Nov 11

City Council Scorecard: Voting to take out the trash

Toronto Council Scorecard

November 24, 2011: Google Docs (Best View) - Download (PDF)  - Download (PNG)

A bit delayed this month because despite all the hoopla over animals and garbage, the October council meeting actually ended up being fairly uneventful. Especially when compared to the September special meeting, which was full of dramatic and close votes.

Have no fear, though: things are about to ramp up again. We’re just about to enter the 2012 budget season — all this core service review stuff is little more than a pre-show — where everything is likely to descend into outright chaos.

But first, let’s wrap up October by adding the vote on the contracting out of solid waste — a major Rob Ford campaign promise — to the City Council Scorecard.

New Vote

The vote added:

  • CC13.5 awarded, amongst other things, the contract for solid waste collection in District 2 to Green For Life, an upstart player in the waste collection industry with a lightly checkered past and a bid that some felt was suspiciously low. Council voted 32-12 earlier this year to put the contract out to tender and, given that GFL’s bid was ruled compliant, it would have put Council in a legally dicey position had they rejected the bid. Also of note: we learned this morning with the release of Council’s agenda for next week that GFL entered into a process to acquire Turtle Island Recycling Corporation — the holder of the contract for waste collection in District 1 — on July 28, 2011, several months prior to this vote. As a result of their successful acquisition, GFL will control solid waste pick-up for half of Toronto as of next August.

Trend Watch

Not a lot to read into with this vote. Given council’s legal position and the fact that this is one of those things that Ford can legitimately claim a mandate, there was no way this vote was going to see a different result.

More interesting was a motion by Ana Bailão, who moved that council defer making a decision on the contract until the November council meeting, to allow for more consultation with the union and a more through examination of the bid. Her motion failed 20-22, with Raymond Cho, Chin Lee, Mary-Margaret McMahon Josh Matlow and the 16 councillors who ultimately voted against the contract in support.

Bailão continues to chart away from the mayor and his agenda, which seems to be making some unhappy. The Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy savaged her in a column after the vote. Bailão should be proud.

Batting Average

Ford’s council batting average ticks up as a result of this victory, after plunging in September with a series of defeats on items relating to the core service review. But this was always a gimme. Regardless of the social or economic cost in the long-term, voters wanted some revenge for the 2009 public worker strike. In this, I guess they have it. What happens next is anyone’s guess.


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

Nov 11

Denzil Minnan-Wong thinks Denzil Minnan-Wong is wrong on new overflow recycling policy

The Globe & Mail’s Elizabeth Church brings us up to speed on the latest proposed service cut from the no-service-cuts gang at City Hall:

Toronto’s blue box program is the latest initiative to face money-saving cuts, with a plan to limit curbside collection to what residents can cram into their recycling bin.

The move is part of next year’s proposed solid waste budget and is expected to save the city about $500,000. The measure would end the long-standing practice that allows city residents to place any overflow from their recycling bins beside their blue box in clear bags.

A staff report notes that residents can “upsize” their blue bins for free if the new limit is a problem.

Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, chair of the city’s public works committee, also noted that residents can obtain a second blue bin if one is not enough to meet their needs.

via Cuts to blue box program urged over environmentalists’ objections | Globe & Mail. (Emphasis added.)

Okay. So there’s Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, Chair of Public Works and good buddy of the mayor’s office, defending a cost-cutting move that will make it more challenging for residents to recycle.

Now let’s travel back to 2009, when the city’s solid waste management division attempted to make a similar policy change. Seems Denzil Minnan-Wong had some thoughts on this policy back then.

As reported by the National Post’s Allison Haines:

Toronto will soon be refusing to pick up the overflow bottles, cans and newspapers that don’t fit in the city’s new recycling bins — the latest in a series of changes to the curb-side collection program that require the cooperation of befuddled residents.

Still, Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Don Valley East) said the message is the city is making things more difficult for the most avid recyclers.

“I’ve already heard from a few of my residents. They think it’s completely stupid,” he said. “We’re saying no to recyclers and we’re making it even harder for them to participate — I suppose it’s because it’s too much work for the garbage collectors to get out of their truck.”

via Toronto: New bin regime spawns new rules, confusion for avid recyclers | National Post. (Emphasis added; third-party link as old Post articles sure are hard to find since they switched to WordPress.)

So which is it, Denzil Minnan-Wong? Do your residents still think this change is stupid? Or has the fact that you’re now on good terms with the mayor somehow changed their mind?

One of the more interesting sideshows of the Rob Ford administration has been watching various councillors who seemed so comfortable in their role angrily opposing and shouting down David Miller wrestle with the realities of being in power. It’s almost inevitable that they’ll end up contradicting themselves. (For other examples, see also: Karen Stintz and Giorgio Mammoliti.)

Recycled Issues

On the change itself: it is stupid. It’s easy to say that residents can just get a bigger bin, or even a second bin, but that doesn’t really hold true for residents in the Old City, who have already had to cram the new-style garbage bins into the limited space they have in their front yards. This shouldn’t be a revelatory statement but maybe it is: not everyone has a garage in this city.

As is his habit these days, Budget Chief Mike Del Grande speaks most plainly and maybe-inadvertantly reveals the real thinking behind this move. He told Inside Toronto’s David Nickle that the reason behind eliminating overflow pick-up was purely political:

This year, the solid waste budget will see residential rates frozen – in part, according to budget chief Mike Del Grande, because of contracting out of more garbage collection that was approved at the last meeting of Toronto Council.

“It would be difficult, to say on solid waste, to increase fees when we just went through a big humongous process to save a lot of money,” said Del Brande. “We can’t do that when you have $11 million in savings.”

via City will no longer collect extra recyclables in plastic bags | InsideToronto.com.

In other words: the Ford administration wanted people to feel like the move to contract out garbage had saved them money. And the only way to achieve that was to cut service.

Oct 11

What contracted out garbage means — and doesn’t mean

The Toronto Star’s Paul Moloney:

Starting next August, a private company will be collecting household garbage from 165,000 homes west of Yonge St. to the Humber River and from Lake Ontario to Steeles Ave.

The campaign promise of Mayor Rob Ford was fulfilled when city council voted 26-16 Monday to award the job to GFL Environmental East Corporation, of Pickering.

The company, which collects garbage in Hamilton and Oshawa-Whitby, beat out other competitors by offering to do the work for seven years at a $78.4 million saving, or about $11.2 million a year less than unionized city workers.

via City approves private garbage pickup | Toronto Star.

I don’t have a ton to write on this, as it is a relatively minor shift when compared to some of the other policy this administration has their collective eye on. But, given that the mayor is likely to highlight this “victory” in every speech he’ll make from now until the Leafs win the Stanley Cup, let’s spend a little bit of time talking about what contracted out garbage in District 2 means — and more importantly, doesn’t mean — to the city of Toronto.

  • It means risk: I wrote about this last week as well, but I don’t think council or staff did anywhere near their due diligence when it came time to vet this bid. It is such a suspiciously lowball bid that even GFL’s competitors were wondering how they managed to make their numbers work. And that’s where the risk comes in, because it’s entirely possible that the numbers won’t work, and the city will be left holding the bag — or bin — when GFL either goes bankrupt or simply decides they want out of the deal.
  • It doesn’t mean better service: Service quality is a bit of a question mark going forward. When he appeared with Josh Matlow on NewsTalk 1010, Public Works Chair Denzil Minnan-Wong would only commit to service bring provided at the same level as it is currently.
  • It doesn’t mean budgetary savings that can be used on things like libraries and transit: This is the point that will continuously get overlooked again and again, and it’s so critical. Waste collection falls under the city’s rate-based budget, which is separate from the operating budget. Homeowners cover their costs for trash collection through a user fee they pay on their City-issued utility bill. As a result, cheaper waste collection won’t ever mean that there extra funds for the city services that are currently being menaced by men with large knives. It also won’t mean lower property taxes, if that’s the kind of thing that makes you salivate. As far as the all-important taxpayer is concerned, the only fiscal impact as a result of this change might be a freeze or slight decrease in the annual cost of a garbage bin. A medium-sized bin costs less than $50 per year at current rates.

So what happens next? Hopefully very little of interest. Now that council has made this decision, I hope GFL does have a workable business plan that allows them to maintain current service levels at their proposed costs, and that, come next August, those west of Yonge Street don’t even realize that their waste is now being hauled away by people in different trucks, which I assume will be green in colour.

Ford often claims to have a mandate for various things stemming from his one-year-ago-yesterday mayoral win, and often I find such claims pretty damn dubious. On transit, for example — an issue that was shamefully kicked to the back of the bus during most debates so Ford and opponent George Smitherman could rant about waste — I find it hard to buy the notion that the mayor had a real mandate to immediately kill Transit City. But on this issue, his claim was more legitimate.

Setting aside ideology and academic notions about the role of public workers delivering public services, the 2009 garbage strike made a lot of voters really mad, and they channeled that anger into support for a mayoral candidate who continuously promised that his plan to contract out would help avoid future lapses in service.

He’s done that now, at least partially, and expressed a desire to continue with the other districts. We’ll see how it goes.

Oct 11

“Bargain basement” garbage contract smells a bit fishy

Solid Waste Collection: Current Cost Per District Versus GFL Proposal

The Globe & Mail’s John Lorinc:

A Pickering firm run by a former minor hockey league goalie has emerged as the recommended winning bidder on the city’s controversial garbage out-sourcing deal, city hall sources have confirmed.

An announcement is expected at a news conference scheduled for noon.

GFL Waste & Recycling Solutions was founded by Patrick Dovigi, a one-time Edmonton Oiler draft pick who formed the company in 2007 out of three smaller firms – Direct Line Environmental, National Waste Services and Enviro West — that run several transfer stations and hauling operations.

The firm bid $17.5-million on a contract to provide residential waste collection west of Yonge Street, significantly undercutting three other large competitors, including Emterra Environmental ($23.9-million), Miller Waste Systems ($20.98-million) and Waste Management of Canada ($23.8-million and an alternate bid of $25.6-million).

via GFL winning bidder for Toronto garbage contract | Globe & Mail.

Via Twitter, the Toronto Sun’s Don Peat has reported that Councillor Gord Perks has expressed “serious concerns” about this contract, saying it represents a “below bargain basement price.”

A comparison between the announced figure and the numbers provided by staff (in the April report that kicked off this process) sure seem to back that assertion up. Green For Life is claiming they can pick up solid waste in District 2 — bordered by Etobicoke in the west and Yonge Street in the east — for $105 per household, or $95 per tonne. That’s comparatively less than what the current private contractor charges to pick up trash in Etobicoke. There, the costs work out to $119 per household and $103 per tonne. You can see the full comparison in the chart above.

I’m hardly an expert on solid waste collection, but I think it’s a safe assumption that solid waste collection in Etobicoke — with wide, suburban streets and leafy culs-de-sac — is a hell of a lot easier than it is in District 2, which includes a wide swath of downtown.

In another fun note, Lorinc also reports that the “the city’s recommended seven year contract offer to GFL is actually about $8-million more than what GFL initially bid, due to contingencies, HST recovery and cost of living allowances.” Those extra fees result in a contract that totals about $25.5 million a year, would seem to put the actual year-to-year savings of garbage privatization in District 2 at just under two million dollars.

So, some lingering questions to discuss:

  • Is GFL’s bid so low that it’s suspicious?
  • What is the city giving up — in terms of control and/or quality of service — to achieve potential overall savings that, reportedly, could only amount to $2 million per year in District 2?

Jun 11

Ford’s approval rating down, weak support for Sheppard subway

The Toronto Star’s David Rider has details on a Forum Research poll regarding municipal issues:

Asked if Ford is doing a good job as mayor, six months after his upset victory, 57 per cent agreed, down from 60 per cent in a late-February Forum Research poll. An early-May Toronto Real Estate Board survey pegged Ford’s support at 70 per cent.

As a whole, the new results aren’t great news for Ford, said Bozinoff, who said he did the poll independently to gauge opinions on civic issues.

“Ford’s support appears to have plateaued and these trial balloons being floated on how to solve financial problems, like road tolls and cutting the number of police, have no real support,” he said.

via Road tolls to pay for Sheppard subway a non-starter, poll finds – thestar.com.

A 57% approval rating is actually remarkably low for a sitting mayor less than a year into his first term, especially because Ford hasn’t had to make any unpopular decisions.

The big news springs from the two questions asked about road tolls. When asked if they would support road tolls to reduce traffic congestion, 43% of people approved. (With a strong majority of 58% in Toronto & East York.) On the other hand, when asked specifically about road tolls to pay for the Sheppard Subway, support drops to 35%. A loser of an idea anywhere in the city, apparently, as the mention of the subway doesn’t even draw increased support for road tolls in Scarborough, where the new subway line would go.

The full report detailing poll results is available as a PDF. Other findings:

  • Privatizing garbage collection is still popular with residents, with 52% approval. This is down 2% from Forum Research’s last poll, in February. I’m still surprised that this doesn’t poll higher. Interestingly, a majority opposes privatization of garbage in Scarborough.
  • The five cent plastic bag fee enjoys a majority of support with 52% in favour. Not sure how this squares with the populist mayor continuing to push the idea that people hate paying a nickel for a bag.
  • A strong majority — 57% — oppose “reducing the police force to help freeze property taxes.” We are unlikely to see either a property tax freeze or a reduction in the number of police officers this year.
  • A whopping 72% of people support “physically separating bike lanes from car lanes.” I wonder if this question is too vague, however. Phrased as “adding a new, fully separated bike lane on Richmond Street”, would the results differ? Either way, this is an encouraging result.
  • In the most ridiculous question in the poll, 65% express support for “having public festivals, marathons, marches and walkathons in city parks, rather than closing city streets and expressways.” This would appear to suggest that moving, say, the Toronto Marathon to High Park is feasible when, of course, it isn’t. These events don’t happen on the street just for the hell of it, but rather because they require the space.


May 11

The mayor’s bad day

At The Grid, Edward Keenan writes a great summary of yesterday’s garbage vote. Most media outlets ran with the “big victory for Ford” story today, but I’m more and more convinced that it was a very bad day for Rob Ford and his allies:

By day’s end, the mayor’s main item passed, yes, by a large majority. But the effect of the amendments, in my opinion, is that it will make it very difficult for staff to craft a bid request conforming to council’s demands that will also stand up to a lawsuit. (And note: if the city is tied up in litigation with potential or wannabe bidders, they will likely be unable to award a contract—though, of course I’m not a lawyer…)

They also place some unattractive restrictions on the contract for potential contractors, and ensure that the whole thing has to come back to council for another fight later (if and when a winning bid is identified), and the bid has to bring with it actual numbers that show that the contract will save as much money and be as environmentally sound as Ford and staff have claimed it will be. The result of that possible vote is very much an open question.

via The Grid TO | Rob Ford gets trashed.

Royson James has a decent summary as well: “The vote, coming just six months into the mayor’s term, shows he may have to compromise more than he imagined. This was supposed to be the easiest service to privatize, and yet it took so much effort.”

The bottom line: the changes Ford will need to make — be they cuts, or privatization, or sales of assets — to successfully balance the coming budget will be far more contentious than what was debated on Tuesday.

May 11

Why don’t Etobicoke residents recycle?

One of the more common arguments brought up at yesterday’s council meeting against the mayor’s plan to contract out garbage collection was the idea that, apples to apples, public service may be cheaper. Councillor Gord Perks illustrated this point with numbers pulled from a recent report by accountant Al Rosen — commissioned, it must be noted, by the union — that show that, when you factor in revenues from recyclable goods, the net cost per tonne in contracted-out Etobicoke is actually higher than the cost in publicly-serviced Scarborough.

From the report, the relevant table:

District 4 (Scarborough, publicly serviced) is the fairest comparison to District 1 (Etobicoke, privately serviced), as the other two district contain vast stretches of the old city. (20% of homes in Districts 2 and 3 are detached single family homes, versus almost 40% in the other two districts.)

Etobicoke residents recycle far less than their counterparts in Scarborough, sending approximately 0.32 tonnes/household to the recycling plant versus 0.40 tonnes/household in the east end of the city. The report speculates that this could be because of “lower program compliance by District 1 residents, lower diversion rates by the private contractor, or diversion by the contractor of valuable materials.”

I guess it’s possible that Etobicoke residents just suck at putting things in the blue bin, but that seems a little simplistic. More likely is that something is happening after the blue box hits the curb that is resulting in much lower reported diversion rates.

Maintaining and increasing these diversion rates isn’t just an issue for tree-hugging environmentalists — it’s also a matter of dollars and cents. If the mayor’s plan to contract out garbage collection were to result in the city’s diversion rates for recyclable goods falling to the level we currently see in Etobicoke, this whole thing would become an unmitigated financial disaster. On a cost per tonne basis, the city would lose money.

Thankfully, Councillor Josh Matlow successfully passed an amendment last night requiring that “diversion targets [of bidders] must meet or exceed current City standards and may not be reduced from the present targets. If the City increases diversion rates east of Yonge Street then a private firm will be required to also meet the increased diversion rates west of Yonge Street.”

The mayor, of course, voted against.

May 11

Council moves to take out the trash after 32-13 vote

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/TOMayorFord/status/70644442498998274″]

The Toronto Star’s David Rider and Paul Moloney, whose article is accompanied by a great picture:

Mayor Rob Ford has won his biggest victory since storming into office, setting the stage for a new era of privatization with a garbage contract that slashes 300 unionized city jobs.

“We’re getting this city turned around,” Ford crowed Tuesday night after council voted 32-13 to start a bidding process that, if it unfolds as predicted, could see a private waste hauler collect garbage from 165,000 households between Yonge St. and Etobicoke’s eastern edge.

via Toronto votes to contract out garbage pickup – thestar.com.

Ford’s spinning this as a hard-won victory for his administration, but I’m not sure I buy it. What happened tonight was not a vote to contract out garbage collection, but rather a step towards receiving quotes from qualified bidders. Council will have another opportunity to review and debate before awarding the contract for private delivery of service sometime in 2012.

The proposed process was always my biggest problem with this item, so I’m happy to see that Ford and his allies made a concession on this one.

In addition to that, Team Ford were also on the losing end of six votes relating to amendments on the item, including:

  • A recommendation by Josh Matlow that would see the City manager provide annual progress reports relating to the contract
  • A recommendation by Matlow that staff not accept any bid from the private sector company that recently hired former General Manager of Solid Waste Management for the City of Toronto, Geoff Rathbone
  • A pair of recommendations by Matlow that that require any bidder to meet or exceed existing and future diversion targets for solid waste, and to essentially guarantee a minimum level of savings
  • A recommendation from Josh Colle that the City ask the Auditor General to perform a post-implementation audit on the awarded contract
  • A recommendation from Ana Bailão that will require the City manager to “conduct an independent review of both the bid/contract numbers and the cost for identical services provided by the City”

Council also ended up deadlocked, tied 22-22, on three other amendment votes. Ford’s whip proved to be less effective than ever tonight, which is certainly something that can be seen as a victory for his opponents.

Of course, the vote that mattered wasn’t even close. I feel that most councillors — especially suburban councillors — could not ignore the fact that contracting out garbage is a massively popular idea with many people in this city. In addition, now that the contract will return to council, there will be another chance to review the numbers and make a more informed decision. (I suspect this is why councillors like Shelley Carroll and Raymond Cho ended up voting in favour.)

So what happens next? Seemingly not a whole lot, at least for a while. The union will hope that the bids that come in don’t show savings at the level the mayor anticipates — and some of the amendments passed today will make savings challenging –, while Ford and his allies will continue to not really care about the numbers, because for them this is primarily about revenge.

May 11

VIDEO: Rob Ford opens garbage debate, declares “people are sick and tired of tax and spend socialists”

Kicking off this week’s City Council meeting, Mayor Rob Ford rose to introduce the debate on his key agenda item: the contracting out of solid waste collection in the district west of Yonge Street. His speech struck an immediate divisive tone, declaring “we [ councillors] are going to divide ourselves into two groups … we’re going to have the left or you’re going to have the right.” He also struck a Sue-Ann Levyish tone with his use of the phrase “tax and spend socialists.”

I’ve embedded two videos, a short version of his speech (above) that includes only the most inflammatory section, and a longer, uncut version. The long version (below, past the cut) includes a fun section wherein the mayor lays out what he believes to be his administration’s greatest accomplishments thus far. The list includes things like building subways and bringing the UFC to Toronto, among other less dubious claims.

Interestingly, despite having a rare opportunity to ask the mayor direct questions — the last time this happened, it was really fun — , councillors passed and move directly to asking questions to city staff. As one councillor expressed on the floor: why ask questions when you’re not going to get an answer?

Continue reading →

May 11

Trash of the Titans

Councillor Josh Matlow held a debate on the merits of garbage privatization last night, pitting Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong against economist Hugh MacKenzie. I liked both John Michael McGrath’s coverage at Toronto Life and Carly Conway’s piece praising moderator Steve Paikin above everything else at Torontoist.

The truth of the matter — and this is the reason I think the event was only lightly attended — is that council will essentially be considering two items related to garbage privatization next week: outcome and process. The question of outcome is boring. I suspect most councillors believe that their constituents favour the outsourcing of trash collection. That’ll be enough to push them toward supporting the idea.

The process, on the other hand, is the far more interesting — and complicated — question. Councillors need to really dig deep and consider whether city council should authorize staff to approve the winning bid without oversight. Should Toronto really award a very very rich private sector contract with no input from elected officials?

It seems, at least, that even privatization-booster Minnan-Wong isn’t so sure the staff-recommended process is a good one. From the Toronto Star’s David Rider:

Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East) also revealed that he’s “struggling” with a staff recommendation that council approve the bidding process but then let a staff committee award the final contract potentially worth $150 million.

He voted, along with three other public works members, in favour of that recommendation plus others put forward in a privatization report by senior works staff.

But asked about the clause, amid news that the manager who authored the report is moving to a private-sector firm expected to bid on the contract, Minnan-Wong voiced reservations.

Staff said the delay caused by taking the recommended bid to council will cost the city millions in possible savings, he noted, adding: “I’m struggling with this.”

The issue will be hashed out on the floor of council, he said.

via Gender rights a new wrinkle in trash debate – thestar.com.

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out during the council meeting next week.