Jan 12

Toronto’s Library system is a model of efficiency (so why does Rob Ford want to cut it?)

Let’s play a game. Pretend you’re the CEO of a 10 billion dollar corporation with 50,000 employees spread across dozens of departments and subsidiaries. Because you’re a vigilant, waste-fighting CEO with a finger on the bottom line, you’re always reviewing your corporate make-up to ensure across-the-board efficiency.

One department — the eleventh biggest item on your general ledger — looks like this: key performance metrics are up. Per capita costs are down. The department has seen a dramatic increase in the number of users while adding about a dozen staff to its payroll. Adjusted for inflation, it’s seen less than a 10% budgetary increase over six years — half the increase other departments have seen over the same period.

And, oh yeah: this department is also recognized as the most popular of its kind. Worldwide.

So what would you do? Probably nothing, right? Move on and focus your waste-fighting efforts elsewhere. On programs that aren’t so efficient and beloved.

Which is why we have to ask: why the hell does Rob Ford’s administration continue to demand cuts from the Toronto Public Library?

Numbers, by the book

The Ford administration has been relentless in their drive to find library cuts, pushing for 10% despite repeated assurances by the Library Board that a cut of that size inevitably means cuts to library hours. When the Library Board finally and categorically rejected the demand for a 10% cut — they’ve already found 5.6% in so-called efficiencies — the budget committee, led by Mike Del Grande, refused to let things go, demanding the board find the remaining 4.4%.

(A pause here to note that TPL is not unique in its inability to meet the arbitrary 10% threshold. Several departments, including Fleet Services, the City Manager’s Office and — really — the Mayor’s Office also failed to meet that target.)

The saga continued at last week’s Executive Committee meeting, when perpetually drifting councillor Jaye Robinson moved that TPL only look for about $4 million in cuts, down from the budget committee’s request for $7 million. Her motion also stipulated that the savings be found without cutting library hours.

And while it’s commendable that councillors want to avoid cuts to hours, they’re really into blood-from-a-stone territory at this point. The library, at its core, provides two things: resource material and service hours. To save real money, you have to go after one or the other. There is not some magic pool of savings just awaiting discovery somewhere in the stacks of the Reference Library.

Responsible budgeting means being able to differentiate between the programs that are wasteful, inefficient and underused and those that are well-used and well-run. Every indication is that the Toronto Public Library fits into the latter category.

Continued attempts to raid TPL’s budget serve only to reveal the dangers of Rob Ford’s arbitrary fiscal strategy: it threatens the parts of the city that actually work.

Jan 12

In 2011, Council’s middle got less mushy, more lefty

A selection of middle-ish councillors and how their voting patterns changed over the last six months of 2011.

As a follow-up to this week’s City Council Scorecard Update, here’s a look at how various on-the-fence councillors saw their overall “Ford Nation” score shift between June and December. Remember that the June meeting was the last one before things really got heated — after it came Pride, Jarvis, the Core Service Review, the marathon Executive Committee meeting and a handful of 911 calls.

Of the eleven councillors listed above — all of whom float in the council “middle” to varying degrees — only two grew closer to the mayor’s agenda through the latter half of the year. Of the two, Councillor Moeser is more inscrutable — and quiet — so his motivations are harder to pin down. (But he clearly decided to embrace this administration in a big bear hug.) Councillor Berardinetti, on the other hand, seemingly made a conscious choice to double down on her support for Team Ford, and has been very public in her role as a flagbearer for the administration.

The remaining nine councillors on the list all backed off from Rob Ford as the budget process began. Some, like Gloria Lindsay Luby, Mary-Margaret McMahon and Ana Bailão, saw their score drop precipitously as council started voting on cuts to service.

James Pasternak’s eight point drop is probably the biggest surprise. As a new councillor, he positioned himself as a guy with a decidedly right-of-centre approach. And unlike some of the other councillors on the list, he hasn’t had any high profile public disagreements with Ford policy. But in recent months he’s shown himself to be open to independent thinking and, more importantly, independent voting. It will be interesting to see if the trend continues.

How does council as a whole look?

For the sake of completion, I’ve also compiled the same table as above showing data for all 45 members of council. There’s not a whole lot to glean from this — does it really matter that, for example, Giorgio Mammoliti’s Ford Nation score dropped from 100% to 97%? — but, really, it’s not like it’s possible to have too many charts or anything.

Does any of this matter?

For a few reasons, I think it does. First, the eleven councillors listed at the top of this post make up, under the broadest definition, council’s middle. They’re the guys you need to call if you’re trying to swing an issue in a certain direction. That so many of them are trending solidly away from the mayor’s agenda is important.

Second, one of the big knocks against the whole idea of Rob Ford as Mayor of Toronto was that he’d never be able to command enough support at council to pass anything. Howard Moscoe famously said that Ford wouldn’t be able to pass gas at council, much less get his agenda through.

That Ford and his team have managed to broker the support they have is a hugely significant political achievement for this administration. But it’s fragile. Teetering on the edge. All it’ll take is one good push.

Lastly, we’re heading into a council budget debate in a week’s time that has real potential to be a total catastrophe for Rob Ford. He was already handed several defeats in September when council voted on various Core Service Review considerations. He lost seven whipped votes during that meeting. He could lose a hell of a lot more next week.

It’s a good bet that a lot of people are doing a lot of scrambling right now to ensure the council votes are in place to get the 2012 budget through without serious alteration. For those of us watching, January 17 is shaping up to be one hell of a show.

Jan 12

“Radical” Rob Ford’s Sinking Budget

The City issued a press release this morning touting the budget committee’s decision to approve the 2012 capital and operating budget yesterdays. It’s about what you’d expect:

“It has been Council’s policy since 2004 to use surplus funds to pay for capital costs. We immediately need a good portion of the $154 million surplus to go towards funding buses, streetcars and subways,” said Budget Committee Chair Mike Del Grande (Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt). “The City’s efforts in permanently reducing $355 million from its annual expenditures coupled with additional efforts to introduce $700 million in non-debt financing for the capital budget and plan has allowed us to reduce the City’s reliance on one-time surplus revenues from $346 million to $77 million. This is a major breakthrough in bringing the City’s expenses more in line with its revenue.”

“This is simply best practices in financial management,” said City Manager Joe Pennachetti.” With the uncertain global economic outlook, we need to safeguard and restore City reserves to respond to the needs of Toronto residents and withstand the greater occurrence of extreme weather events.”

via City of Toronto on track to build a sustainable, affordable and well-managed city | City of Toronto Press Release.

The whole thing is just an echo of what we heard again and again at yesterday’s budget committee meeting: futile attempts to justify budgetary decisions that are, at this point, almost purely ideological. After spending a year telling us about doom scenarios  — $774 million! 34% property tax increases! Becoming GREECE! — we’ve ended up at a place where the city’s fiscal situation justifies virtually none of the major cuts on the table.

With the surplus figures we’re looking at, the city has enough money to maintain services, keep property taxes low and still set aside significant cash for capital projects and reserve funds. Absent a compelling financial need to cut programs, all we’re left with is the impression that the group of councillors running the city are cutting mostly because they just really like cutting.

Austerity-as-ideology, not austerity-as-necessity.

But don’t take my word for it: just look to the actions of the budget committee yesterday. With the stroke of a pen, they took several items off the chopping block: child nutrition programs, school-based community centres and two pools conveniently located in the wards of executive committee members. There’s no doubt that other programs — like, say, Bellwoods House or the 17% cut to the Toronto Environmental Office — could be reversed the same way.

What’s missing is not the money. It’s the will.

“Radical Conservative Agenda”

Sometime over the holidays, a bunch of left-leaning councillors decided to make use of the phrase “radical conservative” to describe the budget and pretty well everything the mayor does. As cloying and simplistic as this type of repetition can feel to people who actually spend their time nerding about politics, this kind of message discipline isn’t rare and it tends to be more effective than people think. (“Gravy Train” sure worked pretty well.)

Still, let’s ask the question: is there really truth behind the messaging here? Are the mayor and his council supporters behaving in  a way that’s, you know, radical?

Yes and no.

Yes, because there’s definitely an undercurrent where the mayor is cutting simply because he wants to cut. The 2012 budget was seemingly designed with two key mayoral priorities in mind, neither of which seem particularly relevant to people who actually rely on city services: first, that its gross total be less than the previous year’s and, second, that the property tax increase be kept to 2.5%.

That the 2012 budget may be a touch smaller in gross terms than the 2011 budget is totally irrelevant. It’s a stat that only appeals to those who get all excited by right-wing boilerplate. Ford was elected to spend money in a less wasteful way, not to just spend less money. (Anyway: there’s a good chance Ford will lose his ability to claim the gross budget shrunk year-to-year after councillors propose amendments next week.)

The 2.5% figure is similarly arbitrary — it doesn’t seem any analysis was done to show why 2.5% is a more desirable figure that, say, 2% or 3% or even higher.

These type of arbitrary financial decisions — made to fit an ideology that just believes government should be smaller and do less, full stop —  do seem a bit radical. Or, at the very least, kind of radically dumb.

But on the other hand, this is kind of a milquetoast budget. It contains a series of compromises and half-measures to the point where it looks little like the kind of city budget Rob Ford would have approved of when he was a councillor. Perennial Ford targets seem mostly untouched. And every indication that even more cuts will be reversed at council.

There’s no doubt that Ford and his team had their sights set on a budget more radical than the one we ended up with. If the intent was radical conservative budgeting, the outcome isn’t.

Quick Hits: Budget Edition

Library Must Cut More: The big news coming out of the budget committee yesterday was a further request that the library committee cut another $7 million from their operating budget in order to meet the arbitrary 10% target. It’s worth noting that several other departments and boards failed to meet the 10% target but only the library has been asked to go back and cut more. The decision came after a weird speech from the Budget Chief in which he expressed the view that some libraries may be duplicating the services provided by schools and community centres and so there’s room for cuts. Okay.

Ford’s Arts Cuts Will Hurt: Quick Quiz! Guess which councillor said this: “If the cuts go through, things could go into a tailspin.” It was Ford-ally Gary Crawford, who has been a pretty steadfast supporter of the mayor’s agenda thus far. The arts cuts in this budget — like a lot of things — are kind of stealth cuts, as they’re hidden in general 10% reductions to various budgets. In any case, any cuts to the arts fly in the face of the Creative Capital Gains report council unanimously endorsed this spring.

Ford The Program Saver: As Ford has backed off some of the cuts he presented with the budget in November, he’s developed a strategy in which he points to city staff as the ones who wanted cuts to things like nutrition programs. With this narrative, Ford becomes the guy who “saved” these programs from the budget axe. Councillor Josh Matlow summed the whole thing up pretty well, when he tweeted this:

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/JoshMatlow/status/155433596939812864″]

Credit Where Credit Is Due: In his weekly Facebook update, Ford also took some credit for the city’s mounting surplus. In his weekly Facebook message, he wrote, “much of the surplus is a direct result of smart management, as City staff implemented millions of dollars in efficiencies this year.” Which is a true statement, I guess, as long as you indicate that the smart management must have emerged way back in the David Miler era. The city has enjoyed big surpluses for years and Ford’s 2011 budget — which essentially held the line on David Miller’s 2010 budget — didn’t do anything that would directly lead to this year’s surplus.

Cuts On The Table: For those looking to make sense of what’s being cut and what’s been saved, the Toronto Star’s Paul Moloney has a great rundown.

Jan 12

City Council Scorecard: How often did your councillor vote with Rob Ford in 2011?

Toronto Council Scorecard

January 9, 2012: Google Docs (Best View) - Download (PDF)  - Download (PNG)

This scorecard marks the final update for the 2011 City Council. I plan to start fresh next month with a new spreadsheet. The Ford Nation percentages will, of course, carry over, so we’ll still be able to see month-to-month trends.

The November council meeting was an important one, even if it sort of ended up lost amidst all the budget news that was happening — and continues to happen — at committee. Still, the meeting saw some critical movement, as the mayor found himself opposed by one of his most loyal executive committee members on a key item relating to the garbage budget.

In other big news, one councillor who formerly occupied the mushy/mighty middle has now opposed the mayor on enough major votes that we have to consider her an official member of the Pinko Commie Brigade. (Or whatever we’re calling the growing group of councillors who tend to oppose the mayor.)

The year ends with a council definitively more divided than it was at this time last year. The mayor still commands about 23 votes, including his own. On the other end of the spectrum, there are now 17 councillors who tend to oppose the mayor’s policies on most issues. That leaves five truly “middle” councillors, though all of them have been trending away from the mayor in recent months.

New Votes

City Council Scorecard: January 9, 2012 (New Votes)

The votes added:

  • EX13.2, Motion 1 was a stinging defeat for the mayor. As part of next year’s solid waste budget, the mayor had backed a KPMG recommendation to reduce the number of Community Environment Days across the city. Currently, each ward holds one event, where residents can drop off hazardous materials and pick up compost. The original draft of the budget recommended cutting the number of such days down to 11. After some grumbling, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong proposed a compromise, upping the number to 22. But that wasn’t enough for David Shiner, who has backed the mayor almost religiously up until now. Shiner made a motion to retain the program as is. It passed 30-11, with the mayor unable to marshall much support.
  • EX13.2, Motion 3 was a move by Councillor Mike Layton to reverse a new policy in the 2012 Solid Waste Budget that will result in charities, not-for-profit organizations and religious institutions being charged for waste pick-up. Historically, these organizations have been exempt from paying commercial rates. Layton’s motion would have preserved the status quo and asked for a report on strategies to increase diversion rates — the amount of stuff that ends up in blue or green bins — at these organizations. Layton’s motion was defeated in a close vote, drawing surprising support from James Pasternak and super surprising support from Paul Ainslie.
  • MM14.3 was one of those items that seems a lot more important in retrospect. Emerging from Councillor John Filion’s office, the item would have allowed council to debate and vote on the direction the city will take in upcoming negotiations with its workers. Traditionally, such matters are dealt with by the Employee Labour & Relations Committee, whose decisions aren’t subject to council review and approval. The item, which needed two-thirds to pass, was never likely to go anywhere, but it’s notable because it stands as an early indicator of how councillors feel about the upcoming labour lockout. (Also notable: Councillor Chin Lee, who is the only councillor on the Employee Labour & Relations Committee not affiliated with the mayor, voted in favour of neutering the powers of his own committee. He also voted against the committee’s final direction to negotiators last week.)

Trend Watch

Please welcome Ana Bailão to the ranks of the opposition. With these votes, her total Ford Nation percentage dipped below 30%, which I’ve decided is a magic arbitrary line. (The other magic arbitrary line is at 70%.) Bailão has been consistent in voting against the mayor since the summer.

The Community Environment Day vote saw several councillors lose their status as 100% Rob Ford Loyalists, including Paul Ainslie and Giorgio “The quarterback” Mammoliti.

As mentioned, we go into 2012 with the mayor still holding control of the 23 votes he needs to push things through council. To really obstruct Rob Ford’s policies, it’s critical that at least one Ford-allied councillor break ranks and move to the middle. Jaye Robinson and James Pasternak are the best bets.

Batting Average

The mayor caps off 2011 with a batting average of 70.6%. (Or .706 if you’re a real baseball nerd.) Of note, his win rate on major votes for the first half of 2011 was 79%. For the second half of the year, that figure declined to 60%.


Questions about the Council Scorecard? Read my notes on methodology. Also, you can email me.

Jan 12

Ford For Toronto Year One: A Look Back at 2011

The scene, as captured in the video above at a special council meeting held this past September: Councillor Joe Mihevc gets up to question the mayor on the results of the vaunted Core Service Review, the thing that’s supposed to lead the city to budgetary peace. To help make his point, Mihevc puts the chart from this post — a chart I cobbled together from city budget data — on the big screen in council chambers. Rob Ford, prompted by a hurried note from his policy advisor Mark Towhey, responds by pointing out that the chart — my chart — is not from a staff report.

Okay, admits Mihevc. “But is it wrong?”

It’s been a weird year. When I started this oddly-named blog a year ago, I had no real idea what I was doing. I just wanted to write some things about a mayor who both fascinated me and made me nervous.  I never could have imagined that well over 100,000 people would visit this site in 2011 or that I’d receive such an overwhelming response from such a great collection of people.

To all of you who read: thank you.

2011: The Year That Was

January: We kicked off 2011 with boasts and confidence. Rob Ford told the Toronto Sun he might be the best mayor of all time. Ford’s first budget was largely a forgettable affair — turns out financing a city is easy when the previous administration leaves a giant surplus — but we still dealt with a there-and-then-gone TTC fare increase, a library closure at Metro Hall and a reduction in bus service. The 2011 budget’s biggest impact, however, came from Ford’s seemingly innocuous property tax freeze. Torontonians will end up paying for that freeze with starkly reduced services in 2012. Also, Toronto was briefly ready for some football.

February: The shortest month of the year began with minor fireworks, as firebrand Chief of Staff Nick Kouvalis wrapped up his tenure in the mayor’s office. Don’t worry, though: we still heard a lot from him over the rest of the year. In his wake, we started to hear rumours about a scheme to privately fund a Sheppard Subway extension. Though tiny magic unicorns were not specifically mentioned as part of the plan, it seemed like a safe assumption. And the kicker: less than three months in to his brother’s first term, Doug Ford started to show concern that maybe the mayor would have trouble retaining enough votes on council to push his agenda forward.

March: Like mana from heaven came the big TCHC spending scandal. Ford slipped perfectly into his role as angry mayor who demands accountability, culminating in a bizarre decision to remove the entire TCHC Board of Directors (including just-appointed councillors, elected tenant representatives and alternate reps who had never served on the board) before the Audit Committee had a chance to fully investigate the scandal. Amidst the breaking brouhaha, a poll put Ford’s approval rating at 60% and the mayor promised to unleash “Ford Nation” against Dalton McGuinty if his demands for extra provincial funding weren’t met.

April: We began the month with confirmation that Transit City was mostly dead, replaced with an all-underground scheme for Eglinton Avenue and magic beans on Sheppard. Plus more than $50 million in penalties. Not a great trade. We also got first hint that Doug Ford had grand plans for Toronto’s waterfront — plans that would cut Waterfront Toronto out of the process.

In the same vein, council decided that maybe the problem was too much citizen engagement, and moved to shut down several advisory committees. And the city began the process toward contracting out waste collection in part of the city, initially flirting with the idea of approving a contract without council approval.

The month ended with a last-minute mayoral endorsement for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who would go on to win a majority government, buoyed by several victories in the 416. The federal election would be the last we’d see of Ford Nation in Toronto.

May: Though the 2012 budget was still months away, an ominous tone was set when Ford signed off on a rich new contract for the Toronto Police Service. The Core Service Review process began with the mayor encouraging his supporters to fill out an online questionnaire on city services. Ford later dismissed the results of the questionnaire — filled out by some 13,000 people — as irrelevant.

In a widely decried move that would set a nasty tone, the Fort York Bridge was killed in a sneak attack by Ford allies. The bridge was later brought back to life in one of the few positive council stories of 2011, but bad taste and mistrust lingers.

June: Warm weather brought new tidings, as the mayor’s approval rating fell to 57%. Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong earned some unlikely kudos as he presented a new bike plan for downtown streets, but it all fell apart when — whoops — it turned out his plan called for the elimination of established bike lanes downtown and in Scarborough. In a move that would later be overturned, the mayor decided on a whim to reject provincially-funded public health nurses. He never says why.

And in probably the biggest Rob Ford story of the year, the mayor refused to march in the Pride Parade. He also skipped every event related to Pride Week. Even diehard Ford supporters struggled to find ways to avoid using the word ‘homophobe.’

July: The council debate on the future of the Jarvis Street bike lane sparked war. Council eventually approved spending money to remove the recently installed lanes, but only after some politician gamesmanship that concluded with several councillors leaving the chamber in protest. In other news, the first reports on the Core Service Review were released, prompting some uproar when they ask council to consider killing everything from childcare programs to night bus service to street cleaning. In addition, we started to hear a lot about a fishy-sounding figure of $774 million.

The month ended with another turning point: a marathon meeting in which Toronto Spoke.

August: I was on the radio! Very briefly. Council mostly took the month off, so we had time to take a quick look at the looming 2012 budget and the mayor’s disaster of a transit plan. Our month of peace was interrupted, however, once we finally learned what the Fords had planned for Toronto’s waterfront.

September: All-out war as citizens fought to maintain the existing plan for the waterfront. And, remarkably, the citizens won. (Mostly.) More recommendations were released stemming from the Core Service Review process, which prompted a lot of concern that these cuts are fuelled by ideology, not necessity. In the midst, a new poll put the mayor’s popularity at 42%.

The hits kept coming for Ford with yet another marathon meeting in which everyone told him his policies are bad, followed by a council meeting that saw him lose several votes.

October: The budget process begins in earnest as Police Chief Bill Blair publicly — and successfully — rejected the mayor’s demand for budget cuts, and instead won an increase for 2012. Ford’s office spins the increase as a reduction anyway. As we started hearing about cuts to library hours, the mayor’s popularity fell further, with an opinion poll putting him at 37%. And Ford proved to be a total non-factor in the provincial election, as the Liberals retained power — and didn’t cede any 416 seats to the Conservatives.

It wasn’t all bad news for the mayor, however, as he did manage to successfully contract out garbage in part of the city, despite a winning bid that smelled funny.

November: The revisionist history wagon trundled on, as Ford allies attempted to convince us that the mayor always said there might be service cuts. Budget news was briefly overshadowed by His Worship’s penchant for calling 911 all the time. We learned that Ford’s transit plan could be threatened by the existence of a 12,000-year-old river. And the 2012 budget was officially launched to predictable scorn.

December: People asked a lot of tough questions about the 2012 budget. Most notably: why the hell would you cut the TTC’s operating subsidy? Any remaining Holiday cheer was dashed by the depressing state of Toronto’s transit expansion plans. And 2011 ended with no one really knowing where Toronto will go next year.

Thank You

After all that, I’d like to thank a bunch of people for their kind words and support over the last year. This blog wouldn’t be here without the encouragement I received from Jonathan Goldsbie, John Michael McGrath, David Topping, Hamutal Dotan, Andrew Wallace, Ivor Tossell, Michal Hay, Daren Foster, Ed Keenan, David Hains, Sol Chrom, Laurence Lui, the CodeBlueTO team and so many others. You’re all the best.

And now: another year of Rob Ford.

Dec 11

What the hell is happening with transit in Toronto?

Transit Plan comparison: Before Ford versus With Ford

Rob Ford has screwed up transit in Toronto. We can endlessly debate the merits and impacts of the mayor’s budget policies, but nothing compares to the long-term damage he’s done on the transit file. In less than a year, Ford has taken a fully financed and designed plan for multiple transit lines in the suburbs and replaced all of it with an overpriced half-baked tangle of transit ideas, all in various incomplete stages of funding and design. In doing so, his administration has set transit expansion back by a decade and replaced near-certainty with gobs of doubt. Thanks to Rob Ford, no one is really sure where transit in Toronto is going.

Ford’s undemocratic transit meddling comes with an estimated price tag of $65 million, most of which will go toward paying various contractors and manufacturers to not do the work they were originally supposed to do.

Keeping track of Rob Ford’s transit strategy is an exercise in frustration, as no one is forthcoming with information and nothing has come to council about any of this. To the best of my knowledge, here’s where thing stand.

Eglinton Crosstown LRT

The one Transit City line that still has a beating heart, Eglinton represents, in its current incarnation, both a vital piece of infrastructure and a massive waste of public money. Writing for Spacing, John Lorinc called Ford’s unilateral decision to build the entirety of the 19 kilometre line underground the “single most expensive infrastructure mistake in Toronto history.”

Here’s why: there’s no ridership projection, traffic model or any other kind of reasoned analysis that shows a cost-benefit for burying the eastern section of the line. No one has made an argument in favour of burying this section of the line that doesn’t boil down to “Rob Ford hates above ground transit.” But that’s not a sensible reason to make any kind of public policy decision, much less one that involves spending billions of dollars.

There is some hope that cooler heads will prevail on this one. The existence of the Don Valley — sneaky jerk that it is — has forced some public conversation about how an underground line can really work. And TTC Commissioner and Ford ally John Parker recently reiterated his support for sticking with the original Transit City design on the eastern part of Eglinton. He told the Town Crier’s Karolyn Coorsh that, as planned, Rob Ford’s Eglinton Crosstown line will be “the goofiest LRT line known to man.”

The TTC now pegs the open date for Eglinton at 2023, a minimum three-year delay over the original window of 2019 or 2020. The money we’re set to spend to appease one man’s irrational bias against surface rail could fund major transit infrastructure improvements on key corridors like Finch West.

Sheppard Subway Extension

There is no plan to extend the Sheppard Subway in the near-term. It will never happen. Former Councillor Gordon Chong, hand-picked by the mayor to bring the dream of the privately-funded subway to reality, has come clean, admitting that private partners are only likely to fund 10-30% of the overall project cost. And we can’t even know that for sure unless we spend another $10 million on further analysis.

Ford’s Sheppard gamble always felt like a face-saving decision. His original transit vision called for the outright cancellation of the Eglinton line, funnelling all resources into extending Sheppard at both ends. When the province told him this wasn’t likely to happen, both sides compromised.

Somewhat inexplicably, Ford has stuck to his guns on the long-term viability of the project through his end-of-year interviews with various media sources. Citing federal money that was committed to David Miller several years ago for the Sheppard LRT, Ford told the National Post’s Chris Selley and Natalie Alcoba that we could see shovels in the ground on Sheppard in 2012. Sure.

Finch West


When plans shifted away from Transit City, Finch West — a horrendously busy bus route — was left with nothing but  a vague commitment to “Enhanced Bus Service.” No one ever indicated what that meant, and further details now seem entirely unlikely. Finch West was actually one of the routes proposed for service cuts under the TTC’s original plan to roll back the Ridership Growth Strategy in 2012. Fortunately, thanks to some commendable wrangling from TTC Chair Karen Stintz, we got a stay of execution. Council will get a chance to permanently preserve service as part of their budget debate in January.

The Way Forward: Calling for a new consensus on transit

As we learn more about the long-term implications of Rob Ford’s transit vision, it seems more and more like this all amounts to something resembling the Port Lands fiasco from this summer. There, Ford backed a short-sighted vision for a major city asset that really didn’t hold up to scrutiny. Once the public started pushing back, councillors who tend to support the mayor started to question whether Ford had things right.

The rest is history. At the eleventh hour, Ford backed a face-saving compromise that saw council unanimously back a way forward for the Port Lands. And while there’s still a lot of questions about the implications of that new consensus, it’s a hell of a lot better than what would have happened otherwise.

Is a Port Lands-style consensus possible with these transit plans? Early indications are good. Aside from Ford, very few councillors expressed strong objections to the on-street operation of Eglinton and other Transit City routes when they were first proposed. And there’s certainly an appetite for more transit in more places, which is what we’d get if council rejected Ford’s all-underground scheme for Eglinton and reverted to something resembling the Transit City plan.

The important thing is to position any changes as a compromise, and to leave room for the mayor to save face. As much as it might be fun to see Rob Ford utterly defeated as Transit City rises from the ashes, we’re far more likely to find a successful way forward with a compromise strategy that integrates elements of Transit City with new vision for transit. That vision could include a small subway extension (to Victoria Park), a tweaked plan for surface LRT service on Finch & Eglinton, and even bus rapid transit — any and all things that can meet our goal of moving more people more efficiently.

This isn’t optional. Letting Ford’s transit vision move forward unimpeded will only amount to a waste of time and money. In 2012, council must be given an opportunity to debate these issues and get transit planning in this city finally and permanently back on track.

Dec 11

Councillor Michelle Berardinetti doubles down on supporting the mayor

When I first started following the crazy mixed-up world of Toronto City Council, I flagged two Ford-allied councillors — and Executive Committee members — as likely to move away from their support for the Ford administration in 2011. It felt like a safe bet. Both Michelle Berardinetti and Jaye Robinson were new councillors with political histories that didn’t really lend themselves to loyal support for a mayoral administration that would inevitably define itself with a series of deep service cuts.

I was mostly right on Robinson, who in her pre-council life was a City of Toronto staffer linked to Nuit Blanche and other city events. She’s currently in a slightly maddening in-between stage where she’ll sometimes leave the room during council votes, preferring to be recorded as ‘Absent.’ But it’s hard to hold that against her too much, given that a record of publicly opposing the mayor could very well cost her a seat on Ford’s Executive Committee. And it was her public stance against Doug Ford’s Ferris Wheel Dream that finally swayed things on the waterfront file in September.

But my other pick, long-time Liberal Party member Berardinetti, has blazed her own trail. In the past couple of weeks, she’s come out smiling as the “compassionate” flag-bearer of Rob Ford’s 2012 budget, a role that requires some giant-sized leaps of logic and ideology.

To wit: She waged a vociferous public war against the availability of “Hollywood” movies at the Toronto Public Library, calling for a $2 charge for titles like — and these are her examples — Rambo and Little Fockers. She acknowledged that such a charge would require a change to provincial law, but when she attempted to get MPPs on board, her efforts were roundly shot down. She later engaged in an on-air battle with Councillor Adam Vaughan on NewsTalk 1010, in which she denied voting to close a library in his ward last year, despite the official record indicating that she did, in fact, vote to close the Urban Affairs Library. She denounced Vaughan’s use of the phrase “War on Children” to describe the 2012 budget, despite her own council campaign pushing a message that David Miller waged an “attack on motorists.” And on Josh Matlow’s radio show on Sunday, she spoke glowingly of Ford’s former Chief of Staff Nick Kouvalis, and raised no immediate objection when the spin doctor suggested cutting the entire Toronto Environmental Office to pay for school nutrition programs. Her December 2011 newsletter to constituents includes a section on the 2012 budget that reads like it came directly from the mayor’s office.

Perhaps the best example of her new brand of compassionate fiscal conservatism came when she floated (to the Toronto Sun) a proposal to encourage retailers to donate revenue from the mandatory five cent plastic bag fee back to City Hall, to cover the cost of programs that are currently on the chopping block. Not a terrible idea on the surface of it, but it continues the disturbing trend where Ford-allied councillors seek to boost recently-eliminated city revenues with voluntary fees and donations, as if you can run a $10 billion corporation like a branch of UNICEF.

(In the midst of all this, Berardinetti also appeared alongside the mayor in a National Ballet of Canada production of The Nutcracker. This might be notable as an indication of just how deep into the mayor’s inner circle Berardinetti is these days, but she and Ford deserve nothing but praise for their appearance. It was a really cool thing for both to do.)

All this brings to mind only one question: Why? After Berardinetti’s husband was returned to Queen’s Park in October — the venerable Liberal brand victorious over the once-mighty Ford Nation — there was a reasonable expectation that she may start pulling back. The mayor’s less-than-stellar poll numbers in recent months certainly don’t make for a compelling case for throwing your lot in with the Rob Ford crew. And while the mayor is definitely more popular in Scarborough than he is in other parts of the city, neighbouring councillors like Raymond Cho and Glenn De Baeremaeker (and sometimes Chin Lee) don’t seem to be taking much flack from constituents over their opposition.

So maybe Berardinetti’s support isn’t a game of political calculus or hedging her bets but rather just, you know, sincerity. Maybe she’s found a way to reconcile her Liberal Party roots with the Ford brand of politics at City Hall. But then again: if it’s possible for a card-carrying Liberal to unreservedly embrace the policies and outlook of one of the most conservative mayors Toronto has ever seen — a guy with a photo of Mike Harris hanging in his office — what the hell does that say about the Liberal Party?

Dec 11

Notes on Rob Ford’s budget, written as it starts to fall apart

The Toronto Star’s Royson James:

The budget committee meets Tuesday to vote on motions aimed at avoiding a showdown on kids’ programs. Will the torrent of complaints from Toronto residents derail the so-called “gravy train”? And is Ford on a course correction?

His council opponents are in a holding pattern. Both Gord Perks and Adam Vaughan said Monday they won’t table any budget changes until the mayor plays his hand and outlines his fixes.

“There’s no need to start making deals yet. We need the third-quarter report (on the surplus, assessment growth and investment incomes, for example), we need to see the changes from the budget committee and the executive committee,” Perks said.

When the budget deals are negotiated, expect a big push to save TTC routes earmarked for service reductions, and protection of the Wheel-Trans service for ambulatory dialysis patients.

“It’s the mayor’s budget. He doesn’t have the votes. He will have to fix it,” said Vaughan.

via James: Councillors push back against flawed budget | Toronto Star.

Rob Ford’s first real budget as mayor is gradually falling to pieces. Every indication is that the budget passed by council in February will look very different from the one Rob Ford first presented a few weeks back.

This will be a significant shift from the way things have traditionally been done. While there has always been a bit of public give-and-take with city budgets — a tweak here, a shift there — never before has a post-amalgamation mayor faced such strong opposition from council. Just as Ford has blazed a new trail by being a mayor who routinely and sometimes overwhelmingly loses council votes, this mayor will also break new ground should he prove to be a mayor who loses complete control of the budget narrative in February.

This is, of course, mostly a good thing, especially because the other alternative is going down a road where important programs get cut for essentially no reason. But there’s a ring of sadness around it. Because this is a time in Toronto where political energy and engaged residents should be focused on the way forward. On building and growing and making things great.

But instead, we’re actually having public arguments about whether the city should continue putting $600,000 per year toward cost-shared programs that provide breakfast for kids who need it. It’s hard not to feel like this whole process is, in the long-term, a big waste of our collective civic time.

We can’t solve systemic capital budget issues by nickel-and-diming the operating budget

Most of the rationale we’re hearing from the mayor and his allies surrounding the 2012 budget is overly-simplistic: we need to cut the budget because the budget is too big. But beyond that, I have heard a slightly more compelling narrative from the budget chief and former chief-of-staff Nick Kouvalis, who hung around for the last hour of this week’s episode of The City with Josh Matlow and expressed this view repeatedly.

To paraphrase, the rationale goes like this: we have to drastically cut the operating budget to increase our debt payments so we can then pay for capital projects and eliminate all our debt and then, I guess, enjoy a happy fiscally-conservative utopia.

There is, at least, some sense to this. Our debt payments have been mounting. We’ll spend $400 million of property tax revenues on debt payments and interest alone in 2012. Our capital obligations total a ridiculously huge number going forward,and very little of that total is nice-to-have items like new parks and arenas. Most of it is the cost of simply keeping things from falling over.

But, ultimately, 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. Our capital budget problems aren’t self-made. Despite what some on council will try to tell you, David Miller didn’t push for that new streetcar order because he loved spending money: he did it because the only alternatives were an expensive and risky rebuild of the current streetcar fleet to extend their lives, or a move away from streetcars toward buses, which probably would have cost more in the long-term. (And rightly pissed off a lot of people, who still remember the last time the government tried to kill streetcars.)

In fact, the bulk of necessary spending over the next decade relates to costs associated with maintaining and (ever so slightly) expanding the TTC. We’re facing these problems entirely because the province shirked its responsibilities and has been slow to come back to them.

And to those who will say provincial funding is impossible because the Ontario government is facing its own significant debt and deficit crisis, you’re letting them off the hook too easily. The province has budgeting techniques and revenue tools at its disposal that the city can only dream of. And transit is not one of those things that the province gets to defund when the economy goes bad. Because transit is a critical part of that economy.

But, still, maybe you’re cynical enough to believe that the provincial government will never understand that, and never come to the table. Even then, we’re still facing an issue that cannot be solved by shaving dollars off the operating budget and plowing the savings into capital. We can’t  fund the long-term capital needs of one of North America’s largest transit systems solely on a property tax base that brings in about 4 billion a year. It doesn’t work and it will never work. If the province won’t play ball, then we need to start looking at new revenues — road tolls and sales taxes — that can pay for the kind of transit Toronto needs.

Dec 11

Karen Stintz and Rob Ford’s TTC problem: there are too many riders

In 2002, the average Toronto resident paid $128.71 on their property tax bill to support TTC operations. In terms of net funding, transit came sixth, lagging behind Police, Housing, Fire, Debt Charges & Social Services. Per capita, transit’s level of financial support was barely above Transportation Services — the department responsible for building roads and maintaining highways. Annual ridership that year was 415 million, down four million from the year before.

By 2011, that same average Toronto resident was now paying $337.95 to support transit. The TTC had transformed into a top priority, now following only the police as the largest recipient of net municipal spending. Ridership this year is estimated at 497 million. The TTC has added almost 100 million annual riders over the last decade.

This wasn’t accidental, nor is it an example of out-of-control spending. In 2003, the TTC launched a Ridership Growth Strategy, which was approved by council in 2004. (Voting against: Mike Del Grande, Doug Holyday, Norm Kelly, Giorgio Mammoliti & David Shiner. Rob Ford was absent for the vote.) Representing the first major public investment in transit since the 1980s, the strategy — even if never completely implemented — has seen ridership grow to levels never before seen in Toronto’s history.

More notably, this ridership growth proved resilient even in the face of a weakening job market. What the RGS was successful in doing was creating a climate where more people relied on transit as a primary means of getting around the city. Last year’s TTC budget report described this phenomenon:

Over the long-term, changes in City of Toronto employment levels have tracked quite closely to to TTC ridership changes … However, starting in 2009, City of Toronto employment starting to drop but ridership continued to grow. Only in recent months (January 2011) have employment levels reflected growth over the same period in 2009.

Favourable weather conditions last winter and economic uncertainty for riders have undoubtedly contributed to these strong ridership results. The large service improvements implemented in late 2008 have also prompted the growth as the service on the street more closely matches the service hours of the subway, giving riders far more choice in transit options.

via 2011 TTC Operating Budget (PDF). (Emphasis Added)

The RGS proved that there’s no voodoo required to get people onto transit vehicles. It’s not about marketing campaigns or slogans or incentives. Instead, it’s a fairly simple equation: more spending on more service equals more riders.

For you and I, this might seem like all good news. If these one hundred million trips per year weren’t made by bus, streetcar or subway, a good chunk of them would be made in single-passenger vehicles. Cries of “gridlock” would be even louder. Air quality would be worse.

But for Rob Ford and TTC Chair Karen Stintz, these high levels of TTC usage represent a huge budgetary hurdle, second only to the Toronto Police Service’s continued levels of spending in terms of complexity and overall burden on the City’s Gross Operating Budget.

To save the kind of money Rob Ford wants to save, some of you need to stop taking the TTC.

A Brief History of Transit Travel

The generally accepted narrative is that the TTC was humming along nicely — and affordably — until Mike Harris’ provincial government swooped in and cut all provincial funding for transit. There’s truth to that story, but it’s an incomplete truth. The reality is that both the province and the city spent the 1990s gradually reducing their respective transit subsidies.

After record high ridership in 1989, ridership began to fall with the Toronto economy. (Two prolonged work stoppages in 1989 and 1991 didn’t help matters.) As ridership fell, so too did public investment in transit, which in turn only caused ridership to decline further. This vicious cycle continued until 1997, when Harris pulled the plug on his share of the subsidy altogether.

Ridership actually sort of recovered following the Harris cuts, but the TTC’s mandate at the time was to improve efficiency, not ridership, and so the gains were a secondary outcome, and ridership was still a far cry from where it was in the late 1980s. It wasn’t until the TTC and City Council made a conscious decision to investment in transit to build ridership that the TTC was able to recover out of its prolonged funk. And while this increase was undoubtedly helped along by external factors — the price of gas, the economy, Toronto’s condo boom — the correlation between the implementation of the RGS and ridership growth is hard to ignore.

What 2012 will do for transit in Toronto

The 2012 budget notes for the TTC lay things out clearly. Referring to the change to loading standards as Major Service Impacts, the document reports that “the TTC will be reversing service improvements implemented by the Ridership Growth Strategy to surface vehicles, causing more crowding and offering less- frequent service on approximately 50 routes during peak periods and 60 routes during off-peak periods.” The change will result in the elimination of 171 staff — most of them drivers — and cause, over the course of the next year, 3.7 million people to opt out of taking trips with the TTC.

Stintz has defended this move, despite it also coming with a fare increase. She released an open letter that makes the following claims: “…you will see minimal change to your bus schedules in January. In most cases changes will be minimal, measured in seconds, not minutes. Some service will be added to some routes in January. No TTC route will be cut. Our system remained intact this March when we told Management to not cut routes. Our system will remain intact in 2012. This does not change the need for funding to preserve service.”

None of these things are particularly true. Talking about “seconds, not minutes” in terms of scheduling is misleading, because what we’re really talking about is having fewer vehicles on the streets picking up people. Some service will be changed on some routes in January, but far more service will be removed. The system did not remain “in tact” in March, especially as many of the promised “service reallocations” never materialized this fall.

She’s right about the last part, though: we could always use some more money to preserve service.

TTC Commissioner John Parker tried to play down the 2012 changes, writing on Twitter that TTC service standards will only be affected “to the extent that we revert to service levels in effect in 2004-05.” But the TTC had 80 million fewer annual riders in 2004. Trying to cram today’s ridership into 2004 service levels is like trying to cram ten pounds of crap into a five pound bag.

It’s easy to hand wave these service reductions. That whole “times are tough – what’s a little extra crowding on a bus going to hurt anyone?” thing. But in real terms, what we’re seeing in 2012 is the reversal of a longstanding successful policy to build transit ridership through public investment in service. By doing so, we threaten to go back on all the progress made over the past decade, setting off a chain reaction where we’ll continually cut spending as service and ridership decline.

These transit cuts are only necessitated, by the way, because Rob Ford is sticking to an arbitrary 2.5% property tax increase for 2012 and refusing to consider using some of the 2011 operating surplus to balance the coming year’s budget.

As always with transit, this is about priorities.

Dec 11

FAQ for councillors and citizens on the fence about Rob Ford’s 2012 budget

Happy anniversary, everybody.

We’ve made it through the first year of this council term. Which means it’s almost time to start gearing up for election season in 2014. But before we head down that fun and winding road, there’s the matter of this 2012 budget. It’s big, it’s brash, and it’s being pushed by a mayor that has faced a first year in office that we’ll charitably call ‘challenging.’

Like with most things related to Rob Ford, his 2012 budget is a mixture of things that make no sense, things that make some sense, and things that are so far removed from the very concept of ‘sense’ that you’d be forgiven for thinking this is all part of a dream sequence.

Why shouldn’t I support this budget?

There’s lots of little reasons — particularly if you do a line-by-line analysis and start asking questions like, “on what planet does it make sense to cut the Hardship Fund?” — but two that stand out more than any other.

First, it’s completely unnecessary. The Grid’s Edward Keenan laid things out for us last week when he wrote that “dollar-for-dollar, every single cut in the 2012 operating budget was made necessary by Rob Ford’s 2011 tax cuts.” For all Ford’s bluster about saving taxpayer money and rebuilding a solid fiscal foundation, the only major “problem” fixed by this new budget is the one caused by the $100 million hole council dug for itself last year. The city’s structural deficit — a real, pressing budgetary problem that’s been facing the city since amalgamation — was immediately sidelined early last year by the mayor’s push to immediately cut revenues from the city’s budget with no plan for how to offset those losses.

Second, even if you buy into the notion that it’s high time for austerity in Toronto, this isn’t a budget that hits any of the right notes. There’s no centrepiece, no big idea, no notion of direction beyond this coming year. It’s a sneaky grab-bag of cuts — many of them admittedly minor — to various departments. It seems to exist both to convince voters that Rob Ford’s not the program-cutting butcher he’s been portrayed as and to bolster the notion that he can “fix” the city’s budget problem. The end result is a confused message: yes, we’re apparently “rebuilding Toronto’s fiscal foundation” but, well, why? Absent an operating deficit to slay or a real plan to eliminate debt, what exactly are we doing this for?

But isn’t it important to stop the city’s out-of-control spending?

If the city had an out-of-control spending problem under Mayor David Miller (and it really didn’t), it would seem that same problem has continued with Mayor Rob Ford. For each of the previous eight budget years, the net operating budget — the part paid for by property tax dollars — has gone up by an average of about $100 million per year.

Rob Ford’s 2012 budget continues this trend almost exactly, adding $98.3 million to the net operating budget for 2012. The net budget is set to grow at the exact same rate under this council as it pretty well always has.

But Rob Ford’s budget is the first since amalgamation to shrink, year-over-year. That’s a big deal, isn’t it?

Not particularly. What we’re really seeing with the gross operating budget, which did indeed decline by $52 million year-over-year, is a simple demonstration of what happens to your budget when you stop doing stuff. Yes, if you cut services you will, in fact, save money.

But the real issue is that the mayor has done things backwards. Starting with an edict to decrease the city’s gross operating budget ignores the realities of budgeting and forces staff to make odd recommendations, like cutting cost-shared services — where the city tends to see more benefit than what they put in — or programs that are funded via user fees or other revenues.

There’s also the simple matter of the 2011 operating surplus. As the Toronto Star’s Robyn Doolittle pointed out last week, if this administration would invest about $50 million of the at least $139 million left over from 2011 into the budget, they’d be able to avoid virtually all the major service cuts on the table. (They’d also have some left over to rebuild the city’s reserves.) But by doing that, Rob Ford would have a 2012 budget that is slightly bigger than his 2011 budget, which would eliminate what is sure to be his favourite talking point over the next year.

So on one hand, you’ve got the biggest rollback of TTC service since amalgamation, pool and park closures and sizeable cuts to social programs. On the other, you’ve got the ability to demonstrate on a chart that gross spending declined year-over-year. The mayor has chosen the latter.

Surely you’re not advocating spending the 2011 surplus in 2012! That’s one-time money!

Council used $81 million of surplus money to balance the 2006 budget. They used $132 million in 2007. In the years after, they used anywhere from $85 million to $346 million.

Toronto doesn’t have unexpected surpluses. Everyone expects these surpluses. The only people who don’t are scaremongering councillors who like to prattle on about $774 million figures that are disputed by their own budget estimates.

The wisdom of using prior-year surpluses to balance the budget can be debated — I can see an argument that says we’d be better to put that money toward capital projects and debt payments — but it is a viable strategy to balance the budget while preserving services.

What about other strategies?

If we really are serious about no longer entertaining the notion of using prior-year surplus money to balance the budget, it’s important to note that, thanks to measures like the Land Transfer Tax and a city-wide continuous improvement plan, we’re not too far off from a balanced budget that would maintain existing TTC service levels and reverse virtually all service cuts on the table.

Here’s what we need to do: raise TTC fares by another nickel beyond the ten cents planned for January 2012, and increase the total amount brought in by property taxes by another couple of percentage points. We’re that close.