The Truth Is Easier

June 3, 2012

(This is an earlier version of a post first seen at Torontoist this week. It was recently discovered in a bottle found floating somewhere near Union Station.

If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.

— Mark Twain

Since the municipal campaign heated up in 2010, Toronto has been existing in a fiscal alternative reality. City Hall was a painted as a place full of tax-and-spend, corrupt politicians, held captives by unions with rivers of debt turning our streets blood red. Businesses were fleeing. Graffiti blighted the skyline as far as the eye could see.

But fear not, good citizens taxpayers. A fix would be easy. A nip here, a tuck there. A round of some good ol’ fashioned belt tightening. All done with no service cuts…guaranteed. We’d be good as new in no time.

That virtually none of that nonsense rhetoric held any water was hardly the point.

Our credit rating was just fine, thank you very much. Corporate and condo towers were rising up at a record rate. Toronto continually found itself with high rankings on international lists of liveability and business friendliness.

But one time fringe councillor Rob Ford and his small band of right wing ideologues convinced enough voters to get himself elected mayor that his version of reality was true. Stop the Gravy Train! And the assault on fact, veracity and just basic high school economics has been ongoing ever since.

One of the first signs that we’d been had came when the Ford administration filled the holes in its inaugural budget using a more than $300 million surplus left behind by the previous mayor, David Miller. Wait, what? David Miller? That profligate David Miller? A surplus? But…but…?

Not so fast, folks, Team Ford told us. It wasn’t a surplus. It was a ‘one time savings’. Those are two entirely different things.

Then we had another surplus—errr, one time savings. And another. And just this past week, another surplus—errr, one time savings was announced for the first quarter of 2012.

So, I have to ask: How many one time savings does it take to make a surplus?

In the real world of municipal government financing here in this province, cities are prohibited from running an operating budget deficit. So they tend to over-estimate their projected costs and downplay possible revenue. Surpluses are not at all unusual or one time. In fact, they are a sign of sound fiscal management.

Now, it can be argued that sometimes city staff is a little too conservative with their estimations and present a more dire situation than is really the case. This prompts an over-reaction from some politicians who demand unnecessary cuts and reductions in order to meet the bottom line. It’s a problem that has been exacerbated (in this writer’s opinion) here in Toronto by council’s decision to get a budget done as close to a calendar year as possible while the actual wheels of finance and commerce operate on an April-to-April fiscal season. A time lag is created, with more uncertainty, more guesswork and more conservative estimates.

In the face of these continued occurrences of one time savings (annually, like clockwork), Mayor Ford has been forced to make some tough decisions. Like cutting services. Oops. Yeah, about that guarantee…

Well, first of all, the mayor would appreciate it if you stopped calling them cuts because they’re not cuts. They’re efficiencies, and he never guaranteed not to find efficiencies. In fact, he guaranteed he’d find efficiencies.

Besides, to the mayor’s way of thinking, you can’t have a surplus if you owe money, and while municipalities aren’t allowed to run operating budget deficits, they can rack up a whack of capital debt. Cities have to build and maintain things like roads and a public transit system and it turns out that shit is expensive. How else are you going to pay for it other than using any and all operating budget surplus—errr, one time savings? The bigger this one time savings, the more capital debt you can pay down. In order to increase a one time savings, you need to trim here and there on the operating side of things.

So, you see the dilemma Mayor Ford’s facing. The only other alternative to using operating surpluses to offset capital costs is debt financing. And as Councillor Doug Ford suggested at Tuesday’s budget committee meeting, debt is the first step toward bankruptcy as anyone who’s ever taken out a mortgage knows.

Imagine all the things we could have if we weren’t paying interest for the things we need. Our budget chief pointed out that the city saved $20 million on interest charges last year. That’s almost a third of the amount we lost by repealing the detested vehicle registration tax a couple years ago. It’s also a drop in the bucket of cash we gave away by freezing property taxes in 2011 and not making up the difference in 2012.

The trouble with debt, in the eyes of Team Ford members, is that you need to generate revenue to pay it off. Generating revenue is just another term for taxation, and a civil society cannot function properly under the burden of taxation. Government should not be in the business of generating revenue because generating revenue is the business of business.

This is the worldview we’ve allowed to permeate throughout City Hall.

No debt. No revenue. No expenditures except for in the service of those first two rules. That this is inherently contradictory and mathematically impossible seems utterly lost on the people pursuing and advocating these policies. But the one lie—errr, piece of campaign hyperbole – that this city was going to hell in a hand basket and our fiscal foundations were crumbling – served as the little piece of thread that, once pulled, unravelled the entire outfit. One invention led to another two being needed to prop the first up, and so on and so on.

The truth is much more economical. If we’d had an honest and straight-forward discussion from the beginning, that the city was facing some challenges, some very serious challenges, but was in a strong position to deal with them, we wouldn’t be wasting our time and energy, digging through the mounds of falsehoods and illogical that now makes up the debate at City Hall.  We wouldn’t be constantly reminding the mayor and his supporters that what they said then is miles away from what they’re saying now. The target we’re shooting for wouldn’t constantly be in motion.

cross my heartedly submitted by Cityslikr


Project 23

July 13, 2011

I should be back at City Hall taking in the rest of council business today. There is other business for sure aside from the new bike lane plan. A plan, by the way, that is now in the hands of non-biking riding suburban councillors. Step one? Remove many existing bike lanes in their respective wards.

It’s all a little dispiriting right now, I will admit. A musty smell of the 1950s fills the chambers. Kind of like Aramis or the odd odour your grandparents give off.

Team Ford won a convincing victory in the bike lane debate today. We’re assured those on Jarvis Street won’t be removed until the protected lanes on Sherbourne are up and going although no definitive commitment was made of that if the money for the Sherbourne bike lanes gets lost in the Great Budget Crisis of 2012 or some other technical glitch pops up. Plans are already afoot to bring back the reversible middle lane with nary a peep about the pedestrianized plan that set this all in motion.

Just trust us, we’re told. Our best interests will be taken to heart.

You’ll have to excuse me if I don’t hold my breath, waiting.

But I think it makes the timing right for my unofficial announcement for what I’ve been calling Project 23. An idea in its infancy with the intention of turning up the heat on councillors who are currently enabling the mayor and his crew to do the damage they seem intent on inflicting on the city. As we here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke have written previously, Mayor Ford is an unmovable force, incapable it seems of compromise or lacking any interest in seeking a broader consensus. There’s little use expending energy trying to change that.

He has his ideological brethren who will not deviate from his position on important or close votes. They too aren’t worth much further consideration. And there are those now luxuriating in the aura of power, a power they could not possibly achieve on their own. Step up and take a bow, Councillor Mammoliti. I’m figuring they are a lost cause. At least until the power begins to dissipate.

Instead, we need to concentrate on those in the so-called mushy middle. Let’s call it the vulnerable middle. Councillors, both new and old, who are regularly siding with the mayor out of either fear of the mayor’s tactical pressure or plain old political expediency. The going’s good now and they are aware of fallout if they are seen to be bucking Ford Nation. So they’re skulking in the shadows, hoping no one notices them and that come election 2014, they’ll be able to continue under the radar of their own ward races.

Let’s start informing them that that’s not going to happen. They will have to answer to their voters if they continue their craven allegiance to this administration. If they think there’s a price to be paid not being a Team Ford player, notice needs to be served there’s going to be no free ride for such slavish devotion.

I’m thinking the likes of the hypocritical Councillor Gary Crawford (Ward 36). A silent Ford yes man, he managed to get bike lanes in his ward pulled from the new plan for further community consultation and then proceeded to vote against every other motion for further consultation some of his colleagues had put forth. Take that for bipartisanship.

There’s Councillor James Pasternak (Ward 10) who gave a rambling, incoherent defence of his support for the mayor’s bike plan. To Councillor Pasternak’s mind, cyclists aren’t parents or business owners. Both he and Councillor Crawford were elected last fall by the slimmest of majorities, propelled mainly on name recognition as school board trustees. In 2014, they will be labeled as nothing more than Ford men.

Executive Committee members Michelle Berardinetti (Ward 35) and Jaye Robinson (Ward 25) have been largely silent Ford loyalists, doing the mayor’s bidding and rarely standing up to defend their position. Councillor Berardinetti did get feisty today, flashing the Mammoliti thumbs down in order to remove bike lanes from her ward. Why? Because she lives in the suburbs and the suburbs weren’t designed for bike lanes.

Councillors Josh Colle and Ana Bailão, wards 15 and 18 respectively, lined up in favour of the new bike lane plan and have consistently voted with Mayor Ford on important issues. It’s not entirely certain why yet although one does have to wonder about the mayor’s hold on the Lawrence Heights development in Councillor Colle’s ward until after the bike plan vote. This may be the tactical pressure both rookie councillors tend to wilt under.

And then there’s the other Josh, Councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 22). Josh, Josh, Josh. Councillor, Councillor, Councillor. I don’t have the vote results in front of me and will state right now I will retract anything I say if I’m wrong but, once more, he seemed to talk a big game of seeking partisanship, deciding on the facts and the facts alone and then proceeding to vote along the lines of supporting the mayor when the chips were down and then voting against him when it didn’t matter. Soon he has to learn that it is not acceptable to talk like a progressive and vote without principles in the hopes that no one notices. We’ve noticed, Councillor Matlow.

We cannot forget council’s perennial deadweights either. Councillors Frank DiGiorgio (Ward 12), Mark Grimes (Ward 6), Norm Kelly (Ward 40), Peter Milczyn (Ward 5) and Cesar Palacio (Ward 17), all of whom voted to install the Jarvis bike lanes in 2009 and then to remove them 2 years later (What about the taxpayers, councillors?) Each had their tortured reasons. None were convincing. Yes, we too know which way the political winds are blowing, councillors.

But the winds will change direction because that’s what political winds do. We can help speed that process along by focusing on these malleable councillors. All we need is to get 6 or 7 of them to start seriously weighing their options every time they press their vote button in favour of the Team Ford agenda. They need to know that there will be repercussions. That they will not be able to operate in obscurity. Their actions will have consequences.

Thus, Project 23. Further details to come. Stay tuned.

Courage!

determinedly submitted by Cityslikr