Bully Budgeting

It was just a coincidence, I’m sure, that I was reading through Torontoist’s 2015 Heroes and Villains list while listening to the first of the public deputations on the 2016 budget. TPLTorontoist(Truth be told, I’d held out following the annual Torontoist series as, once again, I’d been snubbed despite my unrelenting and uncompromising work covering the politics of this city. Hero or Villain. It didn’t matter to me. Just a little recognition might be nice, Torontoist.) As it so happened, I was just getting to the final reveal – Superhero of the Year – when the library workers union president, Maureen O’Reilly, sat down to speak to the budget committee.

No, really. That’s exactly how it happened. Sometimes life can be that serendipitous.

Read what Eva Hd wrote about the Toronto Public Library, in nominating it as Superhero of the Year:

The individual branches’ lovingly curated and topical displays, whether tying in to contemporary political issues such as Idle No More or featuring mystery Valentine books wrapped in red tissue paper for February 14, always amaze and amuse. On any given day, TPL’s librarians can be heard giving tips to adolescents on how to find books and movies about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, showing seniors how to use the internet, guiding researchers through the archives, and telling homeless people where to find the bathroom with equal amounts of patience and grace, while the security guards interact respectfully with everyone and will often be seen helping out at kids’ story time.

Now here’s David Nickle writing about Maureen O’Reilly’s budget committee deputation:

“It’s 2016. It’s no longer acceptable to underpay the ladies of the library and to continually cut them.”

O’Reilly was referring to the Toronto Public Library Board’s recommendation to save $250,000 by cutting 6.7 full-time equivalent page positions – a move that would mean between 12 and 14 of the minimum-wage pages would lose their jobs.

The pages, said Reilly, are bearing much of the weight of a cut in library staffing that she said amounts to 25 per cent since 1992. The position of page was traditionally a part-time job for high school students, but currently, the average age of a page at Toronto Public Library is 43. They do the work of reshelving materials and helping at checkouts.

That’s what you call working ‘harder and smarter’ with less. It’s just what budget hawks like our mayor (like so many mayors before him) love to hear, love to tout. See, Toronto. texaschainsawmassacreWe continue to nick and cut at library services, and they still keep providing exemplary service to residents of this city. It can be done!

Libraries, and those who work so diligently to make them the key community hubs that they are, represent the kind of soft services line-by-line, always searching for efficiencies, nickel-and-dime politicians love to go after. Easy targets. Libraries don’t directly provide life-or-death support to residents. They aren’t grand infrastructure symbols elected officials can cut ribbons at.

Actually, that’s not quite true. Almost any politician who isn’t a Ford – Doug was convinced there were more libraries than Tim Horton’s in his ward and would’ve slashed them ‘in heartbeat’ — loves to oversee the building of a library. The 100th TPL branch was opened in Scarborough last year. It’s the funding of their operations that’s so tempting to shave, trim and hack at.

So, working at the library for many falls into the precarious employment category. Half of the workers are contracted, meaning benefits, a living wage and the like are but a pipedream. library2At Tuesday’s budget deputations, library worker Tori MacDonald talked about scrambling to branches all over the city in the search of hours. For Ms. MacDonald, the librarian’s lot in Toronto was not one where she could see buying a home, raising a family.

Bully for them, those of us with plenty of space at home to find a quiet spot to work, with easy access to all the internet we need, with that book we want one Amazon click away, with our own communities already carved out, will say. What’s a librarian’s job anyway? Checking out books. Putting them back on the shelves when they’re returned. Why should we pay a premium for that?

But read the Torontoist piece and realize that our library system represents much more than that to many residents of this city. In fundamentally important ways, our libraries and those (wo)manning the desks, counters and stacks – Yes, 75% of library workers are female. Women and precarious employment. Surprise! — serve as, if not gatekeepers, librarythen the welcoming committee of this city for newcomers and other oftentimes marginalized segments of our community. Libraries provide both a physical as well as social shelter for this city.

How much should that be worth to us?

It’s easy to embrace the big gestures, the grand symbols of our civic well-being. The shiny new transit projects and plans, the high rise office towers, the beautiful, “world class”, outside public spaces. What we always overlook, however, in our seemingly perpetual chest-beating, looking out for the taxpayer push to scrimp toward balanced budgets is the vital element of the human scale. “Finally,” Hd writes in the Torontoist, “TPL locations are also some of the last places in Toronto where you can still get a glass of water and use the bathroom for free, a not insignificant attribute in our increasingly precious metropolis.”

Our libraries and the people working to make them cornerstones of neighbourhoods and communities are indeed significant attributes ‘in our increasingly precious metropolis’. libraryWe need to defend them from those intent on only counting costs and ignoring the benefit side of the ledger. A strong library system is not simply a nice-to-have. It is a need-to-have, and we have to start treating it as such, beyond just the easy to spot and promote bricks-and-mortar, to the people inside, working to make it the remarkable enterprise it is.

bookishly submitted by Cityslikr

Colle Cocked

A remarkable day starring two, up until now, unremarkable councillors.

And I don’t use ‘unremarkable’ in a pejorative sense. Just not noteworthy. Bereft of distinction. Having made no real dent or splash yet. A kind of, who’s my councillor again kind of councillor.

Until budget day on Tuesday. In one swift motion (ha, ha), rookie councillor Josh Colle made his presence felt and established himself as a very real force to be contended with. Not only did he catch the mayor and his guard flat-footed with a move to reinstate some $15 million of the more controversial cuts back into the 2012 operating budget, he withstood a blustery, cantankerous line of questioning from a brigade of under-prepared Ford Teamsters in a polished and confident manner that suggested a much more veteran politician. He was politely aggressive with the baiting line of queries and also very funny. When a more friendly colleague, Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon rose to ask him her questions and accidentally referred to him as the other Josh, Matlow, Colle waited for the laughter to subside before responding, “Yes, Councillor Doucette?”

His performance and not unreasonable motion changed the tone of the day’s debate and paved the way for moves by other councillors to stave off another $4 million in cuts including the additional savings demanded of the Toronto Public Library. Councillor Colle nudged Mayor Ford from the driver’s seat, sending the administration into scramble mode in the hopes of beating back the motion and preserving the mayor’s budget.

In the end, they didn’t. The mayor suffered a string of defeats, close, close, close but inevitable defeats and as much credit as Councillor Colle deserves for that, so does Councillor James Pasternak. Arguably traversing much more political ground than Colle to wind up on the opposite side of the mayor – he had been pretty much a sure thing for Mayor Ford for most of the year+ he’s been councillor for Ward 10 – Pasternak wound up being the very unlikely swing vote that pushed Councillor Colle’s motion over the top.

Not for a lack of trying to keep him in the fold by the mayor’s forces. At one point during Tuesday’s meeting, both the mayor and his brother, Doug, made their way across the chamber floor in Councillor Pasternak’s direction. The mayor gestured like a grade school principal who’d just caught a child running in the hallway for the councillor to follow them to backroom. Councillor Pasternak willingly obeyed and the three of them disappeared from the room.

What was said and how, I couldn’t tell you. One would assume it took more dark, threatening tones because for the mayor to be offering up goodies in return for the councillor’s vote, well, that would just be antithetical to what we’ve been hearing from the mayor’s office for months now. The cupboard’s  bare, there’s no money for ‘pet projects’. So as important as the vote was, and we’re talking really, really important, like 4 new libraries, 3 new community centres and a subway right up to the councillor’s door important, it would be monstrously hypocritical for the mayor to be promising favours in return for votes.

Whatever was said, offered, threatened behind closed doors failed. Councillor Pasternak didn’t blink. He defied the mayor and voted for Councillor Colle’s motion.

As did another right of centre councillor, Chin Lee who continued his drift from the administration. And let’s not forget, Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby, the only girl allowed in the Etobicoke Councillor Boys Club that includes the mayor’s brain trust, his brother and the Deputy Mayor, Doug Holyday, along with the hangers-on, Councillor Vincent Crisanti, Mark Grimes and Peter Milczyn. While her intentions might not have been the most noble (“Leaf collection, for me, was absolutely important”), she stood her ground, gleefully flashing her thumb in the opposite direction of the one Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti insisted on displaying despite its noticeable lack of efficacy.

Combined with the other members of the newbie mushy middle, Councillors Ana Bailão, Josh Matlow and Mary-Margaret McMahon, it was enough of a faction, along with the left of centre crowd of councillors, to best the mayor in every budget motion save two, I believe. It was a rebuke if not quite a repudiation of the direction Mayor Ford wanted to take the city. It put on the brakes but did not turn the car around.

The budget that passed remained chock full of highly questionable cuts. The mayor and his team can still rightly claim that they are spending less than they did last year which, to their way of thinking, means something significant. Before losing control of the budget meeting, Team Ford deftly managed to snip off any nascent move that may have been building to increase the property tax increase from 2.5%. Budget 2012 can still rightfully be called a Mayor Rob Ford budget.

But at what cost?

There’s now clearly disorder in the ranks. If they can lose an ally like Councillor Pasternak on such an important vote as a budget vote, who’s next? Fellow rookie councillors and Executive Committee members, Michelle Berardinetti and Jaye Robinson, must feel as if they were hung out to dry. They now have to wear things like their vote in favour of demanding a full 10% cut to the TPL and explain it to their constituents. For what? Where an unwavering allegiance to the Ford brand might’ve seemed like just good politics last year, six months ago, two weeks ago, it’s suddenly more like a millstone around their necks.

Ditto Councillor Crawford. Another Ford stalwart, Councillor Michael Thompson was awfully quiet during the budget meeting. He dutifully voted along with the mayor but certainly kept his head low while doing so. And how long will even Councillors Grimes and Milczyn – both of whom were targeted for defeat by the Ford campaign during the 2010 election – blindly follow him, realizing the mayor can’t even win over city council on important matters let alone orchestra a successful race against them in 2014 if they don’t now obey his every command?

Yes, Councillors Josh Colle and James Pasternak may’ve just skimmed a speck of dosh from the surplus stash the mayor tucked away on the capital side of the budget on Tuesday. A mere less than .2% of the operating budget, as Edward Keenan pointed out in his comprehensively excellent article yesterday. But there is every reason to suspect that they succeeded in blowing up the prevailing Ford era dynamic at City Hall where the mayor pronounces and it is so.

They’ve opened the floodgates. The Curtis Flood-gates, that is. Free agency has come to city council.

borasly submitted by Cityslikr

Scarborough Unfair

(A reposting of a piece we wrote for the Torontoist this week about our field trip to the wilds of Scarborough.)

*  *  *

By any measure in the rather narrow definition of today’s common currency I am a downtown elite. That means I live downtown and I’m not onboard with Mayor Rob Ford’s agenda. Full stop.

This place I thought of as my home and the lifestyle that came with it, the ease of mobility, the array of opportunity, had come under fire by the antiest of anti-urban municipal governments this city has seen in some time. This was an administration that threatened the very things I viewed as vital to what makes my home so special to me. I was growing increasingly aggressive in my defence of it.

And then I went to Scarborough last Tuesday night. Three and a half hours later I realized I don’t know anger. I don’t know outrage. I don’t know such fiercely loyal pride of place.

The ten councillors representing the former east side municipality met at the Scarborough Civic Centre to present the proposed 2012 city budget and listen to feedback from their residents. Man oh man, did they get a collective earful. Sixty-seven folks had signed up to give a deputation although, by my count, only about forty or so made it down to the microphone. Of that number, two spoke in favour of the course the mayor and his team were currently charting.

Now, I already heard chatter about the alleged ‘usual suspects’, CUPE backed and prepared speakers, special interests, yaddie, yaddie, yaddie. The same old same old whenever the deputation process so overwhelmingly speaks out against the mayor. Your basic case of shooting the messenger.

I readily accept the argument that those who come out to have their voices heard aren’t necessarily fully representative of the population as a whole. (Although I’m not sure exactly how those in favour of the Mayor Ford’s budget would even know to come out and voice their support. I could only find notification of Tuesday night’s event through what we’ll cal ‘opposition’ websites. Neither the mayor nor any of the councillors from Scarborough seemed to have given residents a heads-up about the event as far as I could tell.) People don’t tend to take time out of their schedules to cheer on issues, to express a favourable opinion of them. This, I think, is especially true with the budget proposal put in front of us. Yeah! Cut more! Pump up the user fees! Further reduce the role of government! That side is more of a Tim Horton’s nod and stay the course interaction.

But even measured against other deputations I have witnessed throughout the city, last night’s was high-pitched, angry, outraged and very, very personal. One deputant, in summing up this year’s budget said, “Thanks, Mr. Mayor. Scarborough’s screwed again.”

That’s not simply a where’s mine parochial attitude. In all the divisive downtown-suburb hubbub over whose money and how much goes where that’s been a part of the post-amalgamation discourse, it’s become pretty clear that Scarborough has consistently got the short end of the stick. Not just versus downtown but in comparison to other former municipalities like Etobicoke and North York. Their anger at City Hall is justified.

Which was one of the reasons Scarborough went so overwhelmingly pro-Rob Ford in the 2010 election. He promised to change all that. He would cut the boatloads of gravy and the sense of downtown entitlement that was so pervasive at City Hall and redirect all the savings back to where it was really needed like in Scarborough. They’d get better transit. They’d get better service. And they wouldn’t have to pay more for it.

Jump cut two budgets later to 2012.

Scarborough is looking at reduced service on 26 of its bus routes. Their subway? Still a figment of Mayor Ford’s imagination. Eleven of their libraries are threatened with reduced hours as are ten of their arenas. Shelters are being closed. Recreation programs cut and higher user fees implemented.

“Thanks, Mr. Mayor. Scarborough’s screwed again.”

More than anything, the palpable feeling at last night’s budget session was one of betrayal. Scarborough had put their faith in Rob Ford and the residents there were being repaid by, well, actually they weren’t being repaid at all. Scarborough was being gouged, bludgeoned by an austerity bat that many who spoke out saw as unnecessary and ideological. The mayor had turned on them and now they were turning on him.

Betrayal is something a politician, no matter how savvy, has a hard time getting past even two and a half years down the road. Voters may have short term memories about many things political but betrayal lingers. Candidate Rob Ford promised he’d be looking out for the little guy. Seventy-one percent of voters in Scarborough believed him, more than anywhere else in the city.

That’s a mighty big voting bloc to have turn against you. Lose even twenty percent of that, and a 2014 re-election suddenly becomes very, very iffy. Mayor Ford and the ten Scarborough councillors better hope the deputations in their backyard last night aren’t representative of the wider swath of Scarborough voters. If they are and this budget goes through next week as is? Their collective political futures should be considered very much in question.

Mike Myersly submitted by Cityslikr