Yesterday, Toronto City Council endorsed spending approximately $400,000 removing cycling infrastructure downtown and in Scarborough, despite staff reports that indicated the bike lanes had no substantive impact on traffic flow. They followed this up hours later by voting to uphold an earlier decision by the Executive Committee that, due to concerns that maybe someday the funding might be removed, Council not accept provincial money that would add two new public health nurse positions to the City’s payroll.
Let’s phrase that another way: over the course of one summer afternoon, councillors decided both to recklessly spend $400,000 for no clear reason and to play it safe, eschewing needed resources at public health because they might, one day — but probably not –, get stuck with a $200,000 per year bill for their trouble.
The same Council then had the relative gall to pass a motion calling for the province to step in and fund a greater percentage of the operating and capital budgets for the TTC. And so Council both rejected provincial money and asked for more of it on the same day.
Meanwhile, outside Council chambers, consulting group KPMG has spent the week releasing delightfully concise Core Service Review reports that all follow a similar template. First, they point out that the department they’ve examined has very little waste. Then, they drop a bundle of ‘considerations’ — not recommendations — that range from things like eliminating water fluoridation to selling the city’s stable of barnyard animals.
The consultants — who already have a checkered history with this kind of thing, having once produced a report arguing amalgamation would save the Toronto municipalities a significant amount of money — are clear that they aren’t even really looking at efficiencies as much as they’re laying out a list of things that could legally be cut from the city’s portfolio of public services. That this stands contrary to an election promise made by the mayor seems to have been tossed to the curb.
Also on that curb? The results of the city’s exhaustive consultation sessions regarding the Core Service Review. A full 60% of people who attended indicated they would accept increased taxes to pay for existing service levels. Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, who’s had a fun week, said Monday that that group was irrelevant. “Self-selecting,” he said. Okay.
For the record, Toronto — you know, the city that we continue to hear is suffering from near-fatal fiscal wounds that can only be treated by deep government cuts — has some of the lowest property taxes in the GTA and recently voluntarily reduced its annual revenues by $60 million.
I’m not sure what you call the ideology that drives these decisions, but it can’t be conservatism, can it? Certainly not principled conservatism. A conservative would demand to see a business case before spending public money modifying infrastructure. In the case of Jarvis, Birchmount and Pharmacy, there wasn’t one. A conservative wouldn’t turn away provincial money — which the city has said it needs –, especially if there was a guarantee in place that the new positions could be eliminated should the funding ever be removed. (Which was the case.) A conservative wouldn’t call on the provincial government for funding only months removed from electing to decrease the city’s own revenues, and hours removed from opting out of committed, ongoing provincial money for public health.
Our Conservative Mayor
Early in the day on Tuesday — before Council had really started rolling with the big items of the week — Mayor Rob Ford rose and asked to be recorded in the negative on four items relating to grant funding for community groups, including Etobicoke Services for Seniors, the Crime Prevention Association of Toronto and Variety Village. (The latter is interesting, as it comes only a couple of months after Ford made a rare media appearance announcing a new bus stop implemented to serve visitors to the organization, which supports disabled children.) The Mayor also stated his intention to vote against grants for heritage buildings. Late in the day on Wednesday, the Mayor added to this bizarre tally, lodging a vote against the 2011 AIDs Prevention Community Investment Program. This vote marked a milestone for the councillor-turned-mayor: he’s now voted against AIDS funding five years in a row.
The bottom line: If the Mayor of Toronto could have his way, it would appear that the city would cease most community grants, end some of its heritage protection programs and drastically cut back on public health funding.
My kingdom for a conservative
I don’t lean even slightly to the right politically, but I would like to think I understand the merits of conservative thinking. It’s about mitigating government risk, off-loading ambition to the private sector and, in times of economic hardship, turning to austerity as opposed to reinvestment. That’s fine. As much as I disagree with that line of thinking on an ideological level, I respect it. I can hold it in my hands and argue against it. It feels firm.
But what we’re seeing at Council these days isn’t that. It’s a weird mishmash of spite-based decision making and conservatism-when-convenient, held up by the enthusiastic wishes of a “silent majority” that only communicate through the cellphones of the mayor and his brother. It’s all glazed over with a slapdash of pseudo-libertarianism, the kind that exists in the minds of high school students who are like halfway through reading Atlas Shrugged.
Rob Ford is Rob Ford. I can’t fault him for that. He’s maddeningly consistent in his anti-government views and has been for years. What disappoints me — and continuously surprises me — is that he has commanded the support of a cabal of once-sensible Liberals and conservatives on Council, and has driven them to this point where Toronto is now governed by a Council with no consistent guiding ideology, principles, or direction.