The Meddling Public Sector

While governments at every level and of every political stripe spend our money like it’s theirs, threatening to send all us hardworking taxpayers to the proverbial poorhouse, it is the private sector, the merchants of free enterprise, muckingupthewordswho keep the ship of state upright, generating the wealth which floats all our boats. With a laser-like approach to finding efficiencies, customer service and competitive pricing, the profit motive greases the wheels of a functioning society, pretty much as God and Milton Friedman proclaimed. “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem,” actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan crowed, “government is the problem.”

Allow me to introduce exhibit A.

Right now in Toronto, City Hall sits guilty of stifling not one, but two heroic businesses, trying their best to make this city a better place to live for all of us. lucyBack in 2009, city council demanded to pay Bombardier nearly a billion dollars in return for 204 new streetcars. Clearly, it was an unreasonable 10 year delivery timeline with 37 of the vehicles expected on the road by the end of 2014, 60 by the time 2016 rolled around. To date, only 8 are up and running along the streets of Toronto.

Obviously the only reasonable explanation for such a delay and overwhelming under-performance on the part of Bombardier is the intrusion of government into the sphere of the private sector. The company has also been forced to delay orders of new subway cars to New York City and Montreal. What’s the common factor in that equation? (Aside from the delays, that is.) Ethrowingmoneyaroundxactly. Cities, and government.

Where the hell are all these public pension bloated fat cats with their hands out full of money, offering to buy planes from Bombardier? Because of this stingy, public transit-oriented attitude of municipal officials, the company’s aviation arm has been hindered in its honest pursuit of an honest day’s capitalism. Reduced to near ‘penny-stock status’, according to the Globe and Mail, Bombardier sits helplessly on its stock of beautiful C-series flying technology, waiting for somebody, anybody, from the public sector to step up and perform as it was meant to do. Write big fat cheques to private companies with as few strings attached as possible.

Here’s the kicker.

Rather than sit around complaining about how Bombardier isn’t living up to its streetcar contract, Toronto city council could be channeling that negative energy into something positive. greasethewheelsSuch as, for example, bulldozing ahead with approval of the island airport expansion. This would allow another valiant private company, Porter Airlines, now obstructed by a pernicious officialdom, bureaucratically hung up on ‘proper environmental assessments’, ‘public input’, ‘people oriented waterfront development’ and other make-work, nonsensical jargon, to green light its order of Bombardier CS-100 whisper jets and expand its reach and, fingers crossed, bottom line.

In turn, flush with cash, Bombardier could ramp up its street and subway car assembly lines, delivering to the politicians what they’re really in the business of: vote getting. That’s what they call, out here in the real world, a win-win-win for everyone. Government keeps spending money in order for the private sector to make money. Wealth is then spread accordingly in the immutable law of Economics 101. lenderoflastresortAs it should be.

We elect our representatives to pay up, step back and observe the miracle of commerce. Nothing more. Until we learn to do that, and that only, we will continue to hinder the real engine of our well-being, leaving us empty-handed with fingers pointed in blame at the wrong people for delays, cost overruns, contract breaches and an underwater tunnel taking too few people to too few places.

If that comes to pass, who will be left holding the bag? In the end, somebody’s got to pay. That’s just the way of the world. Governments need to accept that responsibility, their responsibility, and fall into line, knowing it is always better to be the payer of first resort than it is the lender of last resort.

matter-of-factly submitted by Cityslikr

Call The Question

If they want to make it a campaign issue, I say, bring it on. Let’s have the discussion we should’ve had in 2010. replayAll that talk of gravy and the city’s spending problem. The mayor, his brother, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong all want to put it back on the table again this time around. Fine. Let’s revisit the conversation.

The current object of their fiscal hawk ire is Waterfront Toronto, and its spending practices on a couple projects as part of the wider waterfront revitalization. I’ll try and ape their tone of outrage. $12,000 on umbrellas!! Half a million dollars on rocks!!! $600,000 for a washroom!!!

Resign! Resign!! Resign!!!!

You see, when it comes to the public realm (of the non-road related kind), everything can be done more cheaply. Some parks build public washrooms for 25 grand. Why does Cherry Beach need one for 600 grand? Half a mil for rocks? mockoutrage1Councillor Doug Ford offered some from up at his cottage for a fraction of that cost.

Never mind that Waterfront Toronto has some perfectly legitimate explanations for the cost. The umbrellas at Sugar Beach are permanent, all weather umbrellas intended to last for 25 years. The sports field washroom was installed in a spot away from any sewer infrastructure that needed its own septic system to deal with the large number of people using it.

But as a Toronto Sun editorial warns us, “Too many appear prepared to take whatever Waterfront Toronto says at face value. Bad idea.”

Absolutely. Instead, take at face value what a handful of grandstanding-happy, campaigning politicians tell us.

As Waterfront Toronto CEO John Campbell points out, the agency is overseen by all 3 levels of government. demagogueWhere are the other outraged voices at all this profligacy? Why are we just hearing the loudest and the crankiest? Or more to the point, why are we giving them any sort of credence?

Even many fellow city council conservatives aren’t onside with this shameless bit of pure self-promotion. Economic Development and Culture Committee Chair Michael Thompson gave one of the best speeches I have seen him give in a fiery defense of Watefront Toronto earlier this month. By investing public money into previously derelict areas of the city’s waterfront, some $2.5 billion in private investment in the area has happened.

“Notwithstanding,” sniffs the Toronto Sun.

Notwithstanding?! That’s the entire fucking point. While not technically a public-private partnership, it’s kind of the theory in practice. Public money used to improve a public asset which, in turn, encourages private investment and development.

notlistening2Not to mention improved public spaces although it’s more difficult to put a price tag on that.

“What taxpayers know is that when it comes to revitalizing the waterfront,” the Sun goes on, undeterred by reason or even simple observation, “politicians, bureaucrats and publicly-funded agencies from all levels of government have been over-promising and under-delivering for years.”

So when those ‘politicians, bureaucrats and publicly-funded agencies’ do start delivering, as they have with the steady march of development along the waterfront, as indicated by $2.5 billion in private investment, you stand back, unimpressed, and moan about the cost. Did it have to be so expensive? Couldn’t you have done it cheaper?

Geez, I don’t know, Toronto Sun, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong and the Ford Brothers. Could we? Tell us all about how you would’ve done it while saving the taxpayers’ a bundle. neverhappyHow about just slapping up, I don’t know, an outhouse at the Cherry Beach sports field would’ve accomplished the same result.

It’s time Councillor Minnan-Wong, who’s been a city councillor for nearly 20 years now, step up and start telling us, not what’s wrong, but how exactly he’d make it right. It’s time Councillor Minnan-Wong told us about the positive contributions he’s made to the life of this city, how he’s served to make the residents’ lives better. It’s time Councillor Minnan-Wong start justifying his continued public presence.

And if, in the end, all he can point to are numbers with dollar signs on a ledger sheet and refer to those he represents as ‘taxpayers’, I’ll suggest that’s not enough, not even close. As we have seen with a similarly small-minded, monstrously narrow-focussed, anti-government conservative in our current mayor, big cities need big pictures not just the itty-bitty ones that spark indignation fueled solely on fallacious resentment. texaschainsawmassacreNay-saying is an easy political platform to build. Unfortunately, it collapses under the weight of governance.

So yeah, if Councillor Minnan-Wong, the Fords and the Toronto Sun want to try and re-hash the 2010 campaign, pitting their self-proclaimed record of stinginess against the idea of productive city-building, let them. This time, however, demand they show the results of their actions. Demand a full accounting of the costs and benefits. Demand actual leadership and not just mindless, crowd-pleasing axe wielding.

daringly submitted by Cityslikr

Pretty Straightforward Until It Wasn’t

Can I make what should be a pretty innocuous, perhaps even vapid statement, but may come across as something almost audacious, given the political times we live in?idodeclare

No single one is to blame for the crumbling pile that is the Gardiner Expressway.

There. I said it. I stand by it even two seconds after writing it.

The current state of disrepair we find our southern most arterial thoroughfare in is the result of a confluence of neglect, disinterest and pusillanimity, traversing decades now. Senior levels of government never really answering why a municipality should be responsible for the maintenance of a thoroughfare that serves a significantly wider regional interest. A municipality trying to put off the hard decision and hard cash of keeping the thing properly functional as the battle rages over its ultimate fate. Restore? Demolish? Bury?

Still…

This most recent dust up pitting the current administration in power at City Hall – let’s call them Team Ford – against the previous one – Miller’s Minions – hediditis a wholly manufactured in Toronto melodrama. Replete with finger pointing, name calling, innuendo insinuating, answer evading that more resembles… well, a political pissing match which is what it is. There are no good guys in this tale. Only those dedicated to not having an open and honest discussion on a spectacularly important matter affecting this city for the next generation or so.

The saga (at least this chapter of it) can be traced back to July 2008. Recommendation 1 of an Executive Committee item that went to city council that read as follows:

Council authorize the City to act as co-proponent with Waterfront Toronto to undertake an individual environmental assessment (EA) of Waterfront Toronto’s (WT) proposal that the elevated Gardiner Expressway from approximately Jarvis Street to east of the Don Valley Parkway including the remaining Lake Shore Boulevard East ramp be removed and an at-grade waterfront boulevard be created.

Ground zero in this tear down-keep up debate. The call for an environmental assessment Team Ford now cites as proof of the Miller’s Minions’ anti-car agenda. Never mind the fact that by the time people got around to assessing, the scope got somewhat broader. Quoting from Waterfront Toronto’s Environmental Assessment Terms of Reference (approved by city council in 2009):takealook In contrast to some EA studies, which limit the number of alternatives to be considered, the Gardiner EA will bring the following broad but defined range of options forward for study… Including three options to keep the most eastern part of the expressway up and going, As Is, Enhanced and Replaced.

A car killer? Hard to come to such a conclusion reading, you know, the words. So people really need to stop saying that if they expect to be considered, you know, a serious part of this conversation.

Further down the 2008 Executive Committee item list, another couple highly relevant recommendations that are now playing out before our very eyes. Recommendation # 3 (as pointed out by Matt Elliott):

Council defer the total rehabilitation of the Gardiner Expressway east from Jarvis Street, except for essential works required to provide safe operating conditions, and direct the General Manager, Transportation Services to adjust the 2009 Capital Program submission and 2010 to 2013 Capital Works Plan accordingly.

butwaittheresmoreAnd Recommendation #4 (as pointed out to me by Hamutal Dotan):

Council direct the Executive Director, Technical Services to conduct annual, detailed condition surveys of the Gardiner Expressway east from Jarvis Street to identify the minimum maintenance required to maintain safe operating conditions, and to make appropriate adjustments to the annual maintenance spending, until such time as City Council makes its decision on the future of this section of the Expressway.

My terms of reference on these two paragraphs.

We’re only talking about, and have always only been talking about, the most easterly section of the Gardiner, the least travelled on portion, from Jarvis to the Don Roadway.

Any unspent money for maintenance on it had more to do with a sound fiscal decision – why pour money into something that might just be pulled down in a couple years, pending the EA? – than deliberate neglect. I mean, ask yourself. What would any member of Team Ford be saying now if boatloads of cash had been spent restoring the eastern Gardiner only to have council decide to now tear it down? Waste! Gravy!

The decision of what to spend and what not to spend seems to have been given over to the discretion of city staff, the Executive Director of Technical Services specifically followthebouncingball“…until such time as City Council makes its decision on the future of this section of the Expressway.” We can hurl accusations of the quiet nefariousness of Miller’s Minions to strangle the concrete life from the Gardiner but until there’s a smoking gun providing some evidence of that, it’s all just hearsay and narrative spinning.

That we now have to spend oodles of cash to either totally redo or tear down some or all of the Gardiner should hardly be surprising. It was inevitable. The decision of what to do and how to do it is the key point here.

And it’s where it got awfully fucking murky.

At some point of time over the course of the past two years the Environmental Assessment got shelved, leaving the city staff’s discretionary spending on the Gardiner open ended. Who was the impetus behind that decision is a mystery. Although, the Public Works and Infrastructure chair, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong was surprisingly frank about it with NOW’s Ben Spurr.

[Councillor] Minnan-Wong said that Waterfront Toronto staff decided to suspend the assessment “in consultation with the city of Toronto” after Rob Ford won the 2010 election. 

“Given that there was a new mayor elected who was committed to keeping the Gardiner Expressway up – because he spoke about it quite publicly in his platform – Waterfront Toronto was no longer making that a priority,” he said.

“In consultation with the city of Toronto”? Who? The Mayor? gettothebottomofthisThe Mayor’s brother? The Public Works and Infrastructure chair?

On those questions, the councillor is a little more hedge-y.

What we do know is that it wasn’t city council that was consulted before the EA was put “on the far back burner”. For that somebody has to answer. Certainly before anybody hands over a half-billion dollars to get the expressway back into ship-shape including the eastern section where a decision has never been made to keep it standing or tear it down. Proper democratic process was circumvented. That is one fact that cannot be lost amidst the finger pointing and name blaming which has swallowed up the debate so far.

not donely submitted by Cityslikr