Sometimes A Surplus Is Just A Surplus

September 19, 2012

Gather round, all ye loyal readers, and prepare your ears to hear that not heard in these parts muchly. Tis an admission of error on our part. We here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke were wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

For some time now, pretty near since our inception over two and a half years ago, we’ve suggested that the mayor and his fiscal conservative ilk have budgetary issues, let’s call them. That their numbers rarely add up. In fact, they are an assault upon reason itself.

But the problem, dear readers, may lay with our abacus not theirs. Our eyes blinded by the ideology of government spendthriftry and the love of dwelling in a gravy slathered city. We are wanton with the money of others when restraint is something near godliness. Affix the letters D P E in brightly stitched pink to our breasts and take the keys to the safe from our sweaty, grubby hands and greedy, bleeding hearts.

For you see, yesterday a word was spoken in the halls of City Hall that has seldom been uttered anywhere near that vicinity if uttered at all. A word so delicious to those hungering for the twin notions of fiscal sanity and respect for the taxpayers that all they could do was but to gobble it up, swallow it whole. That word, curious readers?


Ohhh, sweet, sweet surplus. How we have longed to embrace you all these dark, dank days filled with deficits and debt. Let us never part again, shall we? Not? That is to say, tongue tied as I am in your magnificent presence, may we be together forever and never leave each other’s sight. Ever.

How long has it been, dearest one, since your name upon our lips last passed? Last year? 2010? 2009? 2008. 2007. 2006. 2005. 2004… Every fucking year, year after fucking year, Toronto has a surplus. It pretty much has to since the province mandates against municipalities running any sort of deficit on their annual operational side. It would be news only if we didn’t have a surplus not when we do. Because we always do.

No, any surplus news should involve how we went about achieving said surplus. Increases in revenues? Decrease in costs? A healthy mix of both? An unhealthy mix?

For a couple reasons that angle’s not really in the best interest of our current administration. One, while very revenue generating shy (or tax hating in the common parlance), Team Ford would have to accentuate their approach to surplus delivery has not made them wildly popular. Call it ‘finding efficiencies’ or ‘service adjustments’ all you want, it still strikes some especially those directly affected as the exact same as service and program cuts, user fees replacing tax increases. Things Mayor Ford campaigned on never implementing.

More importantly however, any talk of operating budget surpluses being par for the course in Toronto lays waste to the claim that brought the mayor and other hawks to power. It was all about out of control tax-and-spending, costly union appeasing, money burning on sweetheart deals, complete and utter breakdown of order on taxpayer respecting. “Toronto’s financial foundation is crumbling,” Mayor Ford pronounced, not long after using hundreds of millions of surplus dollars from the Silly Socialist David Miller regime to stuff holes in his first budget.

Hold on there, bucko. A David Miller surplus? Hardly. A one-time savings is all. An annual savings that happen every year. Don’t count on that regularly.

Besides much of that repeated one-time savings comes from the loathed Land Transfer Tax and, based as it is on real estate, we know how volatile that is. So undependable we need to get rid of it altogether to free ourselves from such instability. Once we do that, then we can start talking about a strong, stable surplus.


Unless of course widows and orphans come knocking at our door, thinking we’re suddenly flush with cash to spend on their little ‘nice to haves’. Budget Chief Mike Del Grande will know just what to say to nip that in the bud. “I don’t call it a surplus, I call it a positive variance.” Words matter. So get the hell off my lawn.

To ensure all hatches are battened down on the HMS Tightfisted, council’s surplus deniers also delight in pointing out the capital side of things. Plenty of unfunded liabilities there, folks. Any surplus—I mean, ‘positive variance’–must be rolled over onto capital expenses. Otherwise… otherwise… Even former Ford chief of staff and campaign honcho, tough as nails Nick Kouvalis wets his pants at mention of our capital budget outlook. “What’s the Capital Budget deficit,” he tweeted. “Why do reporters not talk about the real issues?”

OK, Nick. Let’s talk about real issues. Let’s talk about our capital budget.

Yeah, it’s big. That tends to happen when big cities need big capital projects like public transit and infrastructure. Just comes with the territory.

It may appear insurmountable to those whose politics are defined exclusively by lowering taxes and cutting spending. So I get why you blanch at those numbers. How the hell can we afford everything that makes a city liveable and prosperous?

Well, we certainly can’t cut our way there. The city manager, Joe Pennachetti said as much earlier this year, suggesting there’s not more than $100 million left in efficiencies to find in the budget. How many subways stops will that buy us? Contracting out some of the city’s waste collection might, might, save us $11 million a year. Contracting out cleaning services looks to save another $800 000. Won’t make a dent on capital costs.

Senior levels of government have largely walked away from their obligations to cities and caught up as they are in the downward spiral of austering us from rocky economic times shouldn’t be expected back any time soon. That well is as good as dry for the time being.

So we’re going to have to figure this out on our own. Operating budget surpluses or one-time savings or positive variances, whatever you want to call them, is the easy part. Everyone does it. Everyone has to. That’s not newsworthy.

What I want to know is how you’re going to spend the money necessary to keep Toronto from collapsing under the weight of small-minded frugality masking as rock solid fiscal stewardship.

unimpressedly submitted by Cityslikr

Conservative Conundrum

September 14, 2012

As the football shit show builds and swirls around Mayor Rob Ford, much chatter continues about his re-election chances in 2014, if there are any re-election chances for him once the courts and city’s Integrity Commissioner are done with him. Who from the left will run against him? Adam? Shelley? Does the barrage of accusations and criticism hinder them or only serve to strengthen the mayor’s core support?

But I’m sitting here wondering, what are the Ford Follies doing to the right wing at council?

Surely, the mayor and his councillor-brother must be hurting the brand. Whatever accomplishments they may try to lay claim to are now getting lost in the disbelief shuffle. Repealed the VR–Sorry, I can’t hear you above the din of special assistant/assistant football coaches. Settled city workers’ contracts without hav—What’s that you’re saying? Apparently city owned cars were used to chauffeur around football players. Cut councillor office expenses. You’re kidding, right. Cut councillor office expenses? Ha, ha. Ha, ha, ha. Hahahahahahahah…!

Before becoming mayor, Rob Ford made few allies at City Hall. That was his schtick, the whole lone wolf outsider, giving the straight goods on council waste, nefariousness and gravy train riding. He manned the parapets of eagle-eyed fiscal conservatism.

As mayor, Ford was able to pull together a loose coalition largely through the bullying use of the power of his office. Sure, there are a handful of true hearted believers in the Fordian crusade to cut spending at the municipal level to the barest of the bare minimum and keep taxes unworkably low. Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday. Budget Chief Mike Del Grande. Speaker Frances Nunziata. Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong.

But what about the likes of councillors Mark Grimes and Norm Kelly or newcomers like councillors Vincent Crisanti and Gary Crawford? Bona fide, hard core supporters of the cause or just simply along for the ride? It could be argued that Councillor Crisanti owes his fledging career to the mayor’s efforts to unseat former Ward 1 councillor, Suzan Hall. If he keeps his dingy tied to the current ship of state, doesn’t he risk drowning if the whole contraption goes under?

Where does the latest mayoral imbroglio leave councillors Paul Ainslie and Peter Milczyn, both of whom are going about their business, trying to do interesting things within their sphere of influence at City Hall. They owe their positions to Mayor Ford’s appointment largesse. Just how far does their allegiance go because of that? Not to mention Councillor Milczyn was targeted for defeat in the last election by the Ford campaign. He must be itching for a little payback right around about now.

Council conservative stalwarts like Karen Stintz, Michael Thompson and David Shiner have already openly defied the mayor on certain issues (as has Councillor John Parker in a supporting role). Mayor Ford’s weakened position can only encourage further independence and, in the case of Councillor Stintz, a solidifying of leadership in her position as TTC chair. If he wasn’t a non-issue on the transit file before this summer’s series of flaps, he most definitely is now.

Then there’s the wildcard, Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti. A long time foe of Rob Ford right up until he suspended his campaign for mayor in the late summer of 2010, he effortlessly flip-flopped and became a BFF, soaking up the power that comes with sitting at the mayor’s right hand. Why would anyone be surprised if he just as easily reverts back to previous form now that Mayor Ford’s shining star has dimmed significantly? Where’s Councillor Mammoliti been for the last month or so?

In fact, outside of Councillor Ford, the Deputy Mayor and the Speaker, very few of the mayor’s inner circle have rushed to his defence. Fear based loyalty is not all that binding. A marriage of convenience dissolves when it’s no longer convenient. What allegiance to him remains in conservative circles at City Hall is little more than a delicate balance, keeping their distance while espousing similar fiscal policies. Kill the messenger if you must but don’t abandon the message.

If the mayor staggers through all this and is still up for a run at re-election, will other conservatives stand back and allow him to be their standard bearer? That would seem suicidal. Even if Mayor Ford could stage such an improbable comeback, it’s hard to fathom how he would have the coat tails to seriously re-configure council in his favour. So, you’d be facing another four years of council deadlock with little input from the mayor.

It strikes me that a golden opportunity is forming for a moderate conservative candidate to mount a successful campaign for mayor in 2014 even if the nebulous left puts up only one credible opponent. Think about it. Mayor Ford will always have his core support. Pick a number. 20, 25% of voters? Could it be much higher if he continues to alienate every newspaper in this city?

So a right of centre candidate steps up, picks off all the soft Ford support that has abandoned him and claims the middle. All those Torontonians who still believe in small government, low taxes, accountability. What’s that, half the 2010 Ford votes and a sizeable chunk of George Smiterman’s supporters? That would be some hefty number to contemplate.

There’s been much idle chatter since, well probably, October 26th, 2010 about possible winning match-ups against Mayor Ford down the road in 2014. Most of it has involved coming up with 1 candidate from the left side of the political spectrum in order to avoid vote splitting. But I think the real split, the actual divide that’s happening now not 2 years hence is on the right. It’s a split between the dwindling Ford camp and conservatives who still believe in the competency and conscientiousness of government. The bridge between them has been burned and there’s really no going back.

analytically submitted by Cityslikr

One City

June 27, 2012

So, if this is what’s possible when a city doesn’t have a mayor, I move a motion to abolish the office entirely.

Imagine if you will (and I normally hate doing this but bear with me), former Mayor David Miller at the height of his popularity, early on in his second term, back before there was even a thought about a garbage strike, in the halcyon days of Transit City wishful thinking, where it all seemed possible. Imagine his initial transit expansion proposal containing the kind of funding strategy now being put forth for what’s being called One City.  Actually, you don’t have to imagine it.

Replace the snarling photo of the current TTC Chair with a snarling pic of David Miller and Bob’s yer uncle. David Miller never had the political support to put forward a transit plan with a hike in property taxes at its heart. Ironically, at least in part, due to councillors like Karen Stintz and other members of the Responsible Government Group who viewed their role as primarily defenders of the mythical taxpayers’ wallets rather than any sort of city builders.

That’s not a knock against our current TTC Chair. Politicians should be allowed to evolve. Never trust one who doesn’t.

Which is exactly how we have found ourselves where we are today. A transit plan born from intransigence. (Thank you. Thank you very much. Next show at 10pm.)

In the crater left behind from the spectacular crash-and-burn of Mayor Ford’s woefully ill-thought out Subways! Subways! Subways! The People Want Subways plan, One City springs forth. Not a replacement for the reinstatement of parts of the Miller era Transit City plan that council salvaged from under the mayor’s fist earlier this year; a supplement and an addition. On paper anyway, a huge fucking addition.

Is it at all feasible? Too early to tell. Yes, there are holes in the plan as critics more thoughtful than those from the Toronto Sun are already pointing out. Matt Elliott gives a good opening summation today at the Urban Compass. Politically motivated placement of some subway lines. A sole reliance on property taxes for funding. Some hopeful finger-crossing for involvement from our senior levels of government.

But the important aspect of One City at this juncture should not be sniffily dismissed. An actual funding mechanism put on the table for discussion. You know, how we think we might pay for expanding our transit system.

After two years or so of absolute make believe, that somehow we could build subways for nothing and get our chicks for free, the children have been told to run along and play outside so the adults can have a grown-up chat. We’re done indulging Mayor Ford’s ‘The city doesn’t have a revenue problem’ schtick and are ready now to take up his predecessor’s challenge. You want a liveable city? You gotta pay the price.

Boom! Right there gets tossed a grenade into the ideological bunker that’s long hampered this city’s attempts to upgrade absolutely necessary infrastructure. Fiscal conservative Karen Stintz, coupled with traditional tax-and-spender Glenn De Baeremaeker step forward together and lay out a vision – yes, that vision thingie. Here’s what we could do. Here’s how we could pay for it. Any questions?

Only ideologues are going to reject One City based purely on the fact it involves a tax increase. Oh hello. What’s that you’re saying, Mayor Ford?

“I will not and cannot support the plan. The taxpayers can’t afford it.”

Councillor Ford?

“It’s a tax city plan, it’s not a One City plan.”

Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong?

 A “massive, backdoor tax increase.”

Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti

Blargh, blargh, blargh. Cat food.

What the mayor and his dwindling minions might not yet realize is that the agenda for the remainder of his term has now been established. Campaign 2014 officially kicked off. And it’s not going to swing on the right-left axis they so hope it does.

This will be about city building. What we’re prepared to pay for the services we need. Team Ford has already shown they are willing to pay for nothing and are content to get nothing. Shrug. Hey. We kept your taxes low and packed your buses past capacity. 4 More Years! 4 More Years!

Today, with One City, councillors of varying political stripes brushed aside such vapid sloganeering and laid out a plan that asks the city’s residents to reach into their pockets in order to bring our transit system up to speed for the 21st-century. It’s got nothing to do with political ‘sides’. It’s about responsible governance and responsible citizenship.

hopefully submitted by Cityslikr

Wasted Effort

June 5, 2012

$16.4 million.

According to the Globe and Mail’s John Lorinc, that was the “Total council cost (including mayor’s office)” to the city of Toronto in 2011.

$16.4 million.

Any way you want to parse that number it’s nothing but peanuts. As a percentage of the operating budget? Even rounding it down to the nearest billion which would be 9, $16.4 million works out to roughly .18%. Yeah, less than a fifth of a percent.

How about per population? Again, rounding it down to a workable round number like, say, 2.5 million, divided by 16.4 million comes to about 15 cents. That’s right. City council costs every man, woman and child in Toronto 15¢ per year. [Or, if you do the math properly, $6.56/Torontonian/year. Still a pretty sweet deal. h/t Mg]

Yet our deputy mayor, ostensibly the 2nd most powerful politician in the city, has spent what seems like an inordinate amount of time and energy in an attempt to reduce that number even further. To where, I wonder. What amount are we willing to give to our elected officials in order for them to govern the city? Are we looking for a corps of volunteers like the fire department of Councillor Holyday’s youthful days in Etobicoke? (I completely made that up. I have no idea if Etobicoke’s fired department was ever volunteer or, even, if our Deputy Mayor spent his youth there.) Or maybe, we want part time positions, no benefits; just dedicated folks coming in every now and then in between their other jobs in order to fill out the necessary paperwork.

If the city needs to be run like a business, doesn’t another shopworn cliché need to be trotted out? You get what you pay for.

Unsurprisingly, Deputy Mayor Holyday has run up against the stony wall of reality. New rules that he’s proposing to the Executive Committee this month “…would allow councillors to offload various costs, such as smartphone bills and office renovations, onto the general council budget,” Lorinc writes, “in effect freeing up more funds for other councillor office expenses.” Let the good times roll, folks. Bunny suits all round!

That’s right. In his search for further cuts to the ways councillors use their office expenses, the deputy mayor is, in fact, proposing to restore some of the cuts Mayor Ford made a successful campaign platform from. Could it be good sound bite politics that bash at the hornet’s nest of electorate anger turn out to be terrible policy ideas?

One of the items off the table for consideration, however, is any agreement to have the mayor sign off on councillor travel expenses. In his bid to rid the city of gravy, it seems the mayor thought it necessary for him to micromanage the oversight of $53,000. I’m not even going to bother to figure out that percentage of the operating budget, suffice it to say, it’s a ridiculously infinitesimal amount that would be a colossal waste of energy for a mayor of a major city to expend.

Of course, how long would it take for Mayor Ford to just rubber stand a ‘Denied’ across every request to reimburse travel expenses? We all know the mayor isn’t much of a traveller, except stateside for Florida jaunts and to take in NFL games. OK. There was that one time he went down to Mexico on official PanAm Games business but that was forced on him by the previous mayor.

If the mayor had his way, councillors would stay put here at home or pay for any trips on their own dime. It’s called city council for a reason. The city. Stay here. Do your job. There’s nothing to be gained, nothing to learn by spending your time elsewhere.

There’s certainly no need to be going to something like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities conference for example. That ‘lefty shmoozefest’ according to the Toronto Sun’s and Team Ford typist Sue-Ann Levy. Nearly one-quarter of Toronto councillors were in attendance when, surely, just Giorgio Mammoliti and an assistant to take notes and file a report would do.

What are other cities and their representatives going to tell Toronto that it doesn’t already know? Look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves. You need a weekend living large in Saskatoon to find that out?

Such continued myopia is a serious detriment to this city’s well-being. The mayor’s right hand man (or the mayor’s right hand man’s right hand man) is discovering the limits of cutting our way to fiscal health. Our structural deficit has little to do with bloat in the operating budget and everything to do with limited access to proper revenue tools outside of property taxes. Just like every other city in this province and in this country. Getting together at an annual conference to air out and hear ideas on how to go about fixing that can only help. Travel expenses for 11 councillors to attend is a very, very small price to pay.

But as we’re discovering, there is no price to pay that is too low to escape Mayor Ford’s notice. Every expenditure is suspect, every dollar must be contested. It gives the appearance of doing something substantive without really doing much at all.

on the cheaply submitted by Cityslikr

Keep Your Seatbelts Fastened

May 28, 2012

Politics in Toronto right now is how I imagine it feels to be on an airplane when the engines shut down in midflight. It’s not yet a catastrophic failure. Nothing’s on fire. You can’t smell smoke. You are, in fact, gliding, maintaining enough altitude to convince yourself and the hysterical man sitting beside you that everything’s fine, just a glitch. No need to shit your pants at the moment.

You keep repeating Captain Sully Sullenberger’s name over and over again in your head, and remember Air Transat Flight 236, that fuelless Airbus that landed in one piece in the Azores. Besides, what are the chances of your actually dying in an airplane crash? Infinitesimally low. Don’t panic. Everything’s going to be A-OK.

As everybody’s pointed out by now — the latest observation coming from Matt Elliott — Team Ford has moved beyond autopilot at this juncture, and simply switched the engines off, it would seem. Sitting back to enjoy the view, they appear confident that they can re-engage the system in about 18 months and coast smoothly into re-election mode. In the meantime, it’s all, Look, ma! No hands!!

But I have to say, watching the mayor in inaction lately makes me wonder why on earth he’d want to win again in 2014. He really doesn’t appear to be enjoying the job. Why would he inflict another 4 years on himself?

I know the working theory.

The mayor and his councillor-brother are already hard at it, kicking into campaign mode, and preparing to back a slate of pro-Ford candidates that, once installed, will make governing much easier for Mayor Ford. A simple clapping of the hands and His Worship’s will will be done. Just a few more Vincent Crisantis and a few fewer Gloria Lindsay Lubys and we will be truly a Ford Nation Toronto, united under fealty to the Emperor of Etobicoke.

It’s this kind of magical thinking, I believe, that has suspended the mayor in animation at this point. It was all going to be so easy. City Hall didn’t have a revenue problem, it had a spending problem. Stop the spending. Stop taxing. Everything would be gravy(less). Only some sort of career politician not looking out for the little guy would make it more complicated than that.

“You can’t run a government if you hate government,” John Moore wrote in the National Post a couple months ago. Or, in riff on the old H.L. Mencken nugget, you provide clear, simple and wrong answers to complex problems. This isn’t rocket science, folks. This isn’t the private sector. It’s government. How hard could it possibly be?

As the mayor is discovering, yeah, it’s pretty hard. So he’s retreated back into his own little cocoon, hoping for a more favourable roll of the dice, councillor-wise, in a couple years. Then, you’ll see, it’ll be a snap.

Leaving us to do what?

While Mayor Ford and his brother air their views and policy initiatives on their weekly radio show, their once surprisingly formidable team has dwindled to a few unreliable courtiers. Those who still believe do so in a way that is seldom helpful to the cause. I mean, if your movement depends on the likes of Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong to provide the voice of reason and sound judgement, clearly there’s some sort of engine problems.

For others, it’s now blatantly just a marriage of convenience. No pressing the ejector seat, pulling the ripcord and parachuting to safety because you’re either too lazy, too unsure how this is all still going to play out or too in love with your committee chair position to risk losing it due to mayoral ire. So you quietly go about your business working matters out with councillors Mayor Ford isn’t in the habit of dealing with, hoping that whatever it is you’re working on has long since disappeared down the mayor’s disinterest hole.

The fact is, getting past ‘the mandate’ the mayor got in his ‘landslide’ election in 2010, he was among very few politicians elected municipally to have much of that Tea Party sensibility. The Fords. The Deputy Mayor. The Budget Chief. The Speaker. The afore-mentioned councillors Minnan-Wong and Crisanti.

After that?

As angry as 47% of voters in Toronto were in 2010, few of them hated government as much as they hated the government Rob Ford successfully convinced them had been in control down at City Hall during his time there. Now that the curtain’s been pulled back, revealing nothing more to it than a dyspeptic, dystopian view of government in general that’s fetidly percolated in the psyche of our mayor, his has become a lonely vigil. How exactly do you maintain anti-government momentum toward a government you ostensibly lead? It defies the laws of physics, even electoral physics. (Yes, such a thing exists.)

The best thing councillors could be doing right now, especially those who Team Ford will be targeting in 2014 (and you know who you are), is to govern well. Show your constituents and the city that government is not inherently evil, unhelpful or whatever other term of derision the mayor and his brother will throw at it. Government can only be bad when it governs badly which this administration is doing currently. The surest way to help the mayor now would be to continue to enable him, expending energy propping him up and pretending he’s become anything but political dead weight.

Time to remove the mayor and his brother from the cockpit and switch from auto-pilot over to co-pilot.

flight attendantly submitted by Cityslikr

The S Word

April 30, 2012

Now, there’s two answers. It’s either there’s corruption down at City Hall or there’s major incompetence at City Hall in budgeting. How do you just find a hundred million dollars?

— Councillor Rob Ford, John Oakley show, March 2010.

Yeah, Mayor Rob Ford! How do you just find almost three hundred million dollars? Corruption or major incompetence? “It’s a great windfall,” claims Team Ford member, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong. “It’s a reflection of a new culture.”

Wait. What?

So, surprise surpluses are hunky dory, a-OK, a sign of running a tight ship when they occur in part due to department, service and program cuts. But when there are revenue generating tools involved like property tax increases beyond the rate of inflation? That’s just corrupt incompetence, Johnny. Proof there’s a spending problem.

What I do think we can agree on, though, is that annual budget surpluses, no matter how they come about, cannot be classified as ‘one time savings’. Since municipal governments are legally prohibited from running operating budget deficits, yearly surpluses just come with the territory. As you’ve probably already heard, former mayor David Miller, that roguish, out of control tax-and-spender also delivered annual budget surpluses. In fact, in his last two terms, those surpluses were significantly higher than the one Mayor Ford is touting today. Anyone who insists on calling them ‘one time savings’ should no longer be considered an honest broker in this debate.

The 2011-12 budget surplus also should eliminate the use of the opening pressure number as a bogeyman to scare city council into submitting to the shrill call of arbitrary cutting. Remember last fall and early winter where the mayor and his allies ran around screaming $774 million? We’ve got to slash and burn our way through three-quarter of a billion dollars, folks! So tighten your belts and start throwing excess weight overboard. Women and children first.

By the time the actual budget debate got down to the nitty gritty in January that $774 million red stained hole had magically transformed into a $154 million surplus as it tends to do every year. The opening pressure is merely a starting point made up of all the expenditures the city expects to face in the upcoming budget year. None of the projected revenue streams have been factored in including things like the land transfer tax which has provided a comfortable cushion since its inception due to a continued hot property market in Toronto.

So ignore the man howling about the opening pressure. It’s a tactic meant to scare you. Like the person referring to annual budget surpluses as ‘one time savings’, they should be ignored and dismissed out of hand.

Because of the uncertainty of the exact amount of a surplus in any given year – an uncertainty exacerbated, I believe, by the Ford administration’s insistence on delivering a budget on a calendar year timeline rather than a fiscal year – city council should never blindly allocate where the surplus should go as it did this year in voting to throw it all at capital expenditures. As John Lorinc writes in an article today, spending extra money to pay down capital costs or setting it aside as some sort of rainy day fund is fiscally responsible. The question is, how much, what percentage of any extra cash that appears should be used to pay down debt.

In January, councillors voted to use what they thought was a $154 million surplus this year on capital costs. Throwing the extra $138 million in that pot now comes at the expense of the operating budget. We are cutting services and programs (not just phantom gravy) for the sake of paying down debt without any discussion as to the merits of such a move. Or as Matt Elliot suggested at Ford For Toronto last December, that’s “…trying to work our way out of a capital budget crunch by pruning the operating budget is a losing battle. It’s like trying to dig your way out of a deep hole with a spoon.”

Listening to Budget Chief Del Grande’s interview with Matt Galloway on Metro Morning today, we’re being offered a glimpse of how the administration plans on going forward from here. Today’s budget surplus announcement will deprive them of the spending’s out of control argument. Having been hoodwinked this year, most reasonable councillors will view that approach skeptically.

So the mayor and his allies will trot out the spectre of looming capital costs. Some of that fear is entirely justified but without serious talk of new and increased revenue sources like road tolls that Mayor Ford has dismissed out of hand, it will come at the expense of further cuts on the operational side. More reductions to services and programs, further squeezing of departments; an all out attempt to shrink the size of government based solely on ideology rather than sound economic principles.

Bringing down the city’s capital debt will be this year’s battle cry. It will be a debate worth having but it must move beyond simply a debt is bad dynamic. That’s just another ploy used by those conducting their war on government, and who are willing to sacrifice the quality of life in this city to further reduce the roll of the public sector in keeping Toronto vibrant, competitive and equitable.

prudently submitted by Cityslikr

An Empty Mandate

April 16, 2012

The timing of this is absolutely going to come across as pure sour grapes. Two days after being snubbed, left on the cutting room floor by the Globe and Mail’s Marcus Gee in his article about Toronto’s City Hall bloggers and tweeters, here I go about to attack him. But let me just say in my defence that I think Mr. Gee did me a favour. In hindsight the decision to let fly with my impressions of various councillors during our interview was probably ill-advised.

“I used to beat up twerps like you in high school,” I bellowed at Mr. Gee, bringing my Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti A-game to the table. “Give you wedgies and dunk your head in the toilet bowl.”

Yes, as a matter of fact, I really do need to re-think my PR strategy.

Besides, this won’t be the first time I have disagreed enough with the Globe columnist to write a response. In fact, it was pretty much on this very same issue that I expressed my displeasure with him back in March, long before we ever chatted in person. Just so we’re clear on my motivations here.

On Friday, Marcus was at it again, bemoaning the aimless drift of the city under Mayor Ford’s watch. “After a string of whuppings on transit, Mr. Ford is looking more and more isolated on the council he is supposed to lead,” Mr. Gee wrote on Friday. “With two and a half years left in his four-year term, his ability to implement his agenda is fading. That may strike many Torontonians as a good thing. It’s not. For one thing, a city with as many pressing challenges as this one can’t afford to drift rudderless till 2014.”

OK, again. Just because the mayor appears to be drifting aimlessly does not mean the city is. The mayor is one component of municipal governance, a very important component certainly, the only council member elected city-wide and with slightly better access to the levers of power, but still only one vote of 45 ultimately.

Mr. Gee rightfully characterizes Mayor Ford’s last few months as a display of ‘abysmal leadership’ which should be his story, end stop. A mayor is elected to lead, in Toronto is given some tools to help further an agenda. After a year or so of doing exactly that, this mayor has ceased performing that function. No one has taken it away from him, tied up him ‘with a thousand tiny bonds’. He’s just continually failed to muster the majority of votes needed to win crucial votes at council. There’s nobody to blame but himself and his staff for that.

And yet, the business of the city carries on. While Gee sees last week’s council vote on contracting out cleaners as a victory for those looking “… to handcuff the city’s attempts to get private contractors to take over some cleaning jobs…” and some sort of plot by ‘a resurgent left wing’ on council “…to block any attempt to contract out services to private companies”, that’s an angle seen purely through an ideological lens. Councillor Ana Bailão, who put forth the motion, stated right up front that it wasn’t about stopping the practice of contracting out. She wanted better oversight of how and to whom the contracts were given.

Her motion seemed to be largely in reaction to the mess that emerged back in 2010, before Rob Ford was even elected mayor, with the contracting out of cleaning services for Union Station. The possible use of undocumented workers, not paying them the agreed upon hourly wage and a questionable renewal of the contract all suggested the city needed to be more vigilant in its contracting out process. As we go further down that road, Councillor Bailão’s motion looks more like a strengthening of safeguards rather than merely putting on the brakes to a mayoral initiative.

While Mayor Ford’s former press secretary and now Toronto Sun something or other, Adrienne Batra, sees the same leftist plotting and nefariousness at City Hall as Marcus Gee, she puts the blame for its success squarely where it belongs: in the lap of the mayor. “The mayor — not his staff, not his brother, not his executive, not his unpaid advisors — needs to dig down and find the same passion for the job he had when he was first elected,” Batra writes, “to carry him through the remainder of his first term. That is, if he wants a second one.”

A second term?! What on earth would Mayor Ford do with another 4 years? He doesn’t even know what to do with the next 30 months.

Both Ms. Batra and Mr. Gee miss what, I think, is the major cause of the mayor’s sudden flirtation with irrelevancy. His 2010 election platform was the thinnest of thin gruel. Because it was exclusively based on unfounded rhetoric and almost impossible to implement promises, there was no way it could sustain one term, never mind two. To the city’s fiscal detriment, he pushed through the repeal of the Vehicle Registration Tax and kept property tax increases below the rate of inflation. The savings from his major accomplishments of cutting councillors’ office expenses and securing concessions from city workers without any labour strife don’t appear to cover the loss in revenue from the tax cuts and freezes which doesn’t bode well for another campaign promise of the mayor’s, eliminating the Land Transfer Tax.

Mayor Ford did get the ball rolling with contracting out waste collection and nothing in Councillor Bailão’s successful motion last week threatens that. Hopefully, it will serve to alert not only city council but the public also to the possible problems that come with contracting out. If we’ve learned nothing else from the last 16 months or so, it’s that the easy peazy manner of running a city the mayor promised was pure delusion. We do, in fact, have a revenue problem and the spending problem that was so out of control? Yeah, not so much.

When a politician romps into office based on such out-and-out fantasy, it’s hardly surprising that he, sooner rather than later, gets bogged down in the mire of reality. Marcus Gee implores city councillors to ‘let’ Mayor Ford get ‘at least some things done.’ I’d suggest they already have and are now hard at work trying to mitigate the fallout of having done so.

not bitterly submitted by Cityslikr