam McConnell, to oversee its realization to this point. The mayor’s talked about it some more.

We can call this a good first step but make no mistake. It’s only a first step. If I’m reading the agenda item correctly (not always a sure thing), the item before council this week “…proposes an Implementation and Accountability Structure to oversee and coordinate the strategy’s implementation, beginning with the first of five action plans…” These first of five action plans involve very little spending of money. That point “when the rubber hits the road,” according to the actual deputy mayor, Denzil Minnan-Wong.

As part of this initial implementation of the strategy, there is talk of talking money. “…to include consideration of the funding needs of TO Prosperity: Toronto Poverty Reduction Strategy in the Long Term Fiscal Plan.” “…to develop a cost-benefit analysis and framework for poverty-related spending as part of the TO Prosperity implementation.”

But as Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong suggested above, and the mayor himself said at last month’s Executive Committee meeting, “There are going to be competing priorities”. Talk’s great. Ambition and aspiration are all well and good but… but… “Budgetary implications have to be considered,” Minnan-Wong intoned, darkly, we can assume, since this is Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong we’re talking about.

It will be later this month, when the 2016 budget debate begins in earnest, that Mayor Tory’s actual ‘priorities’ will start to take shape. So far in his tenure, he’s found money to fund his SmartTrack reports, to build an increasingly expensive Gardiner East hybrid, to expedite repairs on the rest of the expressway. Just how much political capital will he be willing to spend to actually address poverty in this city? With the likes of Councillor Minnan-Wong looking over his shoulder or Etobicoke councillor John Campbell who’s already expressed his view that the mayor’s over-emphasized the ‘Progressive’ part of Progressive Conservative in terms of spending at City Hall.

Mayor Tory cannot be allowed to use this vital process of fighting poverty as just some window dressed display, a reiteration of last year’s municipal campaign where he pointed to all the things he said as proof of his progressive bent. Mayor Tory says a lot of things. Much of it simply filling up space, empty words.

Today, the mayor’s made the Toronto Poverty Reduction Strategy his key item. He cannot be allowed to do nothing more than wear it as some badge of honour, as meaningless proof of his commitment to social justice. Not a show piece of his administration but a centre piece. This has to stick to him. We must demand Mayor Tory do more than talk about Toronto poverty or use this as a rickety platform of self-promotion.

I’m sure Mayor Tory cares about poverty in Toronto. I’m sure he would like nothing more than to be seen as contributing to the alleviation of it. How much he’s willing to risk to put actual commitment and dollars behind the strategy, I’m less certain of. Failure to do so on his part must be seen to be just that, a failure, and not a more noble failure, where the mayor did his best, tried his darndest, but the rock was just too big to roll up the hill, competing priorities simply too overwhelming, for him to deliver.

upthehill

Mayor Tory needs to realize that on this, good intentions will not be good enough.

demandingly submitted by Cityslikr


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