Same Ol’ Song, Same Ol’ Dance

March 12, 2015

“It is the easy way out to say, let’s just have 3.0%, 4.0% more put on to property taxes…”

So began Mayor John Tory’s pitch to city council this week, presenting his maiden budget for their ultimate approval.upisdown

That this was in direct opposition to, well, reality, nobody much noticed. No, Mr. Mayor, in fact the easy way out is to campaign on an anti-tax platform, to assure voters that there were magical ways to fund city’s services and programs with a little left over for special pet projects. TIF. New money pouring in from senior levels of government. Efficiencies.

In other words, just what the previous administration told us minus the crack smoking and drunken stupors.

In my experience, it is far, far easier to pretend there’s no tough decisions to be made than to accept the unpleasant reality staring you directly in the face and deal with it. At least, initially. The bills do eventually come due, however, and very, very rarely do crossed fingers and a wish on a star provide much of a soft landing.

Oh but the sky is not falling, we were assured time and time again by the mayor, his budget chief, and ancient regime dinosaur, Councillor David Shiner, who told us every year that he’s been around (and that’s a lot of years), it’s been the same ol’ song. everythingsfinePredicted shortfalls and terrifying opening pressures amounting to millions and millions of dollars, only to be dutifully wrestled into submission, the operating budget balanced, as it always must be. The sun rises. The sun sets.

Never mind the ever growing state of good repairs elephant in the room, a To Do List backlog of infrastructure needs now somewhere in the neighbourhood of $7 billion. Social housing upkeep that, in some cases, if not done in the next few years will force the closure of units, sending some of our most vulnerable residents looking elsewhere for shelter. Transit. And transit. And transit.

But somehow, there’s no connection between that beast and the fact that since amalgamation, our property tax rate increases have not kept up with inflation meaning, in real dollars, there’s less money going to even core services and programs, let alone the items a municipality should not be paying for like, the aforementioned social housing or major transit infrastructure builds. Yes, cities are expected to do more with less but what do we think is going to happen when our response to that is to try and make do with even less? That’s what insisting on property tax rate increases below the rate of inflation does.

When Councillor Gord Perks introduced a motion on Tuesday to increase the property tax rate an additional 1.59%, bumping the total hike to over 5% in order to pay off the $86 million hole in the operating budget created by yet more provincial downloading, a hole the mayor is papering over by borrowing from the city’s investment portfolio, Councillor Josh Matlow rose to speak in opposition. nothingtoseehereWhile he understood the intentions of Councillor Perks’ motion, he couldn’t support it because that would let the province off the hook for its obligations. Once we established that precedent, what else would Queen’s Park expect us to start paying for?

A fair point, to be sure, but it leaves the lingering question: WHAT THE FUCK DO WE DO IN THE MEANTIME? Oh, that’s right. Cross our fingers and wish upon a star.

It also ignores the fact that a 5+% property tax increase is not unheard of except here in amalgamated Toronto. Ask our GTA neighbours about their recent property tax hikes and see if you get any soothing words of comfort. Toronto has been shortchanging itself since 1998. So its demands for the other levels of government to live up to their responsibilities in funding cities, correct as they might be, ring a little hollow.

Rather than face up to that unpleasant truth, Mayor Tory chose instead to take the easy way out, referring to any such proposed tax increase as ‘through the roof’ and, therefore, out of the question. Neither was the mayor in any mood to discuss other forms of revenue at the city’s disposal. notlisteningCouncillor Kristyn Wong-Tam’s motion to bring back the vehicle registration tax and dedicate it to fast-tracking accessibility redesigns for the remaining last half of the city’s 69 subway stations in order to comply with provincial legislation (more of those damned state of good repairs) was soundly defeated. Increasing revenue, in a John Tory administration, was simply not prudent.

Unless, of course, you use any of the city’s services, programs or facilities (not including roads). This budget continued to lean on increasing user fees. From garbage bins to sports fields, above the rate of inflation increases were in effect (except for roads). There’s not necessarily anything wrong with that but it does lead to the question: Why there and not property taxes?

The simplest explanation is that Mayor Tory is playing to the same constituency Rob Ford sings for, both administrations deluding them (and themselves) that the city’s fiscal problems are not of their doing, and that somebody else will swoop in, all deus ex machina like, and pay the piper. deusexmachinaWe just need a little discipline and patience, cross our fingers and send our wishes skyward (which totally isn’t falling) and it’ll all work out fine.

Easy peasy.

Making it official in the process.

Toronto didn’t elect John Tory, the civic leader. We elected John Tory, the talk radio show host. So let’s stop expecting any sort of leadership from him and settle in for another 4 years of sound bites and simple solutions that will solve few of this city’s problems.

heard-it-beforely submitted by Cityslikr


The Tory Brand

August 5, 2014

John Tory is a terrible candidate for mayor. Just awful. rottenthingtosayIf he goes on to win in October, and governs like he’s campaigning, he’ll be a terrible mayor.

Here’s how he responded last week to fellow mayoral candidate Ari Goldkind’s proposal to reinstate the Vehcle Registration Tax:

I’m trying to make the city more affordable and I hear every day from people about the taxation overall that they face and I plan to keep property taxes at or below the rate of inflation. I think I’m not going to be doing anybody a favour in terms of the struggle the taxpayers are facing if I were to bring back or bring in any tax like that.

Throw in a couple folks’s there and exclaim some Respect for Taxpayers, and it might as well be Rob Ford talking.

These are not the words of John Tory CivicAction city-builder. fordnationIt is a.m. radio talk show host John Tory speaking, getting all faux-populist, anti-tax, Rob Ford like. `… I plan to keep property taxes at or below the rate of inflation…not doing anybody a favour…if I were to bring back or bring in any tax like that.’

Taxation as a burden. The city does not have a revenue problem. Investment in services and programs will in no way help struggling taxpayers.

What exactly is John Tory putting on the table for anyone to rally around and champion?

Oh. He doesn’t smoke crack and he’ll attend pride events. questionmarkSlow clap. Bravo.

Not that he was alone among the mayoral frontrunners in rejecting the idea of re-introducing the VRT out of hand. “…under no circumstances,” declared Karen Stintz. A VRT is not part of David Soknacki’s budget plan. Rob Ford? See John Tory’s response.

Most disappointingly (at least from my personal political standpoint) is Olivia Chow, once more skittish about casting any shadow from the left. ‘…councillors have already made a decision on the car tax and she wouldn’t bring it back.’ So while Ms. Chow seems perfectly comfortable revisiting the Scarborough subway decision city council has already made, it’s hands off the VRT.

It might’ve been nice to see the Chow campaign use this opportunity to show she isn’t as reflexively anti-tax as the next candidate to her right. In theory, at least, all the main contenders are to Olivia Chow’s right. scaredofhisownshadow“While the VRT may have been poorly implemented,” the Chow camp could’ve said, “and unfairly targeted car drivers for an annual infusion into the city’s general revenue, I think we cannot ideologically reject the city’s need for additional revenue as almost all of my opponents seem to be doing.”

But that’s a conversation the Chow campaign seems hell bent on avoiding, lest it open itself up to a tax-and-spend, NDP candidate attack from the right and, once more, falling into the trap left-of-centre candidates regular fall into of allowing themselves to be defined by their opponents. It concedes ground without putting up a fight. Yeah, you’re right. Taxes are a burden, never giving back anything in return.johntorycricket1

It puts no daylight between Olivia Chow and John Tory, allowing him to undeservedly claim territory he has no right to claim. I can be disappointed in the Chow campaign so far, but that in no way confers on John Tory the status of viable, progressive alternative. He’s done little to distinguish himself from his political past; the distant, as an unofficial advisor in the Mel Lastman administration in the early days of amalgamation, to the very recent past, with his full-throated and open wallet support of Team Ford.

The problems Toronto faces very much have John Tory’s fingerprints all over them. He’s offered no real solutions in addressing them, only more of the same tired rhetoric. johntorycricketLow taxes, finding efficiencies and almost every other chapter from the Rob Ford campaign handbook, slightly warmed-over and spit-polished to give it a fresh sheen of respectability and thoughtfulness.

John Tory seems to think the message is fine. The only problem’s been the messenger. He’ll get lots of support, campaigning that way. Just let’s not pretend he represents anything other than that. Don’t allow him to get away professing he’s something or someone he’s not.

unimpressedly submitted by Cityslikr


Challengers To Watch IV

June 26, 2014

Walking along Bloor Street West in Ward 18 Davenport with Alex Mazer, I was struck by a thought. This is like strolling in my own backyard. railpathWhich it kind of is since I live right next door in Ward 19 Trinity-Spadina. I have played baseball in the parks in Ward 18. I have drunk in a few of the bars in Ward 18. I have cycled Ward 18’s railpath.

Su warda, mi warda.

(I hope that totally made-up Spanish on my part doesn’t actually mean anything rude or derogatory.)

I met Alex last year when he hosted a Better Budget TO event. It’s a group advocating for participatory budgeting, a more open process of determining how local governments spend money that actually includes not only community involvement but community decision making. (See what Councillor Shelley Carroll’s doing with Section 37 money in Ward 33.) participatorybudgetThe movement has gained traction in cities like New York and Chicago.

Participatory budgeting is also something more conducive to local governments than either the provincial or federal levels, both where Alex has spent some time working previously. Their budgets are dropped, fully formed, take it or leave it, folks. Municipal budgets, while dense and arcane, go through a few stages including one where the public gets to express its opinion, before being finalized by city council.

It’s this relative openness that has drawn Alex toward municipal politics. An ability to interact and work with constituents on issues that directly affect their quality of lives on a daily basis. Budgets, schools, public spaces, transit, the state of our roads and the constant construction. Oh, the construction.

Like many of us, Alex would like to figure out a way to better co-ordinate construction throughout the city in order to avoid what seems like a regular tear up and rebuild along his ward’s stretch of Bloor Street.

bloorstreetwestWhile not as intense as some neighbouring wards to the east or south of it, Ward 18 is experiencing similar kinds of pressures that come from growth and intensification, beginning with the need to deliver new infrastructure and maintain the old. The development along Queen Street on the edge of Parkdale is already in place. There’s a mixed used plan on what is now derelict land running beside the railpath right next to the Nestle chocolate factory near Dundas Street West and Lansdowne that’s been years in the making and looks ready to go. The Union-to-Pearson rail link will have a stop in Ward 18.

It’s going to be a serious hub, Ward 18, bringing with it all the opportunities and conflicts inherent in that. Continued pressure on employment lands. Cars versus transit versus biking. Like the old days versus new density. Electrification versus diesel.

You might think, why put all that into the lap of a newcomer? The current councillor, while only finishing up her first term, has worked in the ward for a while now, dating back to her time as Executive Assistant to longtime former councillor, Mario Silva. nestleLet’s just stick with the steady hand of experience.

The thing is, from my perch watching city council over the past 4 years, Councillor Ana Bailão has not shown herself up to the task. While not a destructive force certainly, she has regularly landed on the side of issues that truly mystify. Sure, there was voting to rescind the Vehicle Registration Tax which, while politically popular, hasn’t done much for the city’s revenue stream. She also voted to freeze property taxes in 2011, contract out waste collection west of Yonge (but against awarding that contract to Green 4 Life), eliminate the plastic bag fee, initially voted to keep the bike lanes on Jarvis but then voted to re-confirm the vote she’d voted against to tear them up (??) The councillor voted for the Scarborough subway.

Little rhyme nor reason or pattern. There doesn’t seem to be a there, there.

Even on her signature item, chair of the Affordable Housing Committee, nothing much happened. It might’ve contained the fire but certainly hasn’t put it out. TCHC management remains a mess. The state of good repair continues to grow. No recommendations have been put forth to deal with what is a pressing, pressing situation.

In truth, Councillor Bailão has been something of a disappointment. Not at all dependable on the important issues facing the city. dupontbusMaybe a change in tone and function at City Hall would reveal a different Ana Bailão but it’s hard to see much evidence of that possibility.

And if Ward 18 is counting on change for better representation, why not go whole hog and elect a new councillor?

Alex Mazer?

He’s certainly bringing a lot to the table. Clearly engaged and on top of the issues directly affecting the ward and the wider city, Mazer wants to open up that engagement further, bringing the public into the decision-making process sooner, whether it’s the budget or local development plans. Anyone who ‘deeply disagrees with the Ford agenda’, as Mazer stated a week or so ago on Reddit, would be a step in the right direction from the ward’s current representation.

But I’ll let you decide for yourself, leaving you with candidate Mazer’s own words:

Change is happening — there’s no question about it. There are a lot of good things about this change — I think that most residents in the area that I talk to feel optimistic about the future of their neighbourhoods.

But despite this optimism, I also hear from renters, artists, newcomers, middle class families, and more, who feel that they can no longer afford to live downtown — who feel that they will never be able to afford to buy a home in the area. This is part of a broader challenge that our city faces — that people’s opportunities are increasingly shaped by their postal code (U of T’s David Hulchanski, among others, has done some great work on this).

City government can’t stop this change, but we can manage it better I believe. One of my priorities is to take a more proactive approach to managing development in the ward, working with communities to identify the types of growth and change they want before the ‘development application’ signs go up and they’re left scrambling to have their voices heard. A good example of this is the need to work with the community and other levels of government to preserve public space at Dufferin and Bloor.

A better affordable housing policy can also help. See some of my thoughts on this.

I think we need to focus more on the growing inequality in our city. It’s troubling that inequality has taken on a more prominent place in the American political discourse but remains a relatively minor part of the public debate here in Toronto.

gotrain

helpfully submitted by Cityslikr


Ana-igma

February 5, 2014

Let me state this again before proceeding.runforyourlife

I do not envy any of the first term councillors whose introduction to municipal governance was essentially a drop from a helicopter into a burning hellfire of partisanship and concerted efforts to city strip. I don’t envy any councillors subjected to it. 2010-2014. Non-stop anni horribiles.

Having said that…

Councillor Ana Bailão (Ward 18 Davenport), am I right?

For the life of me, I cannot get a handle on her. What makes her tick politically? While most of her rookie colleagues scampered toward the respective ideological corners that were quickly drawn when Rob Ford became mayor, Councillor Bailão seemed to get caught flat-footed and wide-eyed somewhere out in the middle, in no-man’s land, flapping like a ragged flag.deerintheheadlights

Sure, she took carriage of the TCHC file in an effort to help fend off the charging conservatives on council just itching to sell of the entire operations if they could. She’s nursed it through the storm. But as chair of the Affordable Housing Committee, Councillor Bailão has essentially served in the role of protectorate. There’s been little advancement made, no decrease in the capital repair backlog at TCHC. Pretty much status quo.

That said, the councillor’s done little to help the city’s revenues with votes in favour of repealing the vehicle registration tax and to freeze property taxes back in 2011. Oh, and the Scarborough subway. The Scarborough subway, diverting millions of tax dollars to a questionable transit project.

This one’s a total mystery to me.headscratcher

At last week’s budget meeting, Councillor Bailão was spared the necessity of publicly choosing between more money for TCHC capital repairs and the Scarborough subway when a motion to do just that was questionably ruled out of order by Speaker Frances Nunziata. When she was forced to stand up and make a defense of the Scarborough subway, Councillor Bailão came up with the 2nd weakest argument after the They Deserve one. Skin in the Game, baby. City council needs to show their willingness to spend money on any old politically motivated transit plan to prove they’re just as unprincipled as other levels of government.

*shrug*

Looking through her voting record as presented in Matt Elliott’s council scorecard leads to a lot of such head scratching. Stop funding the Christmas bureau. Confirming council decision to tear up the Jarvis bike lanes (which she initially voted against). Not factoring in the school year when moving tenants in the case of the sale of TCHC homes. No additional property tax increase to help maintain city services. No additional funds to the Tenant Defense Fund. Reduce funding for AIDS programs. trippedupNo endorsement for any of the proposed Metrolinx revenue tools to pay for public transit expansion.

All mixed in with a majority of more progressive votes, let’s call them, that leaves one’s head a-spinning.

Maybe Councillor Bailão’s just more open-minded than most, not stuck in any sort of partisan rut. Fair enough. But there’s got to be some sort of logic to it. A reasoned pattern of voting. Social liberal, fiscal conservative?

I just can’t make her time in office bend into any sort of coherent narrative.

As Mr. Elliott points out in his 2013 wrap up, in a year when the mayor`s sway over council completely evaporated, Councillor Bailão pro-Ford backing actually increased. While her Ford Nation percentage remains low, she has come through for the mayor on some key items over the course of the past 3+ years. Items that, arguably, bring zero benefit to the residents of her own ward.

Truth be told, the councillor has seemed a bit lost in the jungle of city council during her time there. Maybe if things had been normal, the atmosphere less toxic and threatening, she would’ve found her footing and settled in more easily. roadkillUnfortunately, it wasn’t and she didn’t.

Should Councillor Bailão be rewarded with a second term simply because she made it through alive? That’s pretty weak an endorsement. It could be argued that she made things worse, not taking a stand against divisiveness and city dismantling when the chips were down. She was simply not up to the task of being a city councillor when the city needed her most.

baffledly submitted by Cityslikr


Shouldn’t You Be Dead If You’re Taxed To Death?

December 9, 2013

With the Toronto Star’s Tess Kalinowski reporting over the weekend that the Anne Golden-led seriousdiscussionTransit Investment Strategy Advisory Panel will be recommending some sort of corporate tax as part of an overall funding plan to start building transit, I say, good. Can we now start seriously discussing our transit needs and how to pay from them? Can we? Huh? Please?

One of the sticking points so far, at least for some progressive voices on the left side of political spectrum, was the very conspicuous absence of ‘A Corporate Tax’ option in the funding columns of either the city’s Feeling Congested and Metrolinx’s discussions earlier this year on revenue streams. This was a non-starter for many who legitimately wondered why individuals alone were being asked to shoulder the cost of new transit projects that would also serve to help the needs of the business community. An oversight, let’s call it, made even more fishy since one of the biggest cheerleaders for a massive regional investment in transit infrastructure was the Toronto Board of Trade.

Hey everybody (but our members)! We’re in this together (except for our members). Dig into your pockets and pay for the transit we so desperately need!*cavedwelling

But now it’s there on the table, and for anyone using its previous lack of presence as an excuse not to talk or even so much as consider a discussion about taxation as a means to fund transit expansion, well, time to step out into the open. Your cover’s been blown. I commend you for putting corporate taxation back into the mix but it won’t pay for everything. Let’s start talking turkey.

I won’t get into the nitty-gritty yet as the panel’s recommendations don’t go public until Thursday but let’s just say that my hope is that this can kick start a wider discussion beyond just transit needs to reclaiming the idea of taxation from its current status as some filthy word spat out in disgust.

At last week’s budget committee deputations, retired teacher Don Quinlan referred to Toronto as ‘a rich city that doesn’t act like it.’ taxesareevilThat’s borne out by the fact residents of this city, on average, pay below the GTA average in property taxes. When given the opportunity to relieve pressure off the property tax base with other revenue streams, i.e. the Vehicle Registration Tax, we couldn’t elect a city council fast enough to repeal it. The Land Transfer Tax remains under constant threat.

For a generation now (at least), we’ve been trying to run a city on the cheap and then find ourselves surprised at the lack of good state of repair in almost every aspect of our infrastructure. Crumbling roads. Decrepit social housing. Bursting watermains. Substandard public transit. How did this happen, we ask ourselves, and immediately begin looking around for the easiest answers that won’t cost us anything. Lazy unions. Profligate spending. Inefficient bureaucracies.

To be fair, municipalities have been largely abandoned on many of these files by senior levels of government that operate, not at all coincidentally, on a similar Taxes Are Bad approach. Shit rolls downhill, leaving governments with the least amount of financial flexibility to deal with the ugly results. This has lead to a nasty zero sum race to the bottom with city councils facing tough either/or choices between vital services and programs. Public housing or public transit? Child care or after school programs?

The grim situation, however, only gets exacerbated when we mirror such anti-tax sentiment. freeClearly, many self-proclaimed fiscal conservatives believed our tax intolerance was not such that we’d mind an annual half percent property tax hike to pay for a Scarborough subway extension. So let’s keep that conversation going. What else is on our wish/to do list?

Enough already with the burden of taxation. At this point, we’re getting exactly what it is we’re willing to pay for. We either accept that and live with it without complaining or we start putting our money where our collective mouth is. Anything less than that is a shirking of our responsibility and just plain flat out freeloading.

— seriously submitted by Cityslikr

 

*excluding Board of Trade members