In these days of relentless bad and worse news, I think it’s important to take the opportunity to hail the infrequent good tidings of comfort and joy that come our way, celebrate a little Christmas in July, regardless of how small or local these moments of brightness may be.
Like last week’s announcement from Denzil Minnan-Wong, city councillor for 28 years, dating back to pre-amalgamation North York and John Tory’s deputy mayor primo for the past 8, that he would not be seeking re-election this fall. Huzzah! Cheers all round! Release the confetti and balloons!
Here’s what bugs me about Mayor Tory’s reaction to the proposed Bloor Street bike lane pilot project that’s heading to the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee for debate next week? The wet blanket act. You know, well, if we have to…
The mayor’s not ‘averse to a pilot project’. He’s not excited about it either. He couldn’t be less enthusiastic, if the CityNews video is anything to go by. Instead, he’s using his bully pulpit to dampen any sort of expectations about it.
And suspicious of the whole enterprise? Let’s make sure this “pilot project” isn’t such in name only. Mayor Toy demands that “an honest effort to objectively find out, after you’ve done it, the impact” on all “stakeholders”. These are the words of someone who thinks cycling advocates are trying to pull a fast one on him. Get those plastic bollards go up, they can never be brought down again. It’s a done deal. Game over.
“Big decisions we end up making”, the mayor intones, and we “cannot make them in a cavalier manner or politically correct manner.”
Says the guy who full-throatedly pushed to keep the Gardiner East expressway elevated, ignoring and even mocking staff opinion that it would be best (and least expensive) to tear it down and replace it with an at-grade boulevard. Cavalier, much? Hundreds of millions of dollars, unnecessarily spent to maintain a burdensome piece of legacy infrastructure that will be with us for decades to come. And his eyes narrow at a summertime bike lane pilot project?
Is it any wonder then, one of the bike lane proponents, Councillor Joe Cressy goes on Metro Morning, sounding as if he’s a coach guiding his team into a do-or-die, sudden-death championship game? “If we fail, then we fail with cycling infrastructure throughout the city.” Holy crap! What? The very future of cycling in Toronto, it seems, hinges on the outcome of this bike lane pilot project.
During the interview, Councillor Cressy expressed confidence that, in the end, the Bloor bike lanes would confirm what most every other example of de-emphasizing automobile use around the world has shown. It’s better for business. More people come. More people linger. More people shop. It’s pretty much been the case for 50 years now.
“But we’re not going to trust those studies that have been done,” Councillor Cressy said.
Of course we’re not. Because we’re Toronto, after all. The exception to every and all rules and studies of urbanism. Terra incognita. Unless it’s for cars, the wheel must be re-invented again and again here.
I get, grudgingly, the status quo has home court advantage in these matters. Change is always scary. Can could be for the worse.
But it’s not like this strip of Bloor Street couldn’t do with a little nudge, a little boost of freshness. I’ve lived in the area for years now and I wouldn’t call it vibrant. With a few exceptions, there’s a regular turnover of retail. Walking isn’t terrible but it isn’t particularly pleasant either. You bike through it not to it.
Mayor Tory should be cheerleading for the possibility of a positive transformation of a major piece of public space instead of working the refs to secure the outcome he wants to see. If a reconfigured street works here, why not extend it westward, out towards High Park and beyond, east out along the Danforth? With the exception of the newly spruced up Yorkville segment, from Avenue to Yonge Street (and I’d suggest that ain’t perfect either), most of this run of road could do with a 21st-century makeover.
Unfortunately, given his lukewarm… what’s the opposite of embrace?… of this tiny pilot project, the concept runs contrary to the mayor’s preconceived notions of how a city operates. Mess with cars and drivers, you’re messing with a — if not successful — an established formula. A formula he’s comfortable with, accustomed to.
And as he’s exhibiting over and over again, Mayor Tory is not one who seems at all comfortable operating outside of his comfort zone.
In essence, for a couple key reasons, the keyest being municipalities, unlike their provinical and federal counterparts, cannot run annual operating deficits. Their books must balance. A dollar amount is chosen — This is what we’re going to spend this year! — and you then walk back to where the money comes from. Property taxes make up a large portion of that revenue, in and around 40% usually, so to get 40% of x dollars, the property tax rate has to be y.
More or less.
For a mayor, their administration or the city council to determine what that property tax rate is going to be ahead of spending projections essentially subverts the process. Mayor Tory’s campaign pledge to keep property tax at or below the rate of inflation, and then claiming a public mandate for that after winning office, is simply saying there’s only going to be this much money regardless of needs or other promises and improvements made. You want something new, a service enhanced, some shiny bauble or other nice-to-have? You have to cut something or somewhere else. An ‘offset’, as they say in order to not state the word ‘cut’.
This is especially true since the mayor and his team are refusing to even discuss other sources of revenue. Aside from selling off assets like Toronto Hydro and city-owned parking spaces, that is, or increasing user fees or squeezing more pencils and training costs from the city. Today on Metro Morning, the budget chair, Councillor Gary Crawford crowed over the possibility of finding an additional $5 million in savings by an exhaustive line-by-line search through office expenses. $5 million in the face of an identified $67 million shortfall in funding for promises and requests already made by Mayor Tory and city council.
By a pre-emptive determination of what the property tax rate will be, thus fixing 39% of the operating budget in place, Mayor Tory is stating just how much he is willing to spend on the city. This and only this amount. Any addition must be matched by a subtraction. Or found through efficencies, 10s, 100s of millions of dollars paid for by chump change belt tightening.
Two years ago, John Tory picked an arbitrary number he thought would help get him elected mayor of Toronto. It was a number that represented his political well-being not the well-being of the city he wanted to lead. By refusing to budge (much) from that number, and digging his heels in like his predecessor had, Mayor Tory is showing exactly whose interest he’s really looking out for.