We Knew. We All Knew.

January 27, 2015

We did.

bigsurprise

Anyone following along with the “Great” Scarborough transit debate of Two-Ought-One-Ought to Two-Ought-One-Three couldn’t help but know that once city council reversed course once again and decided on the 3-stop subway plan over the 7-stop LRT, we would be on the hook for some money. Lots of it. Lots and lots of money.

So when news broke late last week that an amount had pretty much been settled on, an amount not far off of what had been bandied around during the aforementioned debate, somewhere likely in the $75-85 million range, it shouldn’t have caught anyone by surprise. topsecretWe knew. We all knew. We did.

That we found out in the manner we found out, from the city manager, as done and done, it’s already accounted for and in the capital budget, whoah, wait, what?! “Yes, it’s in the capital plan,” Joe Pennachetti stated, perhaps a little too imperiously. “No, you’d not be able to see it.”

I think it’s fair to call that something of a surprise. Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam said it was news to her, literally. She heard about it the first time everybody else did, in Jennifer Pagliaro’s Toronto Star article. “I think the public should be very concerned about the dearth of accountability and transparency,” Councillor Josh Matlow, perhaps one of the Scarborough subway’s most vociferous critics, said. According to him, city council was never fully briefed on the final costs of deciding to ditch the LRT.

Yet, there it is, now in the city’s capital budget plan, with none of our elected officials (as far as we know) sure of the exact amount.burnmoney

It is a fitting, highly appropriate twist to this sad, sordid tale of malefic governance and shameful political self-preservation. Appropriate too that two of the most shameless proponents of the Scarborough subway, councillors Rob Ford and Glenn De Baeremaeker have gone silent on the issue, not a peep so far from either of them. This despite the fact Councillor Ford’s opinion has been sought out on almost every other matter going on at City Hall.

The fact of the matter is, actual support for the Scarborough subway has never been as deep or clamorous as the noise its supporters on council have made it out to be. Polls that set out the LRT and subway plans for respondents to see regularly came back showing a preference for the LRT. “If you get past all of that rhetoric and you get down to how much is it going to cost,” Dave Scholz of Leger Research said, “who’s going to pay for it and who’s going to be serviced by it, then people have a very realistic view of what they want.” scarboroughsubwaybellowLast February, just as the municipal campaign was kicking into gear, Leger showed that 61% of those asked, including a majority in Scarborough, favoured the LRT extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway.

Just think of what those polls might say if these sunk costs of $75-85 million are run up the flagpole for full public viewing. Which probably explains this attempt to bury them instead. Already putting ambivalent residents on the hook for an annual property tax increase to help pay for the subway, oh yeah, and **cough, cough, cough, cough** an extra $75-85 million. **cough, cough, cough, cough** I’m sorry. What was that again?

Subway supporter and TTC Chair, Josh Colle isn’t prepared to just simply take those numbers at face value. He wants some full accounting. “Absent of any construction happening, where is this supposed money?” he wondered.

A fair enough question from the councillor, and maybe one he should’ve asked before he voted in favour of the subway back in 2013. icouldtellyou“I can show you my notes from City Council Oct 8/9 2013,” Councillor Paul Ainslie, the only Scarborough councillor who voted against the subway, tweeted last week in response to the Toronto Star story. “I wrote answers to my public questions [of city staff]…I wrote “sunk costs est. $85M” I did not make this number up. So I was not surprised by TO Star.”

The numbers were out there. Councillors who ended up voting for the subway did not make their support contingent on a full breakdown of the costs the city should be expected to pay for that decision. They collectively shrugged and pressed the ‘yes’ button. Their sudden demand for fiscal probity rings a little hollow now.

Councillor Paula Fletcher wondered why the city now should be on the hook for the entire amount of cancelling the LRT. “Let’s not forget the provincial government ran a by-election on the Scarborough subway, with their candidate, Mitzie Hunter, named as a subway champ for Scarborough,” the councillor said. “To come back and say the onus is all on the city is a bit disingenuous.” Ahhh, there’s that word again. Disingenuous. If there’s one word to describe this entire fiasco, the entire past 4 years, really. Disingenuous.wishlist

Still, it’s a legitimate question for the councillor, who, it should not be forgotten, helped bring the subway debate back to the floor of council in the convoluted transit vote of May 2013, to ask. A question that should’ve been asked over and over and over again until an actual answer was given before an actual vote with actual repercussions was cast. While Councillor Fletcher eventually wound up opposing the subway, 24 of her then-council colleagues pushed ahead, costs be damned! Scarborough deserves a subway!

And drip, drip, drip goes the money down the drain. At a budget committee meeting yesterday discussing the staff recommended 2015 budget, Councillor Gord Perks listed a bunch of council directives that staff were ignoring. “The budget drops 3 youth lounges from the Council directed 10,” he tweeted. “City turned down climate change and health funding proposal that the Board of Health approved.” “Budget ignored Council vote on playground repair funding. On average we repair once every 80 years. Council said get to 1 in 30. Cost $3M/yr.” “We have been told budget doesn’t achieve Council direction on planting trees. We don’t yet how short.”

We can’t blame all of this nickel and diming on the fact that without any debate on the specifics the city has to come up with some sum of 10s of millions of dollars to pay for the Scarborough subway. A below the rate of inflation property tax increase and a mayoral dictate to all departments to find 2% in “efficiencies” will contribute too. buryingmoneyBut in a largely zero-sum game of a municipal operating budget, money going somewhere has to come from somewhere. So, residents who may soon find themselves paying more to use city services and facilities can rightfully wonder if that Scarborough subway is actually worth it.

Trying to bury the evidence won’t change that fact.

serves us rightly submitted by Cityslikr


There’s Really Nothing Up His Sleeve

January 21, 2015

Yesterday’s 2015 budget launch left me feeling a little discombobulated. That sense you get after watching a magician try and pull the wool over your eyes for a couple hours. magicactFlim-flammed, bamboozled even.

It was different than the budgetary voodoo Rob Ford attempted while he was mayor. Trust me, folks. This won’t hurt a bit. Those aren’t service cuts. We call them ‘adjustments’.

No. Mayor John Tory’s first kick at the can was all about, what did he repeatedly call it? “The largest investment in service improvements in recent history.”

And credit where credit’s due.

Both public transit and Shelter, Support and Housing (or, at least, shelter and support) received nice bumps in spending, the TTC especially so. It will see service restored to 2010 levels. “Stabilizing of transit,” City Manager Joe Pennachetti called it. misdirectionA step forward in order to be running on the spot.

In total, it’s about a $1.8 billion increase in spending from last year’s operating budget, leaving some to call it ‘left-leaning’.

But here’s the thing. It’s not immediately obvious where the money is coming from to pay for that spending. In order to balance the operating side of the budget (which, I’ll remind everyone again, it is provincially mandated for municipalities to balance their operating budgets), the city has to come up with the revenue to the penny. $11.4 billion spent. $11.4 billion must be found in revenue.

This staff recommended budget proposes a below-the-rate-of-inflation property tax increase. So it doesn’t cover the inflation-adjusted cost of the delivering of services and programs. That means, in effect, a reduction in the money available for those services and programs. (Here, let Councillor Gord Perks explain it for you. Or Neville Park. Or Alex Mazer.)

Not to mention Mayor Tory’s directive to departments to find 2% efficiencies and city staff’s demand that department’s also ‘absorb the inflation’. nothingupmysleeveThis, despite the fact, that the city manager, as he was heading for the exit last spring before mayor-elect John Tory convinced him to stay for one more budget cycle a few months later, told us there was no more gravy to be found, no more fat to be trimmed. Apparently, retirement wasn’t the only thing Mr. Pennachetti reconsidered.

It’s a little of the ol’ robbing Peter to pay Paul. You want improved transit and more shelter space? Well somebody’s got to pay for it, and don’t expect it to be property owners. The pie got bigger but the slices became a little more uneven.

While the budget was a little tax-shy, let’s call it, it certainly embraced user fees. There’s an increase of $14 million in unidentified ones in the document right now. Plus, a good chunk of the TTC improvements this year will be covered by the proposed fare increase, one campaign pledge Mayor Tory seemed comfortable breaking.gobbluth

On the other hand, drivers are getting the Gardiner Expressway repaired 8 years earlier than scheduled to the tune of nearly half a billion dollars in the capital budget with nary a word about having to chip in a little more to cover the costs. The roughly $60 million the Vehicle Registration Tax once brought into city coffers multiplied by those 8 years would’ve more than covered those costs. Apparently some users are more preferred than others, even in John Tory’s Toronto.

A couple glaring holes still stand between the city and a truly balanced budget. There’s the $86 million one, created when the province decided to end the practice of pooling payments to Toronto to help pay for many mandated social services. Not to worry, the city’s Chief Financial Officer, Robert Rossini, excitedly told us yesterday, a big announcement was coming, talks had been very productive with the province about settling that amount. Everything’s under control.

Turns out, the big announcement seems to be a $200 million line of credit extended to the city from Queen’s Park, including market rate interest charges. swordboxOr what some of us might consider a deferred tax increase or user fee. Line up that can so we can kick it down the road a bit.

The other shoe dangling there, waiting to drop is the police budget. While the staff recommending a flatlining of it — I know, I know. That kind of thing always happens. And by always, I mean almost never – the city and the Toronto Police Services are currently negotiating a new collective agreement which almost always results in pay increases for the police. Budget Chair Gary Crawford assures us that money has been set aside for that contingency. How much? He won’t say. (Why would he as it might tip the city’s hand in terms of the ongoing negotiations.)

But as Ben Spurr pointed out in NOW, over the past 10 years, the police budget has gone up some $241 million. So it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect at least a $20-$30 million bump this year. But again, don’t worry. Everything’s under control. Even after the $86 million, there’s still over $100 million on that line of credit from the province.

Look. It’s not a terrible, terrible budget. Even Councillor Gord Perks says so. rockyandbullwinkleThere is a big investment in vital needs of the city. But Mayor Tory is still trying to pretend these things can happen magically, without having to say the word ‘taxes’ above a whisper. He’s putting a glossy patina on the Rob Ford maxim of governance. Sure you can have things. And we can get somebody else to pay for them.

It’s fundamentally dishonest and only serves to put off the inevitable, leaving the mess for somebody else to clean up.

unmesmerizedly submitted by Cityslikr


Here’s Hoping

November 28, 2014

I’m ready to go on record as saying this.acceptance

Maybe John Tory is the mayor Toronto needs at this point of time.

Affable, well-intentioned, not ideologically strident.

A big ol’ stew of comfort food. Haute cuisine stew, mind you. Truffles and duck, with handmade dumplings. No recording devices, if you don’t mind.

There was kind of a, I don’t know, settling, while watching the mayor-elect’s state of the city address yesterday. Campaign sound bites and slogans set aside, replaced by, if not inspirational words, something close to adult conversation. He made a frank admission of the substantial problems Toronto faces – crises, he labelled a couple of them, prioritizing them in a way that seemed to accentuate people not numbers.

Traffic and congestion. Affordability. Child poverty. Unemployment.

Tory pointed out that while spending time on things like cutting councillor office budgets – stopping the gravy train, in other words — were of high symbolic value, it didn’t ultimately make much of a dent on the overall budget. Meanwhile, bus service was reduced. comfortfoodThe repair backlog of Toronto Community Housing grew as did the waiting list for people to live there. Infrastructure aged and crumbled just a little bit more.

It feels like after 4 years of non-stop campaigning, we might actually be sitting down to some actually governing. Not governing simply by default and in the face of a mayor’s worst intentions, but with a mayor’s best ones. Here’s the situation as it is (rather than how I make believe it to be). How do we go about dealing with it?

Don’t mistake my willingness to give the incoming mayor some benefit of the doubt as any sort of ringing endorsement. I remain highly skeptical of his SmartTrack scheme. He seems determined to plow ahead with the Scarborough subway craziness. Sometimes he says a lot of words in quick succession that all sound sensible but when you play them back, they don’t add up to much. He talked about needing to restore TTC services that had been cut and scaled back over the past 4 years. Perhaps think about bringing back buses that, well, were no longer available but, still, maybe there was something we could do, all within the constraints of what money’s available in the budget.benefitofthedoubtjpg

Parse it any way you want, John. Restoring TTC service is about one thing and one thing only. Money. More of it means more service. Less of it? Well, we’ve seen how that goes.

Our mayor-elect remains dogged in his belief that the city’s revenue needs will be met by a combination of long overdue largesse from the other two levels of government and further found efficiencies around City Hall. For sure, the feds and province need to start opening their respective wallets and chip in to help municipalities, and I believe Tory a better ambassador to make Toronto’s case than the previous administration, still… We might want some sort of backup plan in case either one comes up a little short. Again.

As for efficiencies?

After the election, Tory convinced the city manager, Joe Pennachetti, to put off his impending retirement for a bit to help ease the transition. The city manager is on record as saying that, we’re pretty tapped out in terms of efficiencies, there’s not much change left to be found under those cushions. cleanslate1Toronto needs new sources of revenue, he’s stated quite emphatically. Otherwise, expect reductions in services and programs.

Hopefully, he made that point in private to the mayor-elect, as a condition to remaining on the job. Hopefully, the mayor-elect heard him and is merely maintaining his electoral stance until certain budget realities force him to step back and be frank with residents. I’m willing to believe John Tory is reasonable enough to do that.

Right now, he sounds reasonable. Right now, we need to think we’ve elected somebody reasonable to lead the city. Right now, after the past 4 tumultuous years, that’s good enough for me.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr


The Tory Story

October 23, 2014

It has come to my attention from a couple trusted sources that maybe, just maybe, I’ve been irrationally hostile to the whole concept of John Tory for Mayor. irrationalSo blind I am to the possibility that a Tory mayoralty wouldn’t be all that bad that my pushback is too over the top, aggressive, emphatic and resolute in rejecting the positives. Missing the forest for the trees, and all that. Come on. Really? Mayor Doug Ford?

It’s a fair accusation to make. In style and appearance, in putting our best face forward, yes, John Tory is no Rob or Doug Ford. After 4 years of regular embarrassment and some 1500 days or so of What The Fuckiness?, electing John Tory would announce for all that world to see that Toronto is once more back to taking itself seriously. The man walks upright. He speaks as if he might actually be thinking about what he’s saying. His suit fits.

I even over-stepped the other day, demanding someone name a significant policy difference between John Tory’s platform and that of his rival, Doug Ford. There is one very noteworthy distinction in terms of policy between the two men. The Land Transfer Tax. Ford thinks it can be gradually done away with, no problem. deepbreath1Never mind the $300 million annual revenue it brings in. Done and done.

Full marks to John Tory. This week he stood before a very anti-LTT, real estate crowd and told them he wasn’t going to tell them what they wanted to hear. The city needs the revenue from the LTT. The LTT has not hindered home sales. The LTT would remain in place if John Tory was elected mayor.

But after that? In all honesty? I strain to come up with much daylight at all between John Tory and Doug Ford when it comes to stuff of substance. (And enlighten me, fill up the comments section of where I’m wrong in this.) John Tory does better copy than Doug Ford. He sounds better telling us he cares about things. Tory’s made a lifetime of personal dedication in the private sector to a multitude of causes throughout the city. His awards and accolades have been earned not purchased.

This isn’t, however, about merit badges for volunteer service. texaschainsawmassacreThis is about politics and policy, about ideas to enhance the lives of every resident in this city, about delivering opportunity to everyone regardless of where they live or work. This is about standing up and giving an honest assessment about where the city is now and how it needs to proceed forward.

As a candidate, John Tory has failed miserably on that account.

Like Doug Ford, John Tory sees Toronto having a spending problem not a revenue problem. Despite advice to the contrary from the city CEO, Joe Pennachetti, or counter-evidence from municipal governance experts like Enid Slack, Tory insists we just need to tighten our belts, root out all those ‘inefficiencies’ at City Hall and we’ll have all the money we need. Tory is on record saying “low tax increases, at or below inflation, impose spending discipline on governments.”makeitupasyougoalon

Actually, low property tax increases, at or below the rate of inflation, impose service and programs cuts or hikes in user fees. At best, they ensure no expansion of those service or programs. It’s a self-induced zero sum game where we have to unnecessarily choose between our priorities. A game we’ve been playing for the last 4 years during the Ford administration.

John Tory is offering nothing different.

His SmartTrack transit plan is only slightly less implausible than the Subways! Subways! Subways! mantra of the Fords, and that’s a mighty low bar to clear. SmartTrack is full of questionable construction details and a financing gimmick that is untested anywhere in the world at the level he’s pitching. His assurances that he will get it done by sheer force of will are as empty and meaningless as the Fords’ guarantee about building subways.handthekeyback

The endorsements now flooding in for John Tory from most of our mainstream newspapers and media want us to believe that we’d be voting for CivicAction John Tory, John Tory the magnanimous private sector benefactor. There’s little mention of Tory’s political track record. Not so much his career as a Progressive Conservative operative and elected official, but his time spent as a well-placed backroom figure in the post-amalgamated Toronto Mel Lastman administration.

Ahhh, Mel Lastman. Only slightly less eye-rollingly embarrassing in light of Rob Ford. Still. Who the hell’s the WHO? African cannibals. MFP. The Sheppard subway. 1st term guaranteed property tax freeze, and here we are. John Tory was close to all of that. In 2003, he wanted us to ignore that. We didn’t. In 2014, we seem ready to let by-gones be by-gones.

What’s changed? Rob and Doug Ford, you’ll tell us. Rob and Doug Ford.

If the endorsements are any indication, what we want as a city is just a little bit of peace and quiet, a break from all the rancour and partisan divide that’s ground the city to a halt over the past 4 years. The only candidate who can do that, it seems, is John Tory, our great white establishment hope. sternheadmasterToronto needs a nice big fatherly hug. We need some civic soothing.

Frankly, that’s like applying make up to cover the bruising we’ve taken from the Ford administration – an administration John Tory supported until it became untenable to do so. Let’s all pretend like it didn’t happen, like Rob and Doug Ford were mere anomalies, sprung out of nowhere for no reason whatsoever. That they didn’t represent actual grievances and political, social isolation that existed well before they cynically tapped into for their own hubristic political gain.

In his article yesterday on what a possible John Tory mayoralty might look like, Edward Keenan suggested that Tory’s ‘laudable charitable work’ could be seen not so much as attempts to change a system that doesn’t include everyone but “helping people network their way into the system.” captainstubingLadies? Take up golf, am I right?

John Tory isn’t a candidate for change. His campaign has been pretty much Steady As She Goes, Only Quieter and Less Scandal-filled. More Captain Stubing than Francesco Schettino. Everything’ll be fine once we get rid of the Fords.

The funny thing is, at the council level races, the push for change is popping up all over the place. There are exciting candidates throughout much of the city. In Ward 2 alone, the Ford petty fiefdom, I estimate 3 strong candidates challenging Rob Ford, one of whom, Andray Domise, is knocking on the door of knocking off the mayor. If that comes to pass, it would be a more significant result than whatever happens in the mayor’s race.

John Tory is yesterday’s man. He represents the values of the old status quo. knowaguyA top down leadership paradigm based almost entirely on who you know, connecting inward not outward.

The John Tory campaign message has little to do with where we want to go as a city. It’s all about re-establishing order. Order under the (fingers crossed!) beneficent gaze of he who knows some people. He’ll make a couple phone calls, get some stuff done. Just keep your voices down, if you don’t mind. It’s been very loud around here for too long.

— cathartically submitted by Cityslikr


Shorter City Manager Annual Address

May 14, 2014

goodshape

Everything’s fine. Everything’s under control despite the assault on reasoned municipal governance endured by the city of Toronto over the past 4 years.

Storm clouds on the horizon?

Queen’s Park and Ottawa have to get more seriously involved in both the transit and housing files. The province needs to return to the table with its share of half the TTC’s annual operating budget. The feds, well. No country in the developed world is missing any sort of national participation in social housing (not to mention public transit) except this one. Cities should not, cannot be expected to foot the lion’s share of funding to provide affordable housing for its residents. Without serious partners on this, City Manager Joe Pennachetti suggests, sooner rather than later, we will be forced to start closing down housing because there will be no way to keep all of it safe and inhabitable. He calls this the “smoking gun”, threatening Toronto’s fiscal sustainability.

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Local politicians also need to wean themselves off such a heavy dependence on the property tax base as a source of revenue. No, no, no. This doesn’t mean keeping them low. Our residential property tax rate remains the lowest in the entire GTA. We have to diversify, tap into other ways of paying for things. The city manager is partial to a local sales, income or corporate tax. Discuss amongst yourselves but we need to stop pretending that Toronto doesn’t have a revenue problem. It was a catchy phrase that was the complete opposite of the truth.

The city manager’s 3rd annual address to the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance was pretty much a repeat performance. Nothing entirely new or surprising. If only more of our elected officials (and electoral hopefuls) were listening.

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repeatedly submitted by Cityslikr