Jul 11

Toronto’s looming library cuts: what could happen, and how to stop it

Everyone had a lot of fun last week when Councillor Doug Ford did that thing he does where he says something completely stupid and wrong. This time, it was about libraries. There are too many of them, he said: “We have more libraries per person than any other city in the world. I’ve got more libraries in my area than I have Tim Hortons.”

None of this, of course, turned out to be anywhere close to even kind of a little bit true. Toronto doesn’t even have more libraries per person than other cities in Canada. And the ratio of Tim Hortons to library branches in Etobicoke is somewhere in the neighbourhood of three-to-one. (At BlogTO, Derek Flack actually mapped things out.)

Response to Ford’s comments was swift — and kind of bizarre, honestly — as the Toronto Public Library Workers Union launched a campaign to stop the privatization of Toronto’s library system with a very well-done new website called ourpubliclibrary.to. (The Tonga top-level domain is a nice touch.)

The campaign was effective enough to engage 20,000 people to state their opposition to library privatization, and got author Margaret Atwood all fired up. Less positively, they also seem to catch the attention of corporate library privatizer Library Systems & Services Inc., which led to some articles touting the potential of outsourcing branch management.

Taken altogether, however, it’s a good campaign. But, as mentioned, also a little bizarre. Why jump to the spectre of privatization so quickly? Are these well-intentioned literary-lovers — and, okay, sure, union members — overreaching? Is privatization really the clear and present threat they seem to think it is? And is a dumb Doug Ford exaggeration really the thing you want to point to as a motivating factor?

What KPMG says about libraries

KPMG’s budget considerations for the Toronto Public Library are limited to the following: sharing administrative services with the City; consolidating Toronto Archives with TPL; closing some branches completely; reducing or eliminating some educational and outreach programs; and reducing the hours and days of operation at some branches.

Of all the TPL items, only three are noted as items that could bring potential savings for 2012. And of those, only the latter two above — killing educational/outreach programs and reducing branch hours — are workable as suggestions that will shave significant dollars off the 2012 operating budget. Notably, alternative delivery models — consultant-speak for ‘privatization’ — are not floated as a consideration for TPL.

The real threat isn’t privatization. It’s cuts. Cuts are easier and more immediate. Privatization of library services has never been done on a Toronto-size scale before. So while that threat is probably real — in a Doug Ford “we’re going to privatize everything!” sort of way — it’s not real in the sense that this is something anyone has actively floated or brought up as an option. The real immediate threat to libraries is simpler: drastic and deep service cuts.

How to cut libraries

Putting on my small-government conservative hat for a second — it’s an animal-skin fedora with a condor feather in the brim — here’s how I’d rationalize support for reducing service hours or activities at libraries. First, I’d ask leading questions that refer to technology and the internet: in this era of computers and gizmos and video games, are libraries even still relevant?

Then, I’d talk about youth, and the differences between youth today and youth when I was a youth. (And, since I’m playing conservative, it’s safe to assume that childhood was eighty years ago.) Kids today are different, I’d say, and maybe we need to take an innovative — politicians love to be innovative — approach to the kind of services libraries provide. Are we really providing the best bang for our buck with an outdated model?

Then I’d cut. I’d support closing a few branches, rolling back hours, eliminating a bunch of programs that teach immigrants how to read or seniors how to use computers. I’d say that we’re not shutting down the library or cutting service — just re-adjusting it to fit the new social and fiscal realities. I’d balance this with enthusiastic support for convening a task force or a committee to hold public consultations about new strategies for delivering the kinds of services libraries have traditionally delivered.

“e-Learning! Cutting Edge! Smart City!” I would say these things for no real reason, then I would make a long and rambling half-speech where I make vague references to how much I like the iPad I just got.

The consultations I enthusiastically support would inevitably go nowhere, of course, and the end result would be that the city spends less money and provides less service. But it will feel like a victory for the reasonable middle, who — in supporting the move — will have embraced both innovation and efficiency while demonstrating their commitment to youth.

The end. A bit conspiracy theory-ish? Sure. It’s highly speculative. But just google “Are libraries still relevant?” — the seeds are there.

How to fight that

The Toronto Public Library is one of the busiest and largest systems in the world. Its recognized internationally for its activities. It’s incredibly well-used across the city, with 18 million visits and 32 million items borrowed in 2010 alone. Last year was also the library’s busiest ever, indicating that our libraries are far from forgotten relics.

TPL has also embraced new technologies, letting people borrow eBooks with popular tablet devices and providing computer access and training to visitors. This is not a musty organization dedicated only to paper books.

Most critically, our libraries are public spaces. Just as City parks provide free access to recreation activities, our libraries provide free access to learning and community connectivity. Real cities — thriving cities — value public spaces.

TPL is a cost-effective, well-used organization that provides value for Toronto residents. On an average property tax bill, the Library represents about a $114 per year cost, or $9.50 per month. After sales tax, this is about the same as you’d pay for a Netflix subscription. It is one of the few city agencies taxpayers should feel proud of. It is unequivocally not a place where City Hall should look for significant cuts.

Yet here we are.

Jul 11

Ford looks to fire GM, kill streetcars in push toward ‘joke’ of transit plan

There’s more high drama and intrigue at the TTC these days as Mayor Rob Ford and his brother Doug seem bound and determined to stick to an election promise to fund and build an extension of the Sheppard Subway, even if it means firing General Manager Gary Webster and dismantling the City’s streetcar system. I can offer no explanation as to why they feel so strongly about keeping this promise while simultaneously breaking other, more important promises.

Nevertheless, The Toronto Star’s Tess Kalinowski has the story:

Gary Webster, the TTC’s top executive, is caught in the crosshairs of Mayor Rob Ford’s administration, prompting fears that Toronto transit could be headed on a disastrous course if he’s fired.

A 30-year TTC veteran, the 60-year-old chief general manager has drawn the ire of the Fords over his refusal to support the Sheppard subway extension the mayor wants to build, say Toronto Star sources.

Most transit experts, including former TTC boss David Gunn, consider the subway plan a joke.

via Ford plotting to oust TTC chief over subway extension | Toronto Star.

A joke! That’s great.

Kalinowski also confirms something I’ve heard in a few places: that TTC Chair Karen Stintz and the mayor are at odds over Webster’s future, with Stintz sticking up for her GM. That the Fords have apparently floated Case Ootes and Gordon Chong — are these their only allies? — as potential replacements can’t establish much confidence. No offence meant to either man, but careers as an oil company executive and a dentist, respectively, don’t exactly lend themselves to running the day-to-day operations of one of North America’s largest transit systems.

There’a also this, from the same article:

The plan to get rid of Webster “is in play now,” said former TTC vice-chair Joe Mihevc.

“(The Fords) are so committed to Sheppard they are actively contemplating getting rid of the entire streetcar system in Toronto,” he said, adding that the cost of the new streetcars could be applied to the subway.

“If Doug Ford bullies his way through on this, it truly will be the victory of extreme authoritarian ideology over good public transit policy and good business management,” Mihevc said.

Councillor Mihevc could be working off second-hand information, so it’s probably unfair to jump to immediate conclusions, but let’s go with this line of thinking as an exercise. Toronto’s streetcar system — including the right-of-way routes on St. Clair & Spadina — carries almost 275,000 riders per day. The Sheppard Subway, at its current abbreviated length, carries just under 50,000. (These are 2008 figures.) If this streetcars-for-Sheppard scheme is an attempt to win populist approval, it’s entirely backwards.

Transit advocate Steve Munro has the last word on this story:

In ten years, we would have a much reduced quality of transit service in the central city, we would choke streets with clouds of buses and limit the growth of major areas served by the present and proposed streetcar system.  In return, Sheppard Avenue would have its subway, and what started as Lastman’s folly and a Liberal campaign promise by former Premier David Peterson would become a full-blown monument to the stupidity of transit planning and politics in Toronto.

via Will Nobody Stop Fords’ Folly? | SteveMunro.ca.

A full-blown monument to the stupidity of transit planning and politics in Toronto. Nicely said.

Jul 11

Opposition to local food part of a race to the bottom

From last week, the Toronto Star’s Paul Moloney:

The City of Toronto probably can’t afford to buy local food for its long-term care homes, shelters and daycare facilities, say some members of the government management committee.

Work on a buy-local policy began under former Mayor David Miller, but supporters of Mayor Rob Ford made it clear they don’t like it if it costs more.

“I think we should go out there and get the biggest bang for our buck,” said Councillor Doug Ford. “Yes, everyone wants to support Ontario-based food growers, but sometimes it’s just not realistic.”

via Toronto’s ‘buy local’ food policy under attack – thestar.com.

Later in the article, Councillor Paul Ainslie justifies the opinion by noting that he noticed quite a price difference between locally-produced and California-grown strawberries.

The city’s new strategy of going for the cheapest possible option above all else already burned them once, when the discount survey software they used for the Core Service Review frustrated a ton of people. This race to the bottom ignores that sometimes the city can make strategic investments that actually benefit the people in and around Toronto.

The buy-local policy, approved in an unrecorded vote by the previous council, set a target of 50% local food that was later found to be unworkable and unattainable. However, the consultant hired to look at the plan does lay out new targets, which would cap out at 25% local food purchasing, at cost of $125,000 per year to the city. You can read the report at the city’s website.

That cost is small potatoes given the city’s overall budget, and the economic benefits of buying local are bound to outweigh that figure. This doest feel like it should be a contentious issue. Instead, this opposition feels like the work of politicians who continue to believe that “public investment” is synonymous with “wasteful spending.”

A final decision will be made at this month’s council meeting.

Jul 11

City infrastructure: something’s gotta give

The Toronto Star’s Paul Moloney reported last week that the city now carries $4.4B worth of net debt, as a result of a 20 per cent increase in 2010. Moloney talked to Deputy Mayor Doug Holday to get the scoop on how this administration is going to reduce debt levels:

“I guess we’ll have to look at capital requests with a fine-tooth comb,” Holyday said. “It’s things like the Fort York bridge, which was to be entirely borrowed — it went over budget and became unaffordable.”

“As we go forward, I wouldn’t be surprised if we found other projects that could wait or be reduced in some fashion. We’re just not in a position to keep increasing the debt load.”

via Toronto debt $4.4B and rising – thestar.com.

In other words: we’re going to cut things. Because previous councils have spent far too much on all the entirely unnecessary infrastructure we’ve seen spring up in recent years. Like, um… huh.

The reality is that a significant percentage of the city’s capital costs go to entirely necessary repairs to existing infrastructure. It’s never easy or cheap to run a major city, but it gets progressively harder and more expensive when all the stuff that helps the city function — the pipes, the roads, the tracks, the transit vehicles, the public housing — get to be at least 30-40 years old.

It’s worth noting that the last time a city agency got lax with prioritizing state of good repair costs in their capital budgets, people literally died.

Even ignoring the cost of maintaing the infrastructure we’ve got, no one could reasonably argue that a fast-growing city in a super-fast-growing region can or should make do with the infrastructure we have. As reported by the National Post’s Natalie Alcoba, the Toronto Board of Trade released a report last week calling for the expansion of transportation infrastructure to be a major issue in this fall’s provincial election:

Toronto-area residents are stuck in some of the worst traffic around, spending on average 80 minutes a day commuting, according to regional transit agency Metrolinx. That could hit 109 minutes by 2031. The congestion costs the Toronto-area economy $6-billion a year, a figure Metrolinx says will rise to $15-billion in 20 years if significant action isn’t taken.

“This is a critical issue, this is a top issue up there with the issues of health care, with the issues of education,” said [Board of Trade president Carol] Wilding. “At this point, taking options off the table, or a bidding war that goes down the path of what we don’t want to do, is not the right discussion to be having.”

via Funding to tackle ‘a critical issue’: Toronto Board of Trade | National Post.

The belief that solving the fiscal challenges facing the city is a simple matter of cutting a few wasteful things is, I think, one of the more dangerous elements of the Rob Ford administration. Serious, structural shortfalls — both fiscal and relating to infrastructure — require serious leadership, especially with regard to intergovernmental affairs.

Of course, Councillor Doug Ford stepped it after the Board of Trade report, fulfilling his role as Requisite Diversion and proposing some dumb magical private-sector thing where the Gardiner Expressway would be three storeys high and people would live in it. Problem solved.


Jun 11

Mammoliti, other councillors face serious audit requests

After making waves with a pretty-damn-serious request for an audit of Mayor Rob Ford’s campaign expenses, Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler turned up the dial last week, debuting a new advocacy group — Fair Elections Toronto — and launching eight additional requests for campaign audits against several councillors and defeated council candidates.

Steve Kupferman with Torontoist:

A group calling itself Fair Elections Toronto is asking for audits of four sitting councillors, whom they accuse of having violated campaign finance laws during the 2010 municipal election.

Comprised of about 25 members and led by activist and Toronto Public Library Board vice-chair Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler, Fair Elections Toronto alleges that Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7, York West), James Pasternak (Ward 10, York Centre), Michael Thompson (Ward 37, Scarborough Centre), and Doug Ford (Ward 2, Etobicoke North) all improperly classified expenses incurred during their campaigns as being for “fundraising functions,” in amounts ranging from $4,000 to $17,000.

via Doug Ford, Giorgio Mammoliti, and Other Councillors Facing Calls for Campaign Audits – Torontoist.

The most serious allegations fall against Mammoliti, who is accused of exceeding spending limits by more than 50%. If, over the course of the audit process, it is determined that the Mammoliti campaigning knowingly overspent — listing non-fundraising expenses as fundraising expenses, which are exempt from the limit — he could very well be removed from office.

Knowingly overspending in an election campaign isn’t just a minor administrative error. It’s tantamount to cheating.

The Star’s Daniel Dale has more on the Mammoliti situation:

“When you file an audited financial statement without a name and a date or a title for each one of the expenses claimed, it really stretches my willingness to believe it was a good-faith error,” Chaleff-Freudenthaler said.

Mammoliti said he had done “everything according to the law.” And he lashed out at Chaleff-Freudenthaler and his colleagues.

“We’ve got no concerns at all,” Mammoliti said, “except the fact that we think this is a bit of a conspiracy going on with a few individuals wanting to get to the right-leaning councillors. That’s not really what this structure was put together for. So we’re looking at actually suing the individuals that are doing this.”

via Mammoliti alleges ‘conspiracy’ over audit requests – thestar.com.

When your first line of defence against an allegation is to claim that there’s a conspiracy against you, you know you’re in deep trouble. (A much better line of defence for Mammoliti would have been to produce details, including a date and location, of the fundraising event in question. But maybe that would just be playing into the conspiracists’ hands.)

Fair Elections Toronto’s biggest challenge through this process will be to convince skeptics that their actions are not politically-motivated. That all the sitting councillors targeted for audit happen to be allied with the mayor is difficult to ignore.

But either way, these allegations are serious regardless of motivation. Municipal elections are tooth-and-nail, grassroots efforts, where every dollar spent and every vote cast matters. Allegations that Councillor James Pasternak overspent by a mere $2,500 may seem trivial, for example, until you consider that he won Ward 10 by only 382 votes, garnering less than 20% of the popular vote. A hundred fewer signs or flyers and that race could have easily gone a different way.

Those claiming that these allegations are politically-motivated also have to contend with the fact that Fair Elections Toronto seems sincerely devoted to the idea of reforming the Municipal Elections Act. The Reform page on their site outlines four changes to the Act that would improve accountability and fairness, and justifies the necessity of the current round of audit requests:

Litigating complaints against candidates who, we allege, broke election laws is only the first step in bringing fair elections to Toronto. Fundamental changes need to be made to the Municipal Elections Act to increase accountability and transparency, eliminate the gray areas that candidates systemically exploit, and better reflect the realities of big city elections. As the City of Toronto’s Auditor General reported following the 2006 election, 29 of 45 councillors broke election laws in one way or another. While we have only filed audit requests on the four councillors we believe gained a material advantage from Municipal Elections Act violations, we believe that the culture of non-compliance that was identified in 2006 remains today.

via Reform | Fair Elections Toronto.

Regardless of outcome, the audit process and legal proceedings are expected to drag out for quite some time.

Jun 11

Name your price on naming rights

The idea of selling naming rights for transit stations, public parks and other things hit the news again this week, and received the hearty endorsement of the Ford brothers:

Next stop: Spadina-McDonalds station.

“Whatever. If it brings in revenue, I honestly don’t believe anyone cares,” Councillor Doug Ford quipped Tuesday afternoon.

via TTC looking at renaming stations – thestar.com.

The Toronto Standard has blessed us with two good articles on the issue. The first, by Tabatha Southey, takes the idea to its logical extreme and imagines a Toronto where everything is named after something corporate:

Ten years ago, in 2015, most of us in Toronto and Firkin accepted the suggestion that we attempt to “build relationships” with the private sector with good grace. The motion passed at the somewhat expanded Pizza Pizza City Council 967 to 11, with 11 abstaining, as every motion must now pass in order for the heat to stay on in Telecity Hall through the winter, if you take my meaning.

via All the Names | Toronto Standard.

Ivor Tossell, being a bit contrarian, penned a follow-up, which essentially reminds us that we have to name our roads, parks, subway stations and buildings after something, so maybe this isn’t a big deal.

And I agree, mostly, that it doesn’t have to be a big deal. I don’t think there’s a reasonable argument to be made that Nuit Blanche is a lesser cultural event because it’s called Scotiabank Nuit Blanche. These sorts of sponsorship arrangements, at the very least, support events that likely wouldn’t receive enough government support to survive on their own.

So, yes, there’s nothing wrong in principle at looking at the idea of naming rights as a way to offset construction or management costs. But I did have a few objections to the tenor of the discussion regarding naming rights this week.

First, there’s this idea that naming rights represent a massive pool of untapped revenues. This is unlikely to be true. Steve Munro points out that our crumbling subway stations might not appeal much to image-conscious corporations. It’s also hard to imagine much value coming from renaming a park — how many local parks can you recall the names of, off the top of your head?

Which brings me to my second objection, which is a matter of standards. From all the comments in the media this week, it’s clear that everyone believes certain things are off-limits for renaming. “We’re not going to call it Doritos City Hall,” Doug Ford assured the National Post. But why not? Can anyone define why some city-owned properties are up for renaming and others aren’t? What’s the differentiating factor? Is it heritage? Political importance? Tourism and culture? A gut feeling?

This goes for revenue standards too. Obviously there’s a point at which the revenue from naming rights is too small to be worthwhile. If Company X offers us $5,000/year for naming rights to Spadina subway station, we’d rightly dismiss the offer out of hand. But, again, why? No one seems to have any clue what fair value for naming rights is.

We’re working blind here. We don’t know what’s on the table and what the value of the table is. If, at the very least, this debate can help define a concrete policy for the sale of naming rights, it will have been somewhat worthwhile.

Lastly, and most critically, what corporations would be after with so-called “naming rights” for transit stations — not to mention other pieces of infrastructure — could very well go beyond slapping their name and logo on a TTC sign. Would they be looking for permission to use the transit station as a showroom or glorified retail space? Would people be okay with vendors trying to process riders’ credit card applications at platform level?

Much of this probably sounds like needless panic at this point, but the city has a sad history of brokering bad deals with the private sector. The street furniture contract with Astral Communications is a sad example of the city willingly getting screwed by a private partner. They got free advertising on city streets, where we got free garbage cans that don’t work very well. (Sometimes they catch on fire.)

Jun 11

Doug Ford: Mayor is ‘Walking Pollster’

Patrick White has a very nice feature story on Councillor Doug Ford in the weekend Globe & Mail. Very much worth reading:

“He’s like a walking pollster,” says Doug of his younger brother. “Just imagine calling 80 to 100 people from all across Toronto hearing what they have to say. He gets this city. It really bothers me when people say this or that about him.…That guy is brilliant in his own way. Is he a brilliant speaker? Not all the time. Is he eloquent? Not all the time. But man, Rob’s my hero. Rob’s a political genius.”

via Doug Ford: Riding shotgun in the Fordmobile – The Globe and Mail.

Making political decisions based on amateur phone polling — of less than 100 people, apparently — doesn’t really seem like something to brag about, but I guess it’s worked out pretty well for him so far.

White also gets Doug talking about the plans for Sheppard Subway financing:

He’s heard a number of serious proposals already for financing the $4-billion line privately, including at least one from a Chinese firm. He insists the city should start digging with partial funding: accepting a few hundred million from the federal government, borrowing against future tax revenues (known as tax-increment financing) along Eglinton and Sheppard and diverting cash leftover from the $8.1-billion the province has promised for the Eglinton subway. “I know for a fact Eglinton won’t cost that much,” he said. “Let’s just get the shovels in the ground,” he added. “Even if we go a kilometre a year, just don’t take those boring machines out of the ground once they start going.”

So: Taking future tax revenues from development around Eglinton and applying them to Sheppard. Getting construction started before all the necessary funding is in place. Hoping that the Eglinton line comes in under budget. This, apparently, is what fiscally responsible government looks like.

Jun 11

Doug Ford is whining about street closures

The Toronto Star’s Paul Moloney:

Councillor Doug Ford says there has to be a “better way” of running charity events and marathons that infuriate motorists by shutting down Toronto’s major expressways.

Mayor Rob Ford’s top advisor made the comments a day after the annual Becel Heart and Stroke Ride for Heart cycling fundraiser sparked complaints by closing parts of the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway.

via Doug Ford looks for solution to road-clogging charity events – thestar.com.

This is, of course, ridiculous. First, because it’s another example of Ford governing based on a small but elusive band of city residents who apparently call the Etobicoke councillor about all kinds of issues, even ones that take place nowhere near his ward.

And, second, come on. The suggestion that there’s a bunch of small-scale events that currently close city streets but could easily be moved to parks is just generally not true. Large events like marathons or bike races need the road space. Smaller events like protests or marches demand to be visible — they’re going to be out on the street whether you like it or not.

May 11

Jim Flaherty praises “boondoggle” waterfront development

Federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was put in a bit of an akwkward position yesterday, as he attended the official groundbreaking for Waterfront Toronto’s anticipated Underpass Park. Flaherty, a long-time family friend of the Fords, expressed his support for the project, which is part of a larger plan by Waterfront Toronto that the Fords and their council allies have been highly critical of in recent times.

The Toronto Star’s Christopher Hume:

“This is transformative,” declared federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. “It’s important not just for Toronto, but for Canada.”

On hand for the ceremonial shovelling of the earth Thursday, Flaherty joined a gaggle of dignitaries that included provincial Minister of Research and Innovation, Glen Murray, and local municipal councillor Pam McConnell.

Conspicuous in his absence was Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, whose doppelganger, Doug Ford, has been happy to share his thoughts about the waterfront, as half-baked as they may be.

via Hume: Underpass Park will change the city forever – thestar.com.

If even someone like Jim Flaherty can understand the importance of public investment along the waterfront, why can’t Rob and Doug Ford?

May 11

Setting policy by imagined consensus

Speaking of Doug Ford, I thought his contribution to an article regarding the Jarvis Street bike lanes by Marcia Chen and Ashleigh Smollet of CityNews.ca was kind of interesting:

Not even a year after they were installed, the fate of the contentious Jarvis Street bike lanes is in question.

“We would like to eliminate them,” said councillor Doug Ford. “We have had more complaints about the bike lanes on Jarvis than any other road in Toronto. Hundreds and hundreds of people.”

But ward councillor Karyn Wong-Tam disagreed, noting the revitalization of the downtown’s east side depends on the lanes and other projects on Jarvis.

“Hundreds? No, definitely we haven’t received hundreds,” Wong-Tam said. “I don’t think we’ve had even one hundred.”

via Rob Ford may consider removing Jarvis bike lanes – CityNews.

It’s a neat encapsulation of Ford-brand politics. Both Doug and Rob consistently back up their pet issues with claims that they’ve received hundreds — sometimes thousands — of phone calls supporting them. It’s a tired, easily-mockable refrain. There’s no way to confirm the reality of their claims, nor is there a way to quantify, track and analyze this data. In real terms, their claims are worse than useless.

Even if Doug Ford were accurate, and they — leaving aside for now the issue of who they is, because people really shouldn’t be complaining to the councillor in Ward 2 about an issue with infrastructure in Ward 27 — had received hundreds of calls, is that enough reason to eliminate lanes that are, by the city’s own estimates, used by hundreds of cyclists every day?