An Unfortunate Interlude

March 14, 2016

Look.interlude

I know I said I wasn’t going to write about politics in Toronto while living down here in Los Angeles in my self-imposed exile. And I know what I’m about to write has already been written about by others, more than just a few others, so I’m just echoing in the echo chamber. But I feel this is something that needs to be said, said often and said by many.

SmartTrack and John Tory.

SmartTrack was always bullshit, right from the very start. It was never a transit plan. It was an election strategy, to elect a candidate who was unprepared to stand up to the ridiculous politicization of transit planning that had overcome the city during the Ford years. SmartTrack was simply just another sharpie line drawn on a magic marker map of vote-getting transit… no, not ideas, that gives them far too much credibility. Schemes. Plots. crayondrawingFlights of pure political calculation.

One penny spent on studying the feasibility of SmartTrack was a penny too many, and Toronto has spent hundreds of millions of pennies already studying SmartTrack. Each new report reveals it to be the sham that it is, shrivelling its desiccated frame even further, to mere whiffs of its former self, fragments, shards. The once vaunted heavy rail Western spur, gone. The 22 new stations now down to 9, then 5, maybe 4.

SmartTrack as a figment of a campaign team’s lack of imagination. We need to do the exact same thing as the other guy except different. Be Bold. Assail your critics. We can fix it later, patch it together in editing.

Now as mayor, with his signature transit platform being picked clean, John Tory wants us to credit him for listening to the experts, gleaning the facts and figures and being willing to change plans, adapt and accommodate, reach a consensus. (Something his immediate predecessor was never able to bring himself to do, Mayor Tory reminds us.) I say, fuck that. cuttothebone1None of these ‘new’ facts or figures now emerging from staff reports are in any way new or unforeseen. SmartTrack’s non-workable components were obvious from the get-go, the timeline dubious, the scope and cost highly suspect. As a candidate, John Tory swatted away these criticisms as little more than a symptom of our culture of ‘No’, a timidity, a lack of Vision.

So, give him no credit for changing his tune. It is nothing more than a cynical ploy, another cynical ploy to add to the mountains of cynical ploys that have plagued transit planning in Toronto for decades now. This is not an example of being reasonable or adaptable. The mayor continues to blow smoke up our asses and wants us to thank him for some sort of colonic treatment.

Besides, SmartTrack is far from being dead and buried, a painful relic. Professor Eric Miller, a SmartTrack champion from the outset, grading it an A+ during the 2014 mayoral campaign and, as director of the University of Toronto’s Transportation Research Institute, hired by the city to assess its feasibility, isn’t backing down on his bold claims. wishfulthinking“The Stouffville (GO) line [the eastern leg on the SmartTrack map] has the potential to become the Yonge St. [subway line] of Scarborough — a strong, north-south spine upon which one can then hang effective east-west lines,” Professor Miller told Tess Kalinowski of the Toronto Star.

That statement comes with plenty of qualifiers. “If it’s operating in a competitive way…”, Miller believes SmartTrack can be as important a component to redefining public transit in Toronto as the long vaunted relief line. If it’s run at subway-like frequency. If there’s rail capacity to do so and capacity at Union Station to handle such an increase. If there’s proper integration with GO fares and SmartTrack service is delivered at a TTC price.

That’s a lot of ifs that have plagued SmartTrack from the very beginning, and have yet, nearly two years on, to be satisfactorily answered. fingerscrossedAs Stefan Novakovic pointed out in Urban Toronto, the continued studying of SmartTrack’s viability may well be negatively affecting actual, honest to god, necessary transit plans like the relief line. Instead of running that line down along the King Street corridor where ridership numbers warrant, plans are brewing to put it under Queen Street instead, in order to avoid overlap with the possible southern swing of SmartTrack if that were to happen which remains in the highly doubtful category. Is SmartTrack stunting the relief line even further, as Steve Munro suggests, by threatening an over-build of rapid transit in Scarborough, with its eastern leg competing with the proposed Scarborough subway extension, combining to squeeze out a more sensible northeast passage of the relief line?

Just more questions to add to the many existing questions that continue to point to SmartTrack as an obstacle to Toronto’s public transit future rather than contributing any sort of positive solution.

So yeah, unless Mayor Tory steps up and admits that his SmartTrack is a terrible idea, was always a terrible idea, and the only reason for its existence was to get him elected mayor of Toronto, he deserves zero credit for his willingness to change course now. californiasunshine3Any iteration of SmartTrack will be a setback for transit building in this city, and if the Toronto Star’s Royson James is right, and what we have on the table now is as good as it’s going to get, then John Tory will have succeeded only in cementing the politicization of transit planning for decades to come, generations even. The mayor deserves no reward for that.

And now, back to our regular scheduled, southern California programming.

re-calmly submitted by Cityslikr


Just Don’t Expect Any Actual Answers

November 26, 2015

I would say that Tuesday’s #AskMayorTory event couldn’t have been scripted any better for the mayor if his staff had written it themselves.
Which I’m sure they didn’t. Why would they go to all that trouble when, instead, they could just plunk him down at a local venue, in this case, a church in the Bayview/Lawrence area, and watch him express his views on hyper-local issues like tree cutting and sidewalks. navelgazingWho doesn’t want to know what the mayor of city of 2.5 million people thinks about basement flooding?

(Spoiler alert: Mayor John Tory cares a lot about basement flooding.)

Nothing reinforces the highly parochial nature of municipal politics like a local town hall meeting. The city would be a much better place, better run and function better, if every neighbourhood was just like [fill in your neighbourhood here]. Or, the flip side of that. [Fill in your neighbourhood here] is so much different than that neighbourhood. We’re historically different. We couldn’t possibly change or adapt.

Did you know that, according to one local resident, the Bayview/Lawrence area of Toronto has a ‘rural character’?

It’s impossible to sit through an hour of one of these town hall gatherings and not come away amazed that this city has budged an inch from its high agrarian, 18th-century roots. Change is for other people, other places! nimby1Or maybe I’m just not cut out to follow along so closely to the nuts-and-bolts of local governance. Not because I find it boring. It just reveals an unlikeable self-absorption in so many of us.

It’s also impossible to watch these sorts of public meetings and not see clearly why John Tory was the choice of so many to step in and calm the civic waters after the turbulent Ford era. The man challenges few of our presumptions or approaches to doing things. He soothingly feeds our biases. Does almost nothing to question the status quo.

Even when Mayor Tory takes on a just cause, like he has with the Syrian refugee crisis, it’s somehow posed like it was Tuesday night in opposition to the most extreme view from the other side, that of Rob Ford. Although the mayor said that he didn’t want to mention his predecessor’s name too much, he raised that specter whenever it was convenient. Right from the outset, he was assisted in this by co-moderator, thisguyRoyson James of the Toronto Star, who began the evening regurgitating something Ford had said about the city not being able to cope with new refugees, blah, blah, blah.

So we get to sit for nearly 10 minutes, listening to Mayor Tory say all the right things about making a home here in Toronto for whatever number of refugees come our way, all the while thinking, Man, imagine if Rob Ford was still mayor of this city. Wipes our brow and gives a collective sigh of relief.

That was the high point of the mayor’s performance on Tuesday night. After that, it was pretty much business as usual. Users of the TTC should expect annual fare increases because, well, it costs money to deliver the service. Even so, the mayor pointed out that a transit ride was “still subsidized by the rest of the taxpayers”. To the tune of the least subsidized of almost every other transit system in North America. Still. Subsidized.

As for similar expectations on car drivers, when asked by an audience member about instituting tolls to pay for the roads they use, Mayor Tory swatted the idea aside. “It’s a tough issue,” he said, pointing out that many drivers believe they already payemptyspeech their share through gas taxes and licensing fees, proving only that if you’re a powerful enough voting block, pandering politicians will let you believe whatever it is you want to believe regardless of how untrue that belief may be.

This double standard of the mayor’s went largely unchallenged until Royson James came back to this notion of fee-for-use about 30 minutes later. Curiously, the comparison he used was between TTC fares and water rates which he pointed out, to rebuild crumbling infrastructure, had been going up 8, 5, 3% year after year. Why not do that with the TTC? Which is pretty much exactly what Mayor Tory is proposing with annual fare increases, isn’t it?

Royson proved himself to be pretty much that kind of paper tiger in the mayor’s presence, leading me to wonder exactly what he was doing up on the stage in the first place. I was given my answer when, in the last segment of the show, James competed with Mayor Tory in  a game of Idiot Questions or whatever it was called. cricketThe other co-moderator, filling in for a sick Cynthia Mulligan, asked the two men trick questions like… You don’t really give a shit, do you? Let me just say, it was 3 or so minutes I’m never getting back.

Three or so minutes the mayor could’ve taken answering the last question posed from the audience about his SmartTrack plan. How would it help those transit users who are already packed tightly on the Yonge subway line? SmartTrack, Mayor Tory assured the gentleman, would serve as a ‘relief line’.

It won’t. Nobody else except for Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker makes such a ludicrous claim. And Councillor De Baeremaeker will say anything about public transit that he thinks people want to hear.

Remember how he loved the idea of a Scarborough LRT?

And then how he hated it?

But on Tuesday night, Mayor Tory got to run with the line about SmartTrack being a relief subway line, unchallenged, because time had expired and the final 3 minutes or so were needed to play Idiot Questions or whatever.

Turns out #AskMayorTory is more of an exercise of Listen To Mayor Tory. lotsofquestionsDon’t challenge Mayor Tory. Don’t question the statements he makes, the hyperbole he uses, the crass hypocrisy he employs.

#AskMayorTory shows the mayor, casually plopped down on his bully pulpit. There’s no back and forth, no actual discourse. Just questions lobbed up and batted back in the direction he wants to send them. Mayor Tory wants you to know, Toronto, that he hears you. He’s just not really listening if your voice doesn’t already have his ear.

— into-the-voidly submitted by Cityslikr


Once Upon A Time There Was A Transit Plan…

August 12, 2015

Transit planning in Toronto is becoming more and more like one of the fables of yore. Tales told to teach children a valuable moral lesson. grimmFailure to absorb said counsel would result in rather… a-hem, a-hem… grim doings like throwing an old blind woman into an oven or cutting off your toe to fit into a shoe. Not so much happy-endings as, can you fucking believe what just happened?!

Read yesterday’s Toronto Star article from Royson James, Politicians ignore disaster coming down the track, and decipher the moral of the story, if you dare. Massaged ridership numbers. Deliberately downplayed costs. Overt political meddling in the planning process. What glimmer of enlightenment do you glean, standing as we do right now in the dark, foreboding forest?

Here, Little Red Riding Hood. Take this basket of goodies to your ailing grandmother. grimm1Take the shortcut to grannie’s house through that wolf-infested thicket of woods.

What could possibly go wrong?

Which is exactly where we’re sitting, waiting for staff reports to come back this fall on the feasibility of Mayor John Tory’s signature SmartTrack plan as well as the alignment of choice for the Scarborough subway. Here, Toronto. Take this basket of goodies to your transit ailing system. Please ignore the wolves at your door.

What could possibly go wrong?

Now, it’s easy to cast the villain in this tale. Emerging from under the bridge, Rob “Subways, Subways, Subways” Ford plays the ogre. Once with the perceived power to do so (what politicians like to call their ‘mandate’) in his grasp, he killed off a perfectly good and provincially funded transit plan with no realistic alternative in place. grimm3Just killed it dead. Because he could.

The fact is, however, Rob Ford is nothing more than the inciting incident of this story. His madness could’ve been stopped in its tracks by people wielding far more power than he did. While city council was probably correct in not forcing him to bring his Transit City Dead motion immediately up for a vote during his brief but impressive ascendancy, and handing him an “official” stamp of approval, others could’ve stood firm in the face of his onslaught.

That is the real moral of this story. Political cravenness and calculation in the face of inchoate populism. Good governance brushed aside for good poll numbers. Doing the right thing? Define the word ‘right’.

Lies added to lies, multiplied by lies to the power of three. Compounded lies, all in the service of expediency and to the detriment of public policy. Everyone became a subway champion (under and above ground). Remember. grimm2Don’t take what you think is the best course possible. Take the one that’s most popular.

That’s the lesson of Toronto’s transit fable. Have no conviction. Disregard facts and evidence. Cater first and foremost to popular opinion. (I mean, come on. It’s not like I’m the only person advocating we burn the witch, am I right? Burn the witch! Burn the witch!!) Never, no matter what, whatever you do, stand up to a bully especially if he really, really popular. No good can come of it.

It’s a morality tale devoid of any morality or ethics. A story with far more villains than heroes. Taking and retaining power is all that matters, kids. If you want to get ahead in this life, best void yourselves of scruples as soon as you can. Integrity and principles are for suckers, boys and girls. Learn that now and save yourself a boatload of anguish and misery later.

The End.

grimly submitted by Cityslikr


White Privilege, Black Heart

April 17, 2015

It is my experience that when a politician insists they’ve been elected into office to shake up the status quo, they mean the exact opposite. They are in fact ardent status quo embracers, hugging it lovingly to their bosom, caressing it, eye licking it, making sweet, sweet love to the status quo. You are my rock, status quo. Without you, I am lost, bereft, nothing. Oh my, my status quo.

Yesterday, Mayor John Tory voted along with 4 other members of the Police Services Board to approve a revamped police carding policy that has been described as racial profiling and, quite possibly, unconstitutional. It once again allows for police to stop any individual they encounter, demand personal information without informing that individual of their charter rights to tell the police to go fuck themselves and continue on their way, provide no record to that individual of that interaction and to keep that information filed away for some defined period of time. You know, in case something comes up later, something involving concerns for public safety.

That the overwhelming number of these individuals are men of colour should in no way be taken to mean that this policy is in any way racist. Pure coincidence. If it were racist, the mayor would be the first to give the policy the thumbs down. Because the mayor’s not a racist, and he voted in favour of this policy, carding cannot be racist.

Some of the mayor’s best friends, and all that.

Listen to Mayor Tory explain his vote (as relayed by Paisley Rae on the Twitter):

I’d like to put into context my vote. I don’t doubt for a second — *interrupted by shouts of SHAME* — I have no doubt that this kind of thing is going on (racial profiling) and one time is too many. I thought I was likely to vote in favour of this policy last night so I made some notes. It’s patently false that I’m in denial. If we go back to the 2014 policy it would take us back to the same impasse we’re facing now. 2014 policy was not operationalized. Attitudes were hardening, not driven in bad faith. I will say, police leadership was probably moving more slowly than if there’d been whole-hearted agreement. But that’s not insubordination. There was none, no progress at all. So do you provoke a confrontation or do you make one more effort to achieve movement. This policy isn’t operationalized, it’s a statement of principle which I feel is being looked down on today. You can order people to do things and they’ll do them but they’ll be insincere and incomplete. We need buy-in. Do we really want to get to a place where we get widespread non-compliance? I don’t live in that world {the not real world} to me, the choice wasn’t between April 2014 and where we are today. It was an impasse & no policy at all & no oversight OR we could have a quick step forward and a step forward that was subject to a quick review the choice was to take meaningful progress over an impasse [The room is RAPIDLY clearing out as people quietly curse on their way out the door.] I think the time period allowed for, of 6 months, is adequate to see.

After an entire afternoon of hearing impassioned deputations about the dehumanizing effects of carding, being badgered by the police to hand over your personal information with no reason given except for the one that’s silently understood between everyone concerned, the colour of your skin, being black or brown in the wrong place at the wrong time (any time or place, really), or harsh lawyerly words about the possible unconstitutionality of the policy, having been given an option to defer the implementation of the policy in order to ‘get it right’, as TPSB member Shelley Carroll said and voting against that deferral, after all that, our mayor voted to implement this contentious policy, offering only those mealy-mouthed words in his defense.

We’ll re-visit the issue, he said. In 6 months. That’s adequate. The problem being, as the mayor saw it, was there just wasn’t any buy-in for the old board-driven policy by Chief Blair and the police force. Non-compliance not insubordination. “Do we really want to get to a place where we get widespread non-compliance?” Mayor Tory asked.

Remember that new sheriff in town, getting tough on illegal parkers? But faced with a much more dire challenge to the well-being of this city, a police chief openly defying the directives of what is essentially civilian oversight, citing some backroom ‘legal advice’, Mayor Tory caved spectacularly. As the room cleared of disgruntled and dismayed community members, mothers and fathers of targeted children, residents of Toronto who feel marginalized and diminished by this renewed policy, discriminated against and harassed, the mayor spouted words devoid of any real meaning or intent. He simply filled the air, trying to explain himself.

I’ll leave what this all means to the legacy of Chief Bill Blair and police-city relations going forward in much more capable hands. But I want to ask all those John Tory voters still cloaking themselves in the defense that things could be worse, there could be a Ford in the mayor’s chair. Could it? Would it?

As Paisley Rae tweeted a few hours after the meeting, “Last year Michael Thompson, Francis Nunziata and Mike Del Grande [Rob Ford appointed city council police services board members] passed a more progressive carding policy than Tory did today. Take that in.” In fact, Councillor Thompson forwarded a letter, signed by 14 other city councillors (make it 15 since TPSB member Shelley Carroll voted against the new policy) opposing the new carding guidelines. Clearly, they didn’t understand the words the mayor was saying, the status quo he was shaking, the world Mayor Tory lives in where a step back is called a step forward, regression progress.

indignantly submitted by Cityslikr


A Legacy Left In The Blink Of An Eye

April 15, 2015

It should come as little surprise, given the magnitude of clusterfuckery inflicted on this city for the past 4+ years now, that the defining moments of John Tory’s mayoralty are coming fast and furious at him. junkintheclosetThe chicks have come home to roost as they say. Unfortunately, they hatched from eggs he didn’t lay but, now in charge of the coop, he’s obliged to raise and tend to them.

I’ve extended that analogy as far as I care to. The drift, I imagine, you get.

There’s the matter of the Scarborough subway. A white elephant of a boondoggle waiting to happen that’s going to cost the city billions of dollars unnecessarily and has already shown up on our tax bills for the past two years. During last year’s campaign, John Tory had the opportunity to flash his fiscal bonafides and renounce the scheme as little more than political pandering. He didn’t. He said, what’s done is done, there’s no use opening up that debate again. Mayor John Tory has kept that campaign pledge, steadfastly refusing to reconsider a bad decision despite the fact that all early indications suggest a Scarborough subway will compete for ridership with the south eastern portion of his own signature transit plan, SmartTrack.sweepundertherug

Rather than rise above this parochial politics which will threaten to limit the city’s ability to pay for other big ticket capital projects in the not too distant future, Mayor Tory blinked. Maybe a forthcoming staff report will provide enough cover for him to still scuttle the plans before the worst is done. Even so, that’s not what you’d call sound leadership.

About that gaping budget hole left behind by the previous city council? John Tory assured us during the 2014 campaign that he, and only he, could heal the rift wrought by the Ford administration with the provincial government. He, and only he, could smooth the ruffled feathers and bring Queen’s Park back to the table, pockets bursting with money to ante up for long forgotten obligations they could now get back to funding. Like transit and social housing, just to pick a couple of the more important ones.

In fact, what’s happened since his election is that the city has paid more back to the province than it’s received. $95 million for the Union-Pearson rail link. sweepundertherug2Some $50 million to cover the provincial shortfall on the Spadina subway expansion. And as for that $86 million hole from the withdrawal of the social program pooling compensation? Yeah, no dice.

At which point, Mayor Tory might’ve had the responsible budget conversation with Torontonians, informing us that, for the moment, we were on our own to balance the budget and to do that we needed to talk seriously about additional revenues, higher than hoped for property tax increase for example. This was another of those defining moments, a mess not of his own making that he now had to clean up. The mayor demurred, choosing instead to pretend he’d fixed the problem. Much like his predecessor.

Unlike his predecessor, Mayor Tory decided to directly address the matter of policing in Toronto, assuming a spot on the Police Services Board rather than designate a representative. A bold move, to be sure, with a union contract to be settled, a new chief to be appointed and a number of prickly, outstanding community issues, police carding at the top of that list. This mayor was not going to run and hide from any of it.

The contract was settled quietly and amicably, it seems. sweepundertherug1The wage increase of 8.64% over 4 years isn’t outrageous out of context but it is difficult to see how it’ll bring the overall police budget, the largest single item the city has to deal with, north of $1 billion annually, into the lean machine the mayor is demanding of other city departments. Not to worry, we were assured during the budget process. Money had been set aside for such a pay increase.

The new police chief has yet to be named with the current chief, Bill Blair, set to retire near the end of this month. But at least, the carding issue has been resolved, a happy compromise reached for everyone concerned. A ‘landmark’, the mayor called it. “We cannot live in a city where young black men, for example, feel devalued or disrespected.” Hoo-rah!

Except that it seems we are. Within a matter of days, the so-called compromise unravelled into acrimonious disagreement. It satisfied almost none of the concerns the public had with the procedure, ranging from the ultimate fate of any collected information through to the informing of the public’s right of refusal to simply walk away from any interaction with the police. sweepundertherug3After claiming the compromise struck the right balance, the Police Services Board chair, Alok Mukherjee, now suggests it simply wasn’t worth it “to go to war with the chief.”

“We were getting nowhere,” Mukherjee confessed. “There was a standoff. We were at an impasse.” In short, the police chief refused to accept direction from the board, thumbed his nose at civilian oversight. He was on his way out. Know when to pick your battles, more or less.

So now, the naming of the next police chief looms large for Mayor Tory. The choice will undoubtedly reflect intensely on his mayoralty. As he likes to remind us, he was elected to shake up the status quo. We shall see while not holding our breath.

Up next in the mayor’s legacy making tour, the fate of the eastern portion of the Gardiner expressway has popped up onto the political radar. Again. This has been years in the making (and delaying) but it seems crunch time has landed right in Mayor Tory’s lap. (That sounded a lot more risqué than I intended.) sweepundertherug4This one’s already been kicked down the road as far as it can be.

The most sensible thing for anyone who isn’t one of the few drivers who uses that part of the Gardiner to get around the city is to tear it down from Jarvis street east. Replace it with a similar kind of boulevard design that happened when a previous part of the expressway was ripped own. Free that area of the city of the blight that comes from elevated thoroughfares. Step fully into the 21st-century.

But, you know, drivers. They’ll get mad. On talk radio yesterday, the mayor said people are always going to drive. So, you know, don’t rule out catering to their every demand. Drivers.

The previous council refused to make a decision. The hybrid plan – rejuvenate and rejig don’t remove the expressway — was offered up as a compromise. John Tory touted it specifically during the campaign. He was, after all, the compromise candidate.

Now that the bill has come in, and the price tag for such a compromise is so astronomical, nearly double the tear down option, nearly another billion dollars simply in order to keep car drivers happy, just how compromised is Mayor Tory?shinethoseshoes

Defining moments aren’t always time based. They happen when they happen, heedless of our orderly sensibilities and reliance on retrospective. Time isn’t on Mayor John Tory’s side. Through previous neglect and avoidance, these weighty, significant issues have piled up, their expiry dates come due. His chances are coming fast and furious. If it hasn’t yet, judgement will arrive early.

judgmentally submitted by Cityslikr


His Master’s Voice

January 26, 2015

At a party Saturday night, the conversation inevitably turned to local politics as it tends to do when I find myself at a public gathering. cantshutuupSure, I can be a shout-y bore on the subject but, in my defense, I rarely am the instigator. If somebody’s going to ask me what I think of our new mayor, am I supposed to demur and pretend to admit that I don’t really follow what goes on at City Hall, that I don’t have an opinion?

I’ll spare you all the details, since you’re reading this you’ve probably heard them all before, only to tell you that the conversation’s conclusion ended with a mutual marveling at the fact that Toronto is somehow still functioning. Frequently finding itself near the top of Best Of lists and not some smoldering Rust Belt crater, it is something of a wonder how the city escapes the clutches of oftentimes terrible, terrible governance. It is what it is despite not because of the elected leadership that purports to be looking after the city’s best interests.

That is, for those of us in comfortable enough positions to enjoy the benefits on offer here. If we aren’t spending disproportionate amounts of our income to keep a roof over our heads. If we’re not trapped in a single mode of transport in order to get around. If you’re not dependent on the soft services – the nice-to-haves rather than the need-to-haves — the city provides. If living here isn’t just some daily grind that leaves us looking longingly for any possibility to pack up and move to greener, more livable pastures.livinglarge

Those are the signs of neglectful governance, of course, the loose threads of poverty and inequality concentrated throughout the city. All those shiny skyscrapers are certainly one way (and not an unimportant way) to measure civic well-being but ultimately meaningless while we ignore the homeless deaths and children going to school hungry. A city working exclusively for the Haves is just another gated community.

Reading Royson James’ article yesterday in the Toronto Star, Exploring the murky depths of Toronto’s budget making, it’s painfully clear that neglectful governance has been par for the course for this city for a couple decades now. Not just the startlingly low caliber of local representation we seem content with, almost willfully excited to put into office, no, no. Where the real power resides, at Queen’s Park, Toronto’s had to battle, at times, a deliberate attack on City Hall’s ability to serve as an effective manager of the city’s affairs.

Look at the numbers. $2 billion of the $10 billion or so operating budget goes toward provincial and federal services and programs delivered by the city. hismastersvoiceSome are voluntary while others are legislated. Some get actual funding from the senior levels of governments, some don’t. For the stuff the city either chooses or is mandated to provide that doesn’t come with money from Queen’s Park or Ottawa, the choice is both stark and unpleasant: cuts elsewhere in the budget and/or higher than desired tax and revenue increases.

For most of the amalgamated city’s history, we’ve leant more heavily on scaling back and putting off than actually doling out more in taxes. Our infrastructure suffers as a result. Our transit system can’t keep up with demand. Our social housing stock becomes more and more unlivable.

So here we are again with this $86 million operating gap created by the downloading of a bunch of social services as part of our amalgamation-warming gift from the Mike Harris government that has only been partially undone by the Liberal government that’s been in place since 2003. fightingoverthebillIt’s a depressing case of petty hot potato-kicking the can down the road where no side has been particularly responsible. The province looks to balance its budget and not appear to be too Toronto-centric in the eyes of the rest of Ontario (it’s never obvious which is most important to Queen’s Park), rightfully if greasily pointing to the fact the city is negligent in using its taxing revenue resources more robustly.

It’s all political fun-and-games until the operating budget has to be balanced, and people waiting for a bus or affordable housing and daycare see little improvement in their daily lives. “Hey soldier,” Willard asks, “do you know who’s in command here?” “Ain’t you?”

We’ve arrived at that point in this conversation when I ask if it’s not well past time we start to pose the question, What about a Province of Toronto? Ask people elsewhere in Ontario if they think it’s an idea worth pursuing. If your out-of-town relatives are anything like mine, you’ll probably get a whole lot of Good Riddance and Don’t let the door hit you…

The other common riposte to that line of thinking is a derisive shrug. You want the like of Rob Ford or Mel Lastman to be your premier? That’s a concern, for sure. aintyouOn the other hand, we endured Mike Harris, didn’t we?

Could it be that we get, not so much the municipal government we deserve but more the municipal government we think is appropriate to the responsibilities it has? As we have learned from our recent past, the ultimate authority for the functioning of this city, any city in Ontario, lies with the province. It can do anything it wants and we are pretty much powerless to challenge it. So who cares who the mayor is, our city councillor?

As it stands, most of our municipal decision-making is fraught with almost adolescent angst-filled nihilism. What’s it matter what we do? The province can just come in and scuttle everything. We’re told what we have to do, unsure if there’s any allowance coming to us as part of the deal. While you’re living under my roof… blah, blah, blah.

itsyou

As long as we have to answer to a level of government that places this city’s best interests secondary to its own, there can be no satisfactory outcome with this relationship. For 20 years now, Toronto has had to endure the vicissitudes of provincial attitudes toward us, some of it malicious, some of it benign, occasionally beneficial. There’s no way in a scenario rife with such uncertainty that we can possibly plan and build a better future. If the province can’t treat us with respect as their “junior partners” maybe the time has come to demand a more equal footing.

impatiently 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