Toronto’s Taxing Problem, Part Infinity

May 27, 2016

I was in New York City earlier this week when this city’s City Manager, Peter Wallace, read the fiscal riot act to city council via Mayor John Tory and his Executive Committee in the boldest terms an unelected official could to his elected colleagues at City Hall. readtheriotact(Could I use the word ‘city’ and any of its derivations more times in one sentence? Probably. But, you know, overkill.)

What the mayor was told was the same thing the mayor and his predecessor have been told for pretty much 5 years now. Yes, there are probably more efficiencies to be found in the budget, efficiencies are always being found. Yes, the city can look at selling off monetizing some of its assets for a one time, payday infusion of cash. Yes, of course but… None of it will come close to narrowing the widening gap between the money coming in and money going out to pay for the services, programs and capital needs Toronto is responsible for. Not even close.

Mayor Tory was told all that but what he heard Jonathan Goldsbie highlights here in NOW. Essentially, the mayor heard what he wanted to hear. He heard what every self-serving, small-minded, pandering local politician hears when it comes to the city’s finances. Taxes bad. We already pay too much. Stretched to the limit. Hardworking homeowners. whatthecathearsNickel and dimed to death. Get off our lawns. Plow our streets.

A few years back, during a similar if not exact budget and fiscal discussion, I remember coming across a page listing the taxes and fees residents of other big cities throughout the world pay. For the life of me, I can’t find it now, and I’m too lazy and inept to actually track it down on the internetz but it did get me to thinking about a comparison I could probably present in a reasonable fashion. New York and Toronto.

I found this from 2009, a study of New York City’s taxation policy, funded by the Solomon Foundation, an off-shoot of the Solomon Company, a fairly substantial investment firm. Now, I offer it up with all the usual caveats. No comparison between cities is perfect, especially cities in different country and jurisdictions. This was from 7 years ago, so things might’ve changed. Moreover, I’m not much of numbers guy, my financial comprehension should be considered suspect and I am easily distracted.

That said…

Consider page 12, Exhibit 1, New York City Taxes and Other Revenue Sources.

NYCTaxes2009

Check out what I think could be called a laundry list of revenue sources the city taps into, taxes making up about 59% of all revenues. Personal income taxes, business taxes, sales tax, hotel tax, cigarette tax, beer, wine and liquor tax, horserace admission tax, vehicle tax, taxi tax. That’s before we even get to property taxes.

No wonder the city never sleeps! Everybody’s working 24/7 to pay all those taxes.

Now, look at this page [page 29], a pie chart from Toronto’s 2016 operating budget.

2016TOBudgetFinal

46% of our city’s revenues come from taxation, at least in name. Property tax, Land Transfer tax and something called “Supplementary Taxation”. Toronto already taxes residents and visitors to this city 13% less than New York did in 2009. So how is it that we’re overtaxed and “stretched to the limit” as the mayor claims we are, we being that mysterious group of “homeowners”?

And this is New York City we’re talking about here, not some zany, left-wing, socialist Scandinavian city. imbalanceThe Home of the Brave, Land of the Free, Tax Hating U.S. of A.

Mayor Tory and his allies do have a point, if they are trying to make a valid point that the city coffers are too dependent on property taxes to help pay the bills. Throwing in the Land Transfer tax, 44% of Toronto’s annual revenues come from property taxes. In 2009, “Real Estate Related Taxes” made up just 26.6% of New York’s revenues, 23.6% of that from straight up property taxes. So yes, especially given how we assess property taxes here, we probably rely too much on them to generate revenue.

So, let’s look for other sources of revenue then, shall we? Not just by selling off assets or ferreting out further efficiencies. The city manager, like the city manager before him, said that’s not going to do the trick.

We need to talk about revenue tools, taxes if you prefer. That’s not a bad word. notlisteningAt least, it isn’t in places that realize you have to pay for the things you want and need. Torontonians want, need and expect the city to provide these things. Somehow, if the words and deeds of many of the people we elect to represent us are any indication, we except to get all these things at impossibly low costs to us. Somebody else pay because I’m already paying too much!

It’s a tired line of argument, one with almost no factual merit. You get the kind of city you pay for. The bottom line is, we’re not paying for the city we say we want.

repeatedly submitted by Cityslikr


Asleep On The Subways

January 31, 2012

I proceed on uncertain footing with this one, venturing into unfamiliar territory. Hallowed literary ground. It already feels ill-fitting and clumsy. I mean, five or six attempts to get this first paragraph sounding right should serve as proper warning sign that this couldn’t possibly work out well.

But, fuck it, throwing caution to the wind and blustering on through does seem to be the modus operandi around here these days.

So I give you an analogy.

Our last night in New York City, back in the hotel room, with some wine on board I should note, I finally conceded to the lure of the Crosley box turntable and decided to give it a… ahem, ahem… spin. Me being totally ignorant that Crosley was, you know, a thing, I wasn’t even sure it worked. It could just as well be a decorative touch, to give the place some additional ambience.

Turns out, the turntable was in very good working condition, far better than I expected. Like I said, Crosley is a thing, a digital contraption with an analogue throwback, designed, at least in part, to hit the nostalgia button for those of us who grew up on the vinyl. With the reminder wine had been consumed, I can tell you that I was captivated.

Yes, there was a little bit of my obsessive 14 year old self plugged into listening to music that doesn’t happen very often anymore. Who’s got the time, right? You slap something on in the background while going about your daily business without taking the time to pour over the album cover and liner notes. Besides, CDs kind of killed that thrill long before the advent of cold, clinical, distant downloading.

But there I was, sitting at the end of the bed as the record rotated, the arm gently undulating I guess you’d call it. Watching as well as listening. It was a much more inclusive experience, a bigger connection to the music. Nowadays it’s mostly about clicking. Click to download, double click to play. Done and done. To listen to Bill Evans’ We Will Meet Again on vinyl, I opened the box, turned the unit on, slipped the record first out of its cover, then out of the paper sleeve, set it gentle onto the turntable, lift the arm from out of the cradle and moved leftward toward the album, the turntable began to turn. As gently as possible set the needle down into the groove. The first sound is that familiar crackle and pop. And then the music starts.

I should totally get one of these, I thought as I poured out another glass of wine. Listen to how rich that sound is. I could start making mixed tapes again, reacquiring the skill of placing the needle just right in that groove between songs. Can you imagine?

Seriously. Can you imagine?

Yet another piece of machinery to house somewhere and maintain. And what about collecting LPs again. Where the hell are you going to keep them? I wouldn’t even know where to begin to look for those plastic milk crates. Never mind having to get up and push things along when the needle gets stuck which it did twice, once per side. The first time probably due to the fact of guys like me trying to set down the needle just so and scratching the record up while doing so. The second seemed to be the ball of dust that the needle had collected.

In fact, truth be told, I’m not even sure the music was that much better sounding. It’s just something I’ve read along the way. A myth propagated by elitist audiophiles and the vinyl industry that fronts them and benefits most from a record revival.

On that note, let’s talk about subways. (Yes, folks. That there is the awkward clumsy segue toward a hoped for analogy.)

Having spent 4 days in a city chock full of them, up and down, right to left, under bodies of water, above ground in places, there is no argument that they aren’t great, perhaps the best mode of urban public transit there is. In places with extensive lines like New York and Paris, you can get from one corner of a big city to another in the matter of minutes, the blink of an eye. Here’s to subways. We all should have subways.

Except maybe not, not always, not everyplace.

Like the long playing albums of yore, for all their appeal and plusses, subways have their drawbacks. The expense of not only building but operating them is one especially in these days of cutbacks and austerity. It’s interesting to note that some of the more ardent fiscal hawks around City Hall seem hell bent on foisting such a costly system on the city’s taxpayers when less expensive options are already in place. I guess to them, subways just sound better.

Subways will also affect future development in ways parts of Toronto will resist. Build it and they will come? Eventually but is everyone prepared for the kind of density needed to make it feasible? Returning to Brooklyn from Manhattan on Sunday night and I was struck by the fact that if was one of the very few trips I took on the subway that I actually found a seat. The trains were full throughout the day and night. You know why? Because New York City is dense. Dense, dense, dense in a way we won’t be for decades if ever.

Not to mention that they have a subway tradition, actually dating back over a 100 years rather than the imagined century of subways Mayor Ford claims for Toronto. So there’s the infrastructure in place there. A  turntable, if you will, still capable of churning out subways. Ours is a much more torturous, push-pull relationship. We love subways in theory (and out on the campaign hustings where nuance and detail take a back seat to empty rhetoric) but when it comes to implementation we’ve proven to be more than a little tone deaf.

Like vinyl records, subways sound great initially. Crisp, clean with a full sound that is entirely pleasing. Subways? Nothing beats them. But then upon a closer, second, third listen, there’s that hiss and pop right before it gets stuck on that almost imperceptible scratch. And, of course, have you ever tried to get around town while listening to an LP? Pretty much impossible.

Beware the pleasing sounds and easy listening of the call for subways. Nice to have but at this juncture and for the parts of this city in most need of rapid transit, they seem to be highly impractical and out of place. A novelty item almost. An expensive novelty item at that, providing less benefit for fewer people. Not a transit strategy so much as building a collector’s item.

stereophonically submitted by Cityslikr


The Mayor’s Bid For Greatness

May 10, 2011

There is another possible explanation, of course.

While everyone (especially around these parts) simply assumes our mayor is, at heart, an monstrous anti-(sub)urbanite, intent on nothing more than making the city the best place in the world to drive in, perhaps there’s more to it than that. Perhaps Mayor Ford has a far broader reaching and comprehensive agenda in mind. Perhaps in a sheer act of mad genius, he is playing long ball on us, poised to elevate Toronto to New York and London status. Perhaps, we’ve got him all wrong in terms of city building.

This thought struck me as I read through the Financial Times article, ‘Livable v. Lovable’ (h/t @dylan_reid). “We need to ask, what makes a city great?” urban development professor Joel Kotkin tells the FT. “If your idea of a great city is restful, orderly, clean, then that’s fine. You can go live in a gated community…”

Any city with a mountain backdrop or the ocean lapping up at its toes or laid out in a well designed grid pattern that enables an efficient transit system can claim to be more livable. But that doesn’t necessarily make it a city great. Great cities breathe paradox. Obscene wealth brushes shoulders with abject poverty. Traffic snarls, giving the inhabitants the edge they need to survive in the concrete jungle. Neighbourhoods rise and fall and rise again to accommodate the forever changing face of a city.

Great cities aren’t just lived in. They’re loved. They can’t be planned. They just happen. Like a civic flash mob.

Maybe the mayor’s up to creating a little less livability in exchange for an added dose of lovability. He’s looking to take the Swiss out of Peter Ustinov’s descriptor of Toronto and make it more New York. Not current day New York, mind you. New York City circa mid-1970s, near bankruptcy. Zurich is cute and well run and all that. It can have its way on the livability index but where’s its NFL franchise?

So the mess Mayor Ford seems determined to create is deliberate, only not in the bad way most of us have been ascribing to it. It’s to put us on the road towards greatness. If it’s ‘friction’ that gives great cities their spark, the mayor’s prepared to start a bonfire of impressiveness here in Toronto.

Neglect leads to deterioration which leads, inexorably, to renewal. That’s what urban planners say. Maybe the problem in Toronto is that we’ve tried too hard to maintain things and it’s all ended up half-assed.  Maybe it’s time to really let things go to seed. Infrastructure, transit, heritage, parks. Build us some really dodgy neighbourhoods, one or two of our very own favelas even. I’m thinking somewhere in Scarborough. It’ll become really cheap to live there. When that happens, artists and bohemian types move in. That’s the trendy stage and gentrification is sure to follow.

In the article, Mr. Heathcote opines that great cities mix beauty with ugliness. “… beauty to lift the soul, ugliness to ensure there are parts of the fabric of the city that can accommodate change.” Arguably, Toronto has contributed more than amply over the years to the ugly front. But that’s not to say we can’t do better. Take for example the proposed Fort York pedestrian bridge. Too arty for the likes of Councillor Shiner, it seems. Take it back to the drawing board and gussy it down. Uglify it so to attract the less desirable elements of society. Have them establish a troll like community under the ugly bridge. Hipsters will inevitably displace them with their edgy bars and galleries. Next stop, a great city.

Now, my theory on the possibly positive approach Mayor Ford is taking to re-imagine Toronto falls down somewhat in his war on graffiti. What says ‘gentrify me, please’ more than graffiti? To be fair, though, the Financial Times does worry about the affect of violence on a city’s capacity to be great. The mayor may just be adhering to the Rudy Giuliani view of stopping small crimes stops big crimes. So I think you could stuff his anti-graffiti crusade into the thought of helping make Toronto great.

Of course, some might consider this putting all your eggs in one basket based on one article from a writer clutching at straws to explain how his hometown always seems to be left off other Best Of lists. Or, more generously, one particular school of thought of what makes a city great. There are other metrics to make such judgments. Like, say, this one for instance. The World’s 26 Best Cities for Business, Life, and Innovation.

“We’re measuring what makes a city successful,” Merrill Pond, vice president at the Partnership for New York City told The Atlantic. “Success as we define it cuts across business opportunity, cultural opportunity, and education opportunity. We use ten indicators [including Transportation and Infrastructure, Intellectual Capital and Innovation, and Lifestyle Assets], each made up of smaller variables [within Lifestyle Assets: share of green space, skyline impact, hotel rooms].”And how did Toronto do? #2. Just behind New York City. “Toronto is a ‘beta’ city…because it’s not considered a part of the conversation with London, Paris, and New York for greatest city in the world. But it has all the building blocks of a superlative international city, beginning with smart ideas about sustainability and innovation.” [bolding ours]

Yeah but, innovation’s hard. It takes lots of… innovative ideas. As for sustainability? Well, that costs money upfront, and just in case this Merrill Pond hasn’t been following along here, Toronto’s got a spending problem. Rather than building on those so-called ‘building blocks’, it’d be so much easier just to knock them down and start over again. With no more thought put into it then off-the-cuff remarks based on rumours and gut instincts.

An organic mess, let’s call it. That’s the mayor’s plan for this city. It’s quicker, cheaper and requires only part time participation. Football teams aren’t going to coach themselves, you know.

Sometimes you just have to think small to build big things. If there’s one thing Mayor Ford is good at, it’s thinking small. We need to stop criticizing him for that and start realizing that maybe, just maybe, great things can grow on such shallow, fallow land.

hopefully submitted by Urban Sophisticat


Anti-Union Thuggery

January 7, 2011

Can you smell that?

A slightly, sulphurous scent with just a hint of nutmeg, I believe. Nutmeg?  No. More like frangipane.

The unmistakable odor of anti-unionism.

Here we are, 2+ years into the biggest financial clusterfuck in nearly 8 decades, and the overwhelming conventional wisdom has it that it’s all because of those privileged, fat cat, parasitic unions. More specifically, public sector unions. All levels of government coffers have been sucked dry by the relentlessly rapacious demands of their unionized public servants. Enough is enough. It’s time that we decent, upstanding, put-upon non-unionists start pushing back. We don’t have job security. We don’t have pensions. We don’t get overtime pay. We’re not given two months off every summer… Man, wouldn’t that be sweet. Wonder how we could get us some of that? Maybe, a group of us get together, organized style. Go to our boss—No wait. Correct answer is: if I can’t have it neither can anyone else! Just like in grade school. You can chew gum in class as long as you’ve brought enough for everyone else.

The full frontal assault is now well under way south of the border as a host of state legislatures look to enact measures ranging from massive layoffs to outright de-certification of public sector unions. It’s a battle played out in real time over the holidays in New York City after it was buried under snow between Christmas and New Years. After serious problems clearing the snow and getting the city moving again, allegations arose in the Rupert Murdoch owned New York Post from “unnamed sources” that the city’s sanitation union, smarting from cutbacks, directed members to drag their heals in doing their jobs as sort of payback. Never mind the 300-400 less bodies in the department to do the actual snow removal. Never mind the mayor’s reticence in declaring an emergency situation; itself a possible product of a hesitancy brought on by a desire to keep costs down. Never mind that surrounding municipalities not subject to the alleged union order work slowdown but under similar financial duress had trouble contending with the storm as well. It was the union’s fault which a subsequent investigation will surely reveal.

Such anti-union rumblings resonate up here, too. Despite proclaiming himself a fiscal warrior, Mayor Rob Ford led the charge last month to get a vote passed in council to ask the province to declare the TTC an essential service which would take away its workers’ right to strike. Never mind that this could cost the city more down the road in terms of mediated settlements. It’s the opening salvo in what is increasingly looking like contentious upcoming union battles the mayor is preparing himself for.

Which is just good politics if not good governance. Everyone has a story to tell about just how corrupt/inept/diabolical unions are. All those workers hanging around, perched on their shovels, filling in one pothole. Physical intimidation of the poor, trembling public at picket lines. That sleeping TTC ticket taker! Could you believe that? Yeah, the union said he was sick or some bullshit like that… What? He died!? What was the union doing, forcing a sick man to work?! It’s the union’s fault!

And if you yourself don’t have a personal anti-union anecdote to contribute to the conversation, you need not look any further than the media to provide you with one.

Witness “Dragon” Kevin O’Leary. Making out just fine on not 1 but 2 shows on the publicly funded CBC, he cannot mask his contempt for unions, calling them ‘evil’ earlier this week on his O’Leary and That Other One Report. Evil? Why? Their labour and legacy costs have been the wrack and ruin of the North American car industry and given China a distinct advantage in the automobile market. Apparently it was because the companies had to keep paying the unions more and more that they were forced to keep building bigger and bigger cars and trucks.

Or how about “There’s Not A Right Wing Shibboleth I Couldn’t Write An Incomprehensible Screed About” Sue-Ann Levy of the Toronto Sun. Her piece from last week is a check list of heads that must roll and kneecaps that must be busted for City Hall to get its fiscal house in order because, as you know, the place doesn’t have a revenue problem, it’s got a spending problem. The main culprits? Hint: unions and their ‘mob bosses’. Ms. Levy hits that note twice so that even Sun readers couldn’t possible miss the implied innuendo. Mob = mobster = gangster = criminal = should be in jail. She throws in a ‘dictatorial’ descriptor as well to suggest that unions are anti-democratic.

This is nothing less than class warfare. More sadly, it’s class civil war with the middle and lower classes at each other’s throats over an ever decreasing slice of the economic pie brought on by 30 years of upward redistribution of wealth. The public purse has been ransacked by a frenzied rush to the bottom of tax cuts and the movement of our manufacturing base overseas in the name of unfettered, under-regulated, free market globalization. With the occasional bailout of industries deemed too big to fail. Yet somehow, it’s all the unions’ and our public sectors’ fault.

Such easy scapegoating is indicative of moral cowardice on our part. We know who’s to blame for the financial straits we are currently facing but engaging the real culprits is a much bigger, nastier battle than we’re willing to be a part of. So instead, we turn on easier targets, making ourselves feel better in the process but doing absolutely nothing to solve our problems.

submitted by Cityslikr


The President’s Man Goes Local

October 5, 2010

So Rahm Emanuel resigned his post as chief of staff to the most powerful position on the planet (after, that is, the top 5 places within the Chinese government structure) to run for the mayoralty of Chicago. This is a guy who served for three terms in the House of Representatives. He’s now running to be mayor of Chicago. A power broker inside the D.C. Beltway packs it in for what looks to be a rough ride of an election in the 3rd biggest city in America.

Does that strike anyone else as a step down a rung or two of the success ladder?

I mean, aren’t mayor positions simply consolation prizes for those without the goods to make it big at state/province or federal levels of government? It certainly seems to be the case here in Toronto during this particular campaign cycle. Also-rans and not-quite-good-enoughs battle it out for ultimate supremacy of this backwater burg we call home.

Yet, here’s arguably the meanest, nastiest and most successful backroom Democrat in recent memory heading out of Washington to try his luck running for the lowly position of mayor. Obviously it’s some sort of punishment being meted out for the crime of pushing President Obama too far to the middle. Yeah, thanks for all your help, Rahm. How be you just run along now and try your hand at local politics?

Or, maybe this is a case of an extremely motivated politician realizing just which way the wind is blowing, where the action really is. Cities are where it’s at, baby. In this globalized world of increasing urbanization that we’re living in, cities are assuming control of the agenda, the engine driving innovation, sustainability, diversification. What politician with an elevated sense of self-importance (one can posses that trait in a good way) wouldn’t want to be at the forefront of all that?

Gazillionaire Michael Bloomberg, touted as a possible independent candidate to run for the presidency of the United States, takes a pass, opting instead to stay as mayor of New York City. In Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa dabbled for a time in California state politics before moving into the municipal arena, first as a council member and then mayor. Portland Oregon mayor Sam Adams has burst onto the national scene as a leading advocate for building environmentally sound cities. So famous has he become that a beer has been named in his honour.

But over the course of Toronto’s dreary 9 month campaign so far, we’ve been told it’s just about filling potholes and fixing street lights. After 7 years of tentatively stepping toward the future, all we’re hearing now is what we can’t do, not what’s possible. Voters are cowering in the face of necessary and exciting change; their fears and worst instincts catered to by unimaginative candidates who seem oblivious to the shifting sands of where power is headed. We imperil our ability to adapt to what’s coming and thrive in the possibilities that will arise if we hand over the levers of power to someone incapable of seeing past nickels and dimes.

Rahm Emanuel seems to understand this. He’s angling to take the reins of a great but deeply troubled city. Much more troubled than even the worst case scenario being painted about Toronto by the hysterics contending for the mayor’s position. Chicago’s money woes are significantly worse than ours. Allegations of actual corruption and cronyism have stuck to some of the outgoing city officials. Crime is a significant problem there and not just a convenient bogeyman being shaken around in order to frighten voters.

Despite all of that, Rahm Emanuel wants to be the mayor of Chicago. There’s an element of flight, certainly, from an administration looking to take a hit in next month’s midterm elections. If it does happen, there’ll be plenty of fingers pointing at Emanuel as a prime architect of Obama’s fall from grace. But he could run toward a much more lucrative spot in the private sector, assuming such a thing exists anymore which also might explain the President’s low approval ratings.

Emanuel’s decision to follow in the footsteps of Richard M. Daley bespeaks of how important cities have become on the political landscape. Those accepting that new reality have begun to assume responsibility for proper future planning, at times defying upper levels of governments by setting more stringent environmental targets and broadening personal rights and freedoms. In the vacuum created by the divestment of powers by successive federal and provincial/state governments as a way to balance their books, forward thinking cities have assumed the responsibilities and set out on a course to not only remake themselves in a 21st-century fashion but the regions and countries that they are part of as well. Savvy politicians like Rahm Emanuel recognize that and are jumping at the chance to get involved.

It’s unfortunate Toronto has been hijacked by mayoral candidates more content to wallow in petty grievances and almost tribal hostility instead of generating ideas about how best to move into a future where cities will be at the forefront of policy decisions and societal change. If the next mayor doesn’t understand that and seize upon it, all the advantages we as a city have presently (and we have many) will be for naught. Our enviable position cannot be translated into expanded opportunity by merely filling potholes and fixing streetlights. We need to stop shying away from thinking bigger.

civically submitted by Urban Sophisticat


Meet A Mayoral Candidate XI

April 30, 2010

It’s Friday so let’s Meet A(nother) Mayoral Candidate!

This week: Michael Bloomberg.

What? Wait? Who? Michael Bloomberg?! What are you talking about? Enough already with the New York kick. Are you talking, Michael Bloomberg, that Michael Bloomberg? He’s not running here, is he? Can somebody actually be mayor of two cities at the same time?

No, no. Michael Bloomberg’s not running for mayor of Toronto but he probably could if he wanted to. I mean, who’s going to say ‘no’ to the 8th richest person in the United Stats?

We’re just taking a little break this week in the Meeting A Mayoral Candidate in order to explore a couple issues about electoral reform using the New York mayor as a jumping off point. Don’t worry. We’ll be back next week with our regular post highlighting one of the lesser known names in Toronto’s mayoral race.

When you’re talking a strong mayor system, New York City has, I think, what would be called a very strong mayor system. The position is a branch of municipal government all on its own, the executive branch to be exact, separate from the city council, much in the way that the American president is separate from Congress and governors are distinct from state legislatures. While mayors of Toronto have just recently been given modest powers to name committee chairs (and therefore the majority of members of the executive committee), in New York the mayor has a much wider reach of appointees who oversee the running of the city.

In Toronto, as a voting member of the council, the mayor can more readily steer the agenda toward the floor of council to be voted on but ultimately the position amounts to just one vote of 45 albeit the most prominent vote. Unless a mayor can muster 22 councillors to vote with them, a simple majority can override a mayor’s wishes. Not so in New York. While a mayor there doesn’t even vote with the council, they can veto any law that arrives on their desk from council and if the council then can’t muster up a 2/3s majority to override the mayor’s veto, the bill dies. So a mayor of New York can shape the debate with only 1/3 of council+ 1 behind them.

Michael Bloomberg himself brings a couple interesting things to the table. He takes no pay aside from a $1.00/year token sum. He does not live at Gracie Mansion, the traditional home of New York’s mayors. He’s taken no public money to finance any of his 3 election campaigns and reportedly spent over $70 million of his money to win the office back in 2001 and again in 2005.

To some, this makes him beholden to no one. Owing no favours, he governs with the city’s best interest at heart. A beneficent ruler, you might say, the ultimate philanthropist. Hopefully the next billionaire who decides to buy the office is as enlightened as Michael Bloomberg.

So beloved by his subjects electorate that when Bloomberg decided the two term limit was for mere mortals like Rudy Giuliani, the council extended him an additional term and the voters agreed by re-electing him in 2009. What happens in 2013 when Bloomberg comes to the conclusion that his work is not yet done as mayor of New York? Another special dispensation? Why go through the whole motion of setting term limits as a device to curtail career politicking if you’re simply going to ignore them when you have someone in office you particularly like or, at least, don’t yet loathe?

In the hyper-partisan world that is politics in the U.S., Michael Bloomberg is something of an oddity. He is a Democrat turned Republican turned Independent who seems to be working well with a city council that is heavily, heavily Democratic. Maybe that’s a sign that party affiliation at the municipal level doesn’t matter. At least, not if you’re ultra-independently wealthy like Michael Bloomberg.

So what does all this tell us about the varying types of governance at the municipal level which is something the Better Ballots folks are in the process of exploring here in Toronto? Do we really want people financing their own way into politics even if their intentions are honourable? Doesn’t that just lead us back down the path to a past where wealth and status trumped everything else including any sort of party system that might be in place? Democracy bought by few people to represent those without deep pockets.

This is especially troubling when paired with a strong mayor system. The richest person in the race gets elected and, fingers crossed, they’ve sought office for the best, most noble of reasons. And if they haven’t? Well, term limits aren’t going to spare us if they can just be ignored especially if other like minded politicians have also purchased elected power. It all seems unhealthy and a step back to a time that was not very conducive to a full and equal participatory democracy.

And yet, New Yorkers still seem quite happy with their mayor. Hardly the case here in Toronto. Maybe we’re not the big fans of democracy we like to think of ourselves as. All that we’re really looking for is a benign autocrat. A rich uncle who will know what is best for us and will act accordingly.

dutifully submitted by Cityslikr


NYC Postmortem

April 28, 2010

So I step in after my colleague’s hard crash, like a child coming back down hard to earth after a mad sugar rush, he could be out for days by the look of it, to wrap up our New York City sojourn.

As any good trip away should, we return home with a heightened appreciation of where we live. At least, most of us do. Acaphlegmic went missing Monday night, staying aboard the uptown bound N train as the two of us hopped off at our stop. He had a plan, he said, that did not include us. With that, he was gone, destined for the upper regions of Manhattan or, quite possibly, Queens.

In terms of vibrancy and self-assurance, there really is no other place that compares to New York. It is the centre of the known universe and is well aware of that fact. To bask in its aura even for just a few days, is to acquire a taste, ever so fleetingly, of what it is like to wield true power.

That’s fun for awhile but the responsibility becomes a bit much for us mere mortals to bear. We make our way back home with the knowledge that we are not, ultimately, made of the sterner stuff needed to survive a serious go in such an unforgiving environment. Failure is not an option, as the movies tell us, so we retreat to our slightly more humble surroundings.

Where we have a little more space. A little more tranquility. Where the food is just as good and less pricey and precious. Where we have long since abandoned the idea of building subways.

Did you know that New York City is still building subways? How is that possible? I thought our American neighbours took it in the economic cojones much harder than we did. Especially at ground zero of the meltdown, home to your Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs. So how are they going about such extensive public transit infrastructure spending while we fiddle and fart over extending LRTs?

Then I came across this little tidbit in the Wall Street Journal yesterday at the airport:

Top New York real-estate executives and the City Council speaker will make an 11th-hour push Wednesday to persuade the White House to back federal funding for a second subway station as part of the extension of the No. 7 line in Manhattan.

Officials from the Real Estate Board of New York, a trade association, and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn will meet in Washington with Vice President Joe Biden’s staff in hopes of securing hundreds of millions of dollars to build a station at 10th Avenue and 41st Street.

What’s that then?! A New York City councillor and some members of the real estate association have an audience with the US Vice-President, the second most powerful man in the world, trying to secure federal funding for one subway station!? I mean, wasn’t he just over in Israel trying to kick start peace in the Middle East? Remember when Toronto was trying to secure some federal infrastructure money last summer and were told by the Honourable John Baird, Minister of Transport, Infrastructure and Communities to go fuck ourselves because we hadn’t crossed our Ts and dotted our Is to their satisfaction?

Maybe cities get the respect they deserve. As long as we continue to grovel at the feet of senior levels of government, begging them to pony up cash they took from us in the first place, we’ll continue to be second class citizens. By taking seriously would-be mayoral candidates who call financial negotiations with the province ‘going cap in hand’, Toronto is simply acknowledging the fact that we’re an after-thought, a voter rich zone with little actual power and zero influence.

I’m not proposing we be like New York. That’s impossible and undesirable. What I would like, however, is to occasionally strut like New York, swing some serious pipe like New York. To simply stop acting like we’re not worthy to be treated like a world class city by the very politicians we elect to serve us. I’m not alone in appreciating where I live. It’s time to demand our elected officials do the same.

stridently submitted by Urban Sophisticat