Mar 12

Shocker: budget cuts can negatively impact services

Councillor Michelle Berardinetti, member of Rob Ford’s executive committee and the city budget committee, in her December 2011 newsletter to constituents:

Taxpayers want City Hall to reduce expenses and for the first time ever, we will spend less next year than we did this year. It is a balanced budget that will help rebuild our fiscal foundation. There is a rate of inflation property- tax increase of 2.5% which will be approximately $5 a month for the aver- age tax payer. There are inflationary increases which the city cannot avoid addressing, and we have kept the property tax increase down to the level of inflation.

Through the Core Service Review, service efficiencies and modest service level adjustments we found $355 million in savings. Some of the services being cut were identified as outside of the city’s function.

via Councillor Michelle Berardinetti’s Newsletter – December 2011.

The centrepiece of that budget, of course, was a 10% cut across all city departments — including the TTC. Ford’s move to cut the transit subsidy despite record and ever-growing ridership forced the TTC to make several cuts to bus service, most of which took effect in February.

Which brings us back to Berardinetti’s newsletter. From the March 2012 edition:

I have written a letter to TTC Chair, Karen Stintz, to voice my opposition to the impacts of all bus route schedule adjustments. Residents in my ward have reported to me that signs have been posted at the Warden subway station with respect to a reduction in service specifically affecting the Warden 69 bus route. A large number of people rely upon this route for travel to work and school and the proposed reduction in the frequency of service will significantly and negatively impact their commuting time.

In the context of the considerable 2012 Budget surplus allocations of $139 million made to the T.T.C. for the purpose of purchasing new surface vehicles and the significant nature of the impact reductions on this route will have on the constituents of Ward 35, I am requesting that this decision be reviewed and that the service reduction be cancelled.

via Councillor Michelle Berardinetti’s Newsletter – March 2012.

During the budget debate, Councillor Josh Colle moved a motion that sought to reverse many of the route cuts on the table. Berardinetti opposed it.

This looks like a sign of things to come. Many councillors supported the 10% reduction target as an abstract budget-busting measure, but now that the impacts to services are starting to emerge, how many of them are going to change their tune?

Another example: 311 announced recently that, in order to meet their reduced budget, they would eliminate email service at their support centres. They’re going to force anyone with a question about city services to call in and listen to their hold music. This prompted Mike Layton to ask “What decade are we in? I wonder if they’ll accept faxes.”

Layton, backing a motion by Kristyn Wong-Tam, will attempt to reverse this cut to customer service at council next week. They should have the support of at least one Ford ally — and enthusiastic supporter of the mayor’s 10% cut — in Paul Ainslie, who told the Toronto Star that he was “certainly going to push for putting [email service] back in.”

It’s easy to support budget cuts. It’s hard to support service cuts. Councillors may want to consider that there’s a link between the two.

Feb 12

Memo to the suburbs: pro-subway mayor wanted to cut your bus routes

Buried in a worth-your-time profile of Karen Stintz, the Toronto Star’s Jennifer Yang reports this gem, from former Ford Chief of Staff Nick Kouvalis:

Kouvalis said the first crack between Stintz and Ford appeared after she backed down on plans to cut 48 bus routes, a move that would have freed $7 million.

Kouvalis said the bus motion was a “test” to see which TTC commissioners would fall in line and which were “wet noodles.” Stintz was a noodle, he says.

“My advice was: Get rid of her, right there on the spot,” Kouvalis says.

He recently reiterated that point to Ford, he adds. “She’s committed the biggest sin in politics, which is disloyalty,” he charges.

via Toronto News: Karen Stintz reveals her master plan: There is none – thestar.com.

As a quick refresher, Ford started pushing cuts to bus service in January 2011, almost immediately after he took office. He called it a “service reallocation.”

Of the 48 routes impacted by the proposed cuts, most provided service to Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York. Many provided important links to subway stations and other forms of rapid transit.

The cuts drew a backlash. A series of public meetings on the issue did not go well. Transit users took issue with the TTC’s outdated ridership counts. And so the TTC blinked. The service cuts were rolled back. Instead of $7 million in service reductions, the city only saw $4 million.

At the time, it looked like both Ford and Stintz had yielded to the public response, but Kouvalis’ comments paint a different story. According to him, those initial route cuts stood as a twisted way to ensure that the mayor’s chosen TTC chair was, in fact, okay with screwing over transit riders to save a little money.

The truth was that Ford always wanted to cut bus service. It was Stintz that stepped in to preserve what she could.

Ignoring that this seems like an incredibly cruel way to test someone’s loyalty, let’s focus on what the move says about Rob Ford’s attitude toward public transit in the suburbs. He sees it as expendable. For all his talk about sticking up for transit riders in Scarborough, the mayor has now presided over two consecutive budget cycles in which suburban bus service was reduced. If he continues to insist on reductions to the TTC operating subsidy, this pattern will continue: fewer vehicles, wider headways, crappier service.

Even if Ford were able to wave a magic wand and build subways across Sheppard, Eglinton & Finch, most people in the suburbs would still live in areas far removed from subway stations. Bus service provides the local connectivity you need to make rapid transit corridors work. When you start making cuts to that service to save money, the whole network feels the impact.

Ford’s plan seems to be to sell himself as a champion for transit in the suburbs, but his attitude toward suburban bus service tells another story. He talks about building subways while simultaneously cutting service on the bus routes that would feed those subways. And now, via Kouvalis, we’ve got confirmation that Karen Stintz has been serving as the counter-weight to the mayor’s transit cuts. Without her, things would have been worse.

Measuring Stintz

Before I get accused of drinking too much of the Karen Stintz Kool-Aid, I want to note how disappointed I was when she did this:

The Toronto Transit Commission has decided to put an extra $5-million it was awarded by city council to maintaining Wheel-Trans service for dialysis patients – not to reversing some of the bus cuts.

The unexpected money also allows Wheel-Trans to start accepting new dialysis patients and restores overall eligibility criteria to earlier levels for 2012.

via TTC using $5M awarded by council to beef up Wheel-Trans | National Post.

That $5 million was directed to the TTC by council with the intention that it would be used to preserve conventional bus service. Wheel-Trans is a noble and important thing, but the commission had already identified a strategy to work to maintain service for dialysis patients when it was due to run out of funding later this year.

Stintz and other Ford-allies argued that using so-called “one-time” funds for bus service was a bad idea, because, hey, what if the city doesn’t have a surplus next year? We’d have to cut that service anyway. But, by that logic, this Wheel-Trans funding presents a similar risk: are we going to kick dialysis patients off the bus in 2013?

We’re not, of course. Because there will be a surplus next year. And even in the crazy unlikely event that there isn’t, there are always ways to find revenues to maintain the things we value most.

Feb 12

Rob Ford’s Sheppard Subway plan: days late, a billion dollars short

Rob Ford's Sheppard Subway Plan: a  billion dollars short

After a year of waiting, we finally have our hands on former councillor Gordon Chong’s Sheppard Subway report. This is the document that was supposed to open the door to cheap and extensive subway building. This is the document that was supposed to propel the mayor toward making good on his campaign promise to extend the Sheppard Subway.

That was the theory, anyway. In reality, Chong’s report doesn’t do any of those things. Instead, it suggests that the city make a series of irresponsible financial decisions that will screw with Toronto’s operating budget for decades to come. And it still leaves a billion dollar gap.

To illustrate, here’s how our friends at KPMG — brought in to help with Chong’s financial analysis — suggest we might build an eastward extension of the Sheppard line, from Don Mills to Scarborough Town Centre, at a total cost of $2.7 billion over seven years. This is just one of the scenarios studied. It’s a simple five-step process.

1) Finance $221 million based on an expected rise in property values along Sheppard and Eglinton. They call this Tax Increment Financing. Yes, this means that future property tax revenues generated by Eglinton development will be tied up with construction on Sheppard instead of used to pay for infrastructure and services that might be needed on the Eglinton corridor. But disregard that — we’re building subways here!

2) Finance an additional $446 million based on expected revenue from development charges. And don’t just limit yourself to development charge revenues in the Sheppard & Eglinton corridor — take the cash from developments all across the city. Yeah, this might screw with the city’s credit rating and any increases to non-residential development charges could chase business into the 905, but, again, try to ignore the details. Focus on the subways. They go fast.

We should pause here to note that to drive the revenues we need from the first two steps, we’ll need to drastically increase density along the Eglinton and Sheppard corridors. This means building high-rise condo blocs in the 800-metre zone along both streets. Good thing residents hardly ever oppose tall building projects.

3) Sell 18 city-owned properties along Eglinton & Sheppard for an additional $221 million. We don’t really know which properties, but let’s just assume that we probably don’t need them.

4) Hope against hope that the Eglinton LRT project comes in under budget — which it surely won’t if it’s built underground like the mayor wants — so that the province can transfer $650 million in funding to the Sheppard project. If this doesn’t happen, the whole plan falls to pieces. (The federal government’s $333 million contribution might be contingent on secured provincial funding.)

5) Raise a billion extra dollars somehow. Maybe with tolls and new taxes. Maybe with magic. Who knows? Think of this step like a mystery we’ll all get to solve together. Even if we find a private sector partner willing to pitch in on a P3 for this corridor, KPMG says there will be a similar funding gap — about $730 million — that the city will be on the hook for over the life of the project.

In the end, even granting the sizeable assumptions that there will be provincial funding available for Sheppard and that there’s a politically-viable way to raise a billion dollars that the mayor won’t call a ‘tax grab’, we’ll still face decades of city budgets where some revenue from property tax and development charges won’t be available because they’ll be tied up in bond payments from this subway financing deal. This will handcuff council’s ability to even consider funding any further transit or infrastructure projects until 2050 or so.

All this for eight kilometres of subway.

The Bright Side

Revenue tools presented as options for transit financing in Gordon Chong's report

Revenue tools presented as options for transit financing in Gordon Chong's report

But let’s look on the bright side: at the very least, the $150,000 the mayor spent commissioning this report has provided us with a preliminary analysis of potential revenue tools. Rob Ford is never going to consider tolls and taxes — and using them to fund subway construction in the Sheppard corridor is a tough sell —  but they’re important because inevitably Toronto will have to look to these kinds of revenue-drivers if it wants to continue to grow and improve its infrastructure.

Toronto’s transit expansion can’t stop here. The city needs to push forward with a Downtown Relief Line, an extension of the Eglinton LRT to the airport, a transit connection to Malvern and plans for right-of-way streetcars along the waterfront. Absent committed support for transit from the federal and provincial governments, new tolls and taxes represent the responsible way forward. The alternative is to continue drawing hopeful lines on maps and waiting for other governments to swoop in with funding promises at election time.

Council can throw out most of Chong’s report — it’s irrelevant in the wake of council’s decision last week — but they should give careful consideration to this section. Toronto’s transit future depends on it.

Feb 12

Ford in decline: populist mayor is unpopular

The Toronto Star’s Wendy Gillis:

Research and communications firm Stratcom polled 1,300 Torontonians on Thursday and Friday and found that 35 per cent of city residents “strongly disapprove” of Ford’s performance on the job.

The figure represents an 11 per cent jump in the past six months, and double the number from last March, when only 17 per cent of Torontonians voiced their strong disapproval of the mayor.

via Ford’s approval drops after transit defeat | Toronto Star.

The full Stratcom results peg the mayor’s approval rating at 43%. For comparison, Ipsos declared “Miller time is over” when David Miller polled at 43% in June of 2009. (A month later, in the midst of a labour dispute that saw mountains of garbage stack up in public parks, Miller’s approval was 33%.)

These are not good numbers for a municipal leader just a year into his mandate.

For the most part, Ford can’t point to extenuating circumstances (like a strike) or external factors (like a bad economy) to explain his spiking disapproval numbers. His administration dug this hole all by themselves: with obstinate refusal to compromise, a continued inability to play well with others and a series of ridiculous controversies.

The labour victory that wasn’t

Even when Ford does achieve a victory, his ability to capitalize  is limited. Just a week ago, the Ford administration achieved a negotiated settlement with Local 416, averting a labour stoppage and reportedly wringing some significant concessions from its workers.

By all accounts, this should have been a time to celebrate for the mayor and his supporters. Ignoring the particulars of the deal — which we don’t even know yet — this was an easy play for the mayor’s communication team: Toronto elected Rob Ford to deal with out-of-control unions, and now he’s succeeded.

But they couldn’t even get a Toronto Sun cover out of the labour resolution. The mayor bounced so quickly to the next contentious issue — transit — that his strategy on labour barely had a chance to register.

Ford Nation Redux

In the wake of last week’s vote on transit, the mayor and his brother have plunged headlong into campaign mode. They’re at least two years early. Their strategy seems to involve leaning on subways as a wedge issue designed to sow resentment between the suburbs and downtown. From there, I guess, the Fords will achieve such widespread support in Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke that they’ll end up unseating a dozen incumbent councillors who oppose them and emerge into a second term with solid control over council.

And then: utopia. Magical budget reductions without service cuts. The Land Transfer Tax tossed into the lake. Subways raining from the sky. Rainbows. But not those kind of rainbows.

I got some flack for calling the mayor a ‘lame duck’ last week, but I’ll stand by it with one added qualifier: Rob Ford is only a lame duck because he insists on quacking. At every turn, council has offered the mayor a face-saving compromise. In almost every case, the mayor has rejected the compromise. Then he’s publicly attacked the compromise.

In today’s political panel, the National Post’s Jonathan Goldsbie sums up the situation:

Ford sells portions of the public on impossible solutions to real problems, and then tries to lead his disaffected followers in a full-on charge against reality, hopefully to eventually beat it into submission. The only thing keeping this from being deceitful is that the mayor himself is too dim to understand that the things he is promising are wholly made-up.

via Posted Toronto Political Panel: Rob Ford derailed by subway debate | National Post.

If Rob Ford insists on continuing down this course — rejecting compromise, alienating allies — he’ll never have the votes he needs to effectively move his agenda forward. Without council’s support, all he can be as a lame duck.

Feb 12

Here I go again on my own: three stories about Rob Ford

Rob Ford: Here I Go Again On My Own

Original photo by Craig Robinson / Toronto Sun.

To end the week, three stories about Rob Ford.

December 15: In the midst of major budget meetings, Rob Ford finds himself standing in a backyard in Councillor Frank Di Giorgio’s ward, looking at a pile of sand. After examining the sand — a neighbour had complained about the pile — the mayor decrees that the sand must be moved.

Rob Ford is the CEO of a corporation with $10 billion in annual revenues and a workforce of 50,000 employees. He runs the sixth biggest government in Canada. His decision to involve himself in a civil dispute over a pile of sand goes beyond micromanagement. It’d be like if Apple CEO Tim Cook volunteered to take a look at your broken MacBook.

The neighbour with the sand pile told the Toronto Star’s David Rider that he couldn’t understand why the mayor had taken an interest. “I don’t think he should be involved in such a petty issue,” he said. “He has staff, councillors, labour negotiations. When did the mayor get involved in such small matters?”

In the same Star article, Doug Holyday defended the mayor’s decision. “He does care about the little guy,” said the deputy mayor. “I guess it’s hard to stop.”

Yeah, hard to stop. The mayor comes out on the losing end of the city budget debate, but the sand is moved from the backyard a month later.

January 26: With local councillor Frances Nunziata, a handful of staff and — always — a crew from the Toronto Sun, Rob Ford visits a TCHC building in Mount Dennis. This is the kind of thing he’s best at. Never is the mayor more likeable than when he’s visiting with people, listening to their concerns and promising action.

While admirable, the mayor’s passion for this kind of politicking and governance — one-to-one, personal, on-demand — hints at one of his big weaknesses. As the mayor of the city, Ford can effect more large-scale change sitting at a board room table with staff than he can wandering the halls of a TCHC building, pointing out needed repairs.

Even Rob Ford doesn’t have the energy to personally monitor the condition of every TCHC property in the city. If he really wants to improve conditions, he has to start with policy. With funding. With leadership.

But, still, the mayor visits. People smile and give him hugs. The Sun’s Don Peat hears from a resident that she really appreciates the mayor’s visit. “It’s good,” she says. “He’s showing he cares.”

Meanwhile, Ford is rightly put off by the number of holes he’s seeing in the walls of TCHC units. “Holy, there’s three of them,” the Sun reports him saying. “These holes are driving me nuts.”

February 8: A few hours after losing a major vote on transit at a council meeting he didn’t even want to hold, Rob Ford decides to get on the subway. He begins riding at Royal York station in Etobicoke, going east toward the Scarborough RT and then on to Scarborough Town Centre.

There are a lot of different things a mayor might be expected to do after losing a major vote. Riding trains and buses for four hours in the middle of night wouldn’t generally make the list. But Rob Ford isn’t conventional.

The Sun’s Joe Warmington,  invited along for the ride, tracked the mayor’s conversations with riders. The idea, I guess, was to collect feedback in favour of Ford’s subway plans.

“This is where it’s all about it. I don’t call it retail politics. I call it the ground game. This is where the people are,” the mayor says, according to Warmington.

In addition to talking transit, the mayor also talks to riders about other topics. His weight loss comes up. So does the old stand-by: city hall expense accounts. “I think it’s ridiculous all of the money that we have available to us at city hall,” the mayor says, maybe forgetting for a second that he’s no longer the perpetual outsider, no longer a rogue councillor from Etobicoke. He’s the mayor.

Somewhere along the route, Warmington reports, a rider asks the mayor if he has a lighter. The mayor doesn’t, so he gives the woman five dollars.

On the way back — it’s well past midnight — the mayor’s trip gets interrupted as the subway closes for the night. Rob Ford has missed the last train. He soon finds himself on the bus, but at Eglinton he and his staff realize they forgot to get transfers. The ride is over.

The mayor takes a cab home. Again on his own.

Feb 12

Subways & LRTs & Operating Costs

As part of the Ford administration’s chaotic efforts to shout down Karen Stintz’s transit strategy, Councillor Norm Kelly sent around an email of talking points last week designed to contradict the arguments in favour of using surface rail on Eglinton Avenue East. As mentioned previously, The Grid’s David Hains did good work smashing it with a bevy of facts and figures.

One of Kelly’s more salient points related to the long-term costs of underground vs. above ground transit:

[Underground Transit is] the least expensive over time.

“Blending” capital costs (higher for sure for an underground option) and operating costs (considerably lower for the underground route), the underground option is less expensive.

This claim bugs me because it’s so impossible to verify either way. Transit agencies don’t arrange their budgets in ways that make a fair comparison possible.

But, prompted by a blog post by Jacob Louy, I decided to take a look at the impact the Sheppard Subway had on the TTC’s operating budget when it opened in 2002. It’s not a definitive comparison, but it helps provide a basis for looking at what it really costs to operate a new subway line.

From the TTC’s 2002 budget, written before the Sheppard Subway opened:

Sheppard Subway Opening: $6.9 million. After adding costs associated with opening the line, minus changes to surface routes resulting from the opening, a total of 146 net new operating positions have been created.

via TTC Operating Budget 2002 | TTC.ca. (Emphasis Added.)

New hiring! $7 million in extra spending!

The next  year’s budget document paints a similar picture, with a section on the increased subsidy needed to operate the new subway line:

During the first several years of operation, the Sheppard Subway will experience sizeable operating losses as costs exceed incremental passenger revenues. This deficit will place substantial additional pressure on the operating budget shortfall. Consequently, additional subsidy is required.

via 2003 TTC Operating Budget | TTC. (Emphasis Added.)

To cover those sizeable losses, the TTC asked the city for a special $8 million “ramp-up” subsidy for Sheppard. That $8 million represented about 5% of the city’s overall transit subsidy that year.

The 2003 report also notes that similar ramp-up subsidies were required in 1978 following the construction of the Spadina extension to Wilson. For its first decade of operation, that line required $67.3 million in special subsidies — about $7 million a year. In that case, those costs were covered by the province. They still funded transit back then.

Given that our current plans for underground transit would travel through the same sorts of low-density areas we saw with the Spadina & Sheppard lines, these numbers present a daunting challenge. It doesn’t really need saying, but here it is anyway: regardless of the financial implications over the super long-term, the city doesn’t have the funds to subsidize the operating losses that are inevitable following the opening of a suburban subway. Not even close.

Jan 12

Mike Del Grande wastes a bunch of taxpayer money just for spite

The Toronto Sun’s Don Peat:

Budget Chief Mike Del Grande says he was just giving left-leaning councillors a taste of “their own game playing” when he called for the removal of $16.4 million from the plan to revitalize Regent Park.

In a move opposition councillors likened to firing a “torpedo” into Regent Park, Del Grande asked Toronto’s influential executive committee last week to divert funding for affordable rental units in the area to a shovel-ready project at Finch Ave. W. and Weston Rd.

Del Grande’s move enraged Councillor Pam McConnell, who represents Regent Park, and in the end, the committee voted to decide on the issue at city council next month.

But Del Grande conceded he will support the original staff recommendation to leave the money in Regent Park.

via Del Grande pokes the left | Toronto Sun.

The Star’s Daniel Dale confirms that Del Grande’s motion — one he intends to ultimately vote against — will cost us, the vaunted taxpayers, a fair amount of money. Because the budget chief supported a deferral motion by Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, Del Grande’s motion will go to the City Manager, who will draft a report to council. Who will then, I guess, summarily reject it.

The City Manager, Joe Pennachetti, whose name will be on this report, draws a salary of more than $300,000 per year. His time and attention does not come cheap.

The worst part of all this is that even if we accept Del Grande’s claim that left-leaning councillors were “playing games”, that doesn’t excuse his behaviour. This is straight-up kindergarten “two wrongs don’t make a right” stuff. It’s not complicated: Del Grande is a guy who spent the last eight months telling us, as part of the core service review and budget process, that we had to get our fiscal house in order. That we had to make hard choices to save money. He shook his damn piggy bank again and again and again.

And now he’s got city staff working on a report for literally no reason beyond spite.

Ignore the bleeding heart stuff. (Though a politician musing about halting construction on a poor person’s home just for the hell of it seems a mighty good reason for a heart to bleed.) Let’s look purely at the business side: the Regent Park revitalization is, at the core, a large-scale financial transaction with dozens of public-and-private-sector partnerships moving things forward. There are hundreds of millions of dollars tied up in these projects. It’s a mini-economy supporting hundreds of jobs in Toronto. This is not something responsible and mature people play games with.

Jan 12

Two ways Rob Ford’s budget comes up short (despite council’s victory)

The outcome of this week’s council meeting is assuredly good news for all those who oppose the mayor. Despite some who will try to claim that the amendments moved by Josh Colle, Raymond Cho and others amount to only ‘minor tweaks’, the significant thing is that Rob Ford looks to have lost his grip on council. From here on out, every major vote in the chamber will be a heart-thumping adventure climaxing in a cool fight scene and a twist ending.

Still, even though the outcome at council was positive, it would be wrong to assume that this budget is necessarily a good thing for Toronto. Not only does Rob Ford’s first real budget as mayor fail to provide any indication of what our long-term civic priorities are, it also kind of sucks at addressing some of the core principles stated again and again during Ford’s mayoral run.

Failure #1: Customer Service

Ford made customer service a major campaign plank last year, but the 2012 budget is suspiciously light on any details as to how his administration actually plans to make service any better. Instead, the budget was crafted via an arbitrary 10% cut to every department. (Though not all achieved it.) It’s a move that raises a ton of questions about service going forward.

For example: is service supposed to improve now that  311 — a department that has recently taken some flack for dismal call response times — has 7% fewer approved positions on its payroll? Is it reasonable to expect that the City Planning department, which has long been overworked because this city is throwing up buildings faster than any other city in North America, can increase their productivity with 10 fewer people working in the department? Is it feasible to expect paramedics and the fire department to improve their response times when new hiring continues to be deferred? And how exactly does a reduction in the frequency of street cleaning count as better customer service?

Back in October, Ford reiterated that “customer service excellence is a priority for my administration.” He still needs to prove it.

Failure #2: Actually Finding Efficiencies

After it became clear to Ford allies that they were about to lose a major vote at council on Tuesday, new arguments began to emerge regarding planned cuts to things like arenas, pools and childcare spaces. Suddenly the focus wasn’t on fiscal prudence but rather all about efficiency.

The Globe & Mail’s Marcus Gee summarized some of those arguments in his column yesterday. The non-peak arena hours on the chopping block, he says, aren’t really used anyway. The daycares slated for closure were half-empty. The city-funded school pools were located too close to other pools. And so on.

Some of that seems somewhat logical — some if it doesn’t — and, of course, finding efficiencies and streamlining programs are very good goals. If the city can serve the same people for less money, they should totally do it.

But here’s the problem: this city was not able to have a clear-eyed conversation about rationalizing service levels to more accurately meet demand because the mayor’s team forced everyone into apocalyptic crisis mode. You can’t talk to someone about long-term capital costs when you’re threatening to close the pool their kid swims at. It’s all well and good to discuss evolving childcare needs given the new realities of all-day kindergarten but no one wants to listen to the details when you’re musing about locking the doors to daycare facilities. And well-done citizen-led proposals to examine user fee costs at recreation programs won’t matter if it feels like the mayor would rather just cut those programs altogether.

What was needed was a long-term approach to finding efficiencies, in consultation with users. What Toronto got was a rushed and haphazard process that, by design, pointed mostly to wholesale cuts.

If Rob Ford is looking to rebuild some of the political capital he lost during this budget process, a renewed focus on improving customer service and finding real efficiencies would be a good place to start.

Jan 12

City Council Scorecard: The night Rob Ford lost big

Toronto Council Scorecard

January 17, 2012: Google Docs (Best View) - Download (PDF)  - Download (PNG)

There’s no other way to say it: last night, Rob Ford lost. After two months of spinning his budget as a smart and reasonable approach to improving the city’s financial situation, council quickly and decisively voted to overrule the mayor on a variety of items, adding millions of dollars back into the operating budget to preserve services that were on the chopping block.

This result wasn’t driven by a few lucky motions, but rather by a coordinated approach by a majority of councillors working against the mayor’s agenda. The strategy included careful messaging designed to court middle-aligned councillors, who would end up leading the charge for preserving programs and services. For those involved, the result of yesterday’s meeting was a foregone conclusion.

In the end, what was supposed to be a fractious three-day debate on a contentious budget wrapped up in less than twelve hours. After losing a number of key votes, the mayor was left to give a subdued — and short — press conference, wherein he did his best to save face, claiming he had had a positive impact on the budget, even if the outcome wasn’t what he wanted.

These results are important not only because they stave off what would have been some pretty devastating cuts to city programs, but also because they put the city into unprecedented political territory. Council has now shown a willingness to ignore and overturn key mayoral directives. The question going forward isn’t whether Rob Ford will be a good mayor or a bad mayor, but whether Rob Ford will be relevant at all to the important day-to-day decisions that matter in Toronto.

New Votes

The votes added, all of which were individual motions on item EX14.1 — the 2012 Capital and Operating Budgets:

  • Motion 1, as moved by Councillor Josh Colle, was the centrepiece strategic move of the day. Colle moved to take about $15 million from the 2011 operating surplus — which stands at more than $150 million and will be higher when all is said and done — to preserve TTC service, restore daycare funding, prevent pool closures and retain a number other services. The full text of the motion is here. This motion was engineered so that it could receive enough support to pass, and it did, with votes from councillors Gloria Lindsay Luby, Chin Lee and James Pasternak making the difference. It passed 23-21, sinking any hope the mayor’s team had left of emerging from this process with their pride intact.
  • Motion 5, moved by the aforementioned Lindsay Luby, killed what would have been a foolhardy plan to charge two bucks to use all public pools (indoor and outdoor) in Toronto — read all about it. The scheme would have required new staff to operate, and any revenues would have been tempered by the huge cost required to set up and maintain payment infrastructure. Still, this was another narrow vote.
  • Motion 6 came from Mary-Margaret McMahon, who has fashioned herself as a staunch environmentalist. Her motion preserved three positions at the Toronto Environmental Office that were on the chopping block. It also asked that the city continue to implement its Climate Change Action Plan. (Full text.) Her motion won with support from executive committee members Michelle Berardinetti and Jaye Robinson.
  • Motion 9 served as the motion that stopped the library board from having to make near-impossible cuts to its operating budget. As moved my Raymond Cho (full text), this vote saw 22 councillors recognize that, really, Toronto’s library system has been run really damn well for almost a decade now. (Of note: Pasternak abstained because of a conflict of interest.)
  • Motion 21a revealed just how willing council was to tinker with Ford’s budget. Council voted 23-21 to maintain the Live Green Toronto Community Animators program (text), which sees people work within communities to create greenspace and promote environmental initiatives. Ford-ally Gary Crawford along with Robinson were the difference-makers on this item.
  • Lastly, Motion 21b was Ford’s sole major victory — the mayor also lost numerous other minor votes, including a bid by Karen Stintz to kill the city’s partnership with TDSB for community pools — as Mihvec was unable to muster enough support to stave off consideration of contracting out custodial services at Facilities Management and Real Estate Services.

All told, Ford was on the losing end of  five of six major votes related to his 2012 budget. Council grew the mayor’s operating budget by about $20 million.

Trend Watch

As was inevitable, Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon has fallen below the 30% threshold and is now in the “opposition” category.

James Pasternak and Jaye Robinson both saw their Ford Nation percentage decline. Because she’s on the executive committee, I expect Robinson to continually hover around her current level. Pasternak, on the other hand, is likely only a few votes away from statistically joining the ranks of the “mighty middle.”

And, yeah, the biggest trend coming out of yesterday’s meeting? Council’s middle earned that “mighty” label. There was nothing mushy about them.

Batting Average

The mayor hit a sad 17% yesterday on major votes. For this term overall, his success rate is just over 60%.


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

Jan 12

Budget Week 2012: What to Watch For

From way back in November, when Rob Ford first unveiled what he has been calling a “smart, reasonable and responsible” budget, as reported by the Globe & Mail’s Patrick White, Elizabeth Church and Tu Thanh Ha:

“For the first time ever, folks, we will spend less next year than we did this year,” Mr. Ford said during a morning press conference. “That is unheard of.”

Budget chief Mike Del Grande hailed the document, telling the budget committee: “It’s too bad the rest of the world doesn’t have the courage to do what we are doing today.”

via Ford’s 2012 Toronto budget includes hikes in property tax, transit fares | Globe & Mail.

But that was then. This is now.

With council set to meet tomorrow to kick off what will probably be a three-day-long budget debate — packed with yelling and screaming and wild accusations of extremist political ideology — the piece I’m watching most closely is whether the mayor emerges from the fray with that key talking point in his jacket pocket: after all is said and done, will the 2012 gross operating budget actually be smaller than the 2011 budget?

Early indications say maybe not. At the beginning of this process, Ford’s gross budget was a slim $50 million below the 2011 level. Earlier this month, approximately $2.5 million was added to that budget to stave off cuts to community centres and student nutrition programs. Another $3 million was added at executive committee to reduce the number of requested cuts to the Toronto Public Library, joined by $1 million to save sidewalk snow clearing in the suburbs and $2 million to preserve some community grants. Other assorted tweaks also increased the total.

All told, the margin between the 2011 and 2012 budgets is down to about $41 million.

And now, via the Globe & Mail’s Patrick White, we learn that members of council’s opposition along with several middle-aligned councillors have been working on a plan that could inject anywhere between $20 million and $40 million back into the operating budget to preserve services:

While the core of the Ford budget remains intact – $350-million in cuts and efficiencies, a 2.5-per-cent tax, increase, nearly 1,200 layoffs – members of City Hall’s centre and left factions have been plotting for weeks about whether they’ll support the budget and, if not, how they’ll unravel it.

Many have been using Google Docs online to analyze and share strategies for portions of Mr. Ford’s budget that remain in play: TTC route cuts, reductions to community grants, terminated swimming-pool funding, three homeless shelter closings, a trim to priority centres and a cancelled leaf-collection program in Etobicoke.

One plan from middle councillors would stave off most of those cuts $20-million cost. Left-leaning councillors want to go even further with a plan to undo about $40-million worth of the mayor’s budget, according to several councillors speaking on background.

via Mayor’s team scrambles as moment of truth approaches | Globe & Mail.

So council may just go and overrule the mayor’s spending priorities to the tune of $40 million. Not only would that be unprecedented, but that kind of outcome would threaten to push Ford’s reputation away from what he most wants to be: a hardline budget buster. Instead of cutting back on overall city spending, he’d be the mayor who has essentially maintained spending levels set by his predecessor and the previous council. The people he derides as socialists.

The Revenue Game

Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday has told the Toronto Sun that he plans to ask council to approve next year’s property tax rates early on during tomorrow’s meeting, to avoid games later on where councillors might seek to slightly increase rates to preserve certain services. Councillor Gord Perks tried something like that last year, when he moved an amendment that would have increased residential property taxes by 0.155% to preserve bus routes and other programs. (It didn’t pass.)

With a prior-year surplus that will total almost $200 million when all figures are calculated, I don’t see councillors looking to the property tax base to preserve programs and services. Nor do I see them messing with staff revenue projections. Instead, all eyes will be on that surplus. It’s ripe for the taking and, despite claims to the contrary, hefty enough that it can serve double duty as a life preserver for programs and a capital debt killer.

As this strategy has gained steam, opponents have been pulling out lame household budget analogies to  caution against applying any of the surplus toward operating costs. The Globe’s Marcus Gee characterized the move as “like relying on sofa-cushion money to pay the mortgage.” Councillor Doug Ford said it would be like using a Christmas bonus to buy toys “like a drunken sailor.” (Sailors, as we all know, love toys.)

None of these analogies work, of course. Calling the 2011 surplus “one-time money” is disingenuous, because the city has seen continued surpluses going back at least six years. This year’s surplus was widely expected by everyone who rightly scoffed at the mayor’s scare-tactic figure of $774 million. And if someone was finding money in their sofa cushions as regularly as the city finds year-end surpluses, they would really  need to take a good look at what the hell is going on with their couch.

When it comes to the surplus, the real question can’t be boiled down to some oversimplified household budget analogy. What councillors have to consider is this: does the near-term value of preserving services (like transit) outweigh the long-term value of paying down debt on capital purchases slightly faster?

Budget Ideology

Let’s end with this: last week, the Toronto Star’s David Rider reported on a recorded conversation Budget Chief Mike Del Grande had with a constituent this past summer. In it, Del Grande reflects on some of the thinking that apparently shaped this budget:

Del Grande defended a proposed $400,000 cut to student breakfast programs — he recently and unexpectedly started to oppose the cut — during an hour-long, Aug. 10 city hall chat with then-constituent Hakim Kassam, who recorded it on his iPhone.

“I don’t support the way that’s funded because if we’re going to do breakfast in schools, to me personally, if you have children you’re responsible for children,” Del Grande said in the recording provided by Kassam to the Star.

“The nation is not supposed to be in the bedrooms of the people. But then when you come out of the bedroom and you have children, why is it the state’s responsibility to look after your children? I didn’t tell you to wear a condom or not wear a condom or how many children — you made that decision.”

via Toronto budget: Mike Del Grande’s candid chat about social programs | Toronto Star.

Kind of puts all that “radical conservative” talk in perspective, doesn’t it?

I don’t think what Rob Ford ultimately presented as his budget is a purely ideological document, but I do think it was informed by the kind of ideological thinking Del Grande talks about in the recorded conversation. But that ideology was tempered by the mayor’s famous populism and a political reality that demands certain services be kept. The end result is a fiscal stew: a cobbled together collection of arbitrary cuts and decisions.

Indeed, the budget’s greatest failing is that it lacks any kind of unifying purpose. There is nothing in these pages that reveal a coherent theme for this city going forward. There’s no indication of what our collective priorities are — are we a city that values transit? The environment? Revitalized neighbourhoods? A better business climate?

Who can say? There’s very little in this budget that tells us what kind of city we actually want to be.