Posts Tagged: garbage

Apr 11

Trash talk: debate is about process, not outcome

Natalie Alcoba covers some of the reaction from councillors following last week’s executive committee meeting about the ongoing plan to privatize waste collection in the city. The meeting was marked by various theatrics. You probably read about them.

Councillor Josh Matlow does a good job of summing up the important parts of this ongoing debate:

“I can tell you that I need to be convinced that it would be a financially responsible move and it would see the savings that staff are suggesting,” said Councillor Josh Matlow, who represents the midtown ward of St. Paul’s.

“We’re hearing the different ideological perspectives but we’re all trying to get to the root of the question, which is are we moving in the direction of privatization because of remaining angst of the strike or is it a fiscally prudent decision that will support quality service or is it a bit of both?”

via Centrist councillors wary of trash proposal | Posted Toronto | National Post.

Privatized garbage pick-up became an inevitability the second Ford’s numbers came in on October 25. Of all the various things the mayor lays claim to have a mandate to do, this one is actually legit. People want this.

I get the ideological objection. I wish people would stop trying to tear union jobs down and instead try to build non-union jobs up. A race to the bottom on labour costs isn’t going to be good for anyone.

But privatized garbage collection doesn’t necessarily represent a titanic shift for this city. We can still be a good, progressive city, even with tendered trash.

Despite persistent needling from right-wingers like Sue-Ann Levy and Frances Nunziata, wading into a deep ideological debate about the modern role of the labour union and Toronto’s recent collective bargaining snafus will only serve to distract from the real issue: that this specific plan is starting to look like a shitty deal for this city.

The process is being rushed through at near-breakneck speed. Despite representing nearly a quarter billion dollars, the final contract won’t be approved by council before its signed. A bad deal signed now will only get worse when the contract comes up for renewal. By then, the city’s negotiating position will have been made weaker by the sale of trucks and collection equipment, making in-sourcing a more costly endeavour. As there are only a few vendors capable of servicing a large city like Toronto in the first place, competition will be limited.

If we are going to go down this road, let’s take the necessary care to do things the right way. Let’s examine our options with proper oversight. Let’s not let the spectre of an expiring labour contract force us into a deal that only looks good in the short-term.

Apr 11

City Hall Secrecy

The Toronto Sun’s Don Peat reports on a funny exchange between Gord Perks and city staff after he and Shelley Carroll were ejected from a media briefing relating to today’s garbage announcement. Apparently councillors were allowed to send a staffer, but were not permitted to attend themselves:

[City spokesperson Jackie] DeSouza and [general manger of Solid Waste Services Geoff] Rathbone then went to talk privately. When they came back, DeSouza said if Perks stayed, they would have to call off the briefing.

“It’s not fair that we told other councillors that they can’t come,” she said.

Perks agreed, partly.

“No, you’re right, it’s not fair you told councillors that they can’t come,” he said.

via Councillors booted from garbage briefing | Toronto & GTA | News | Toronto Sun.

It’s a weird situation — shouldn’t councillors be briefed before the media?

Apr 11

Road to privatized garbage skips past council

With much fanfare — the National Post’s Peter Kuitenbrouwer reports that there was a new! podium! sign! — Chair of Public Works Denzil Minnan-Wong revealed a staff report outlining the proposed process for the privatization of solid waste collection west of Yonge Street.

Solid waste collection is not a big-ticket item. The cost is mostly recovered through user fees. While I am sure some will spin this as a great step forward toward our glorious low-tax utopia, the impact this will have on the city’s overall financial position will be minimal. As a comparison, the $10 million dollars per year the city was to bring in from billboard tax revenues is more substantial.

This is not primarily a financial move. It’s not about customer service, either, as the report concludes (page 9) no difference in customer satisfaction levels between privatized Etobicoke and the rest of the city. This is about punishing the unions and preventing future strikes. And despite some introspective ideological push-back, I’m okay with that, to be honest: if there’s one thing Ford has a legitimate mandate from the people to do, it’s this. I just wish it would be presented more truthfully.

More troubling than the intent behind this is the proposed process. In an effort to have a signed contract in place before the union’s contract expires at the end of this year, the staff report recommends that council delegate approval of the contract to the City’s Bid Committee.

Council will get to debate and approve the overall process for garbage privatization, but they will not — without an amendment to this report — get to debate and approve the final contract itself. The report lays out several reasons why this should be the case, but only one of them makes real sense (page 12):

To ensure that the contracts are awarded and executed in advance of the expiration of existing Collective Agreements. The current Collective Agreements with the TCEU(s) expire December 31, 2011.

Rushing through this process to avoid the spectre of another work stoppage is short-sighted and could cost the city significant amounts of money over the long-term. As the report indicates that the city will sell off some of its equipment (trucks, etc. — the report suggests the city will secure $1.5m in one-time revenue on page 6), this process will be essentially irreversible.

Once we go forward, we can’t go back. This is a critical and high-impact decision-making process that demands more oversight from our elected officials than has been suggested in today’s report.

Apr 11

As Toronto looks to privatize everything “not nailed down…”

Earlier this year, the Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy quoted Doug Ford on privatization: “We’re going to be outsourcing everything that is not nailed down.” These days, this is what amounts to strategy at City Hall.

We need to elevate the discussion.

The New York Times has a “Room For Debate” feature on their opinion page today. It starts off by noting that New York City recently saved 41 million dollars by in-sourcing their technology services:

Stephen Goldsmith, the deputy mayor of New York, recently said that its time to get rid of costly private contractors and have city employees handle more of the citys technology services. Mr. Goldsmith, known as “the prince of privatization” when he was mayor of Indianapolis in the 1990s, said he found $41 million in immediate savings by taking the work of the citys data center and wireless network back in-house.

via Is Privatization a Bad Deal for Cities and States? – Room for Debate –

What follows is a variety of points from a variety of people, most of which seemingly add up to this: privatization isn’t magic, can cost more and deliver worse service, and we in Toronto need to look at these things cautiously. (On the flip side, there’s a column by the Reason Foundation’s Leonard Gilroy, parts of which match up verbatim with the Ford Nation script.)

I’m going to excerpt a few items from the feature, as I’m pretty sure this kind of thing will come in handy over the next year. Plus I’m not sure when this feature will get swallowed by a paywall of doom.

Mildred Warner, professor at Cornell University, who has been tracking the issue of privatization-versus-public-delivery through the International City County Management Association (ICMA) surveys:

I.C.M.A. also tracks the reasons why local governments bring back in-house previously privatized work. The reasons are problems with service quality (61 percent), lack of cost savings (52 percent), improvements in public delivery (34 percent), problems with monitoring (17 percent) and political support to bring the work back in house (17 percent). It turns out citizens prefer local services to be locally controlled and publicly delivered.

Rigorous quantitative analysis of every published study from around the world of water delivery and garbage collection (the two most commonly privatized services at the local government level) finds no statistical support for cost savings under privatization.

via The Pendulum Swings Again – Room for Debate –

Nicole Gelinas, contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal:

In general, too, whenever cities and states sell or lease a big asset to the private sector to reap some short-term cash to cover budget deficits, as Chicago did with its parking meters, taxpayers get a bad deal. Bidders know when a government is desperate for money. They stand ready to enable government officials to enter into decades-long contracts, which only magnifies the effect of any mistakes in calculating potential profits and costs.

via Not a Cure for Incompetence – Room for Debate –

Elliott Sclar, professor of Urban Planning at Columbia:

We would do far better if we started with the recognition that the public sector is a highly complex and socially vital operation staffed by hundreds of thousands of highly trained professionals. Like all organizations, public ones require competent management and continuing investments in improving operating capacity. Utopian schemes to contract away these problems through privatization efforts is a form of magical thinking, which leaves taxpayers to pay for the mistakes.

via When Ideology Drives Decisions – Room for Debate –

Steve Tadelia, professor of economics at Berkeley:

Politicians like simple messages. Conservatives like to say that “privatization provides good services at low costs,” while many liberals will claim that “privatization reduces quality and costs jobs.” Both can be right or wrong, depending on the particulars of the service involved. The trouble is that political agendas seldom align with the cost-benefit analysis required for good privatization policy decisions. The tough part is strategically choosing the right projects and services for privatization that have a good chance of avoiding outsourcing’s pitfalls.

via Corporations Make the Same Mistakes – Room for Debate –

But, really, why even stop to think about this stuff? Let’s just plow through and get it done. Damn the torpedoes: let’s see everything not nailed down get screwed.

Hat tip to greenleaf on the Urban Toronto forums for bringing this to my attention.

Mar 11

Ford enjoys a 60% approval rating, says terribly misleading poll

Kelly Grant with the Globe & Mail:

Rob Ford enjoys a 60-per-cent approval rating, according to the first public poll released since he took office Dec. 1.

However, Toronto-based Forum Research, Inc. found that urban and suburban Torontonians remain deeply divided about Mr. Ford: His approval rating was highest in Scarborough (71 per cent) and North York (65 per cent) and lowest in the old cities of Toronto and East York (46 per cent.)

“That puts him higher than his vote, so somehow he’s got the approval of some of his opponents’ supporters, which I think is quite a task, especially given how polarizing the election was,” said Lorne Bozinoff, the president of Forum Research. “My gut feel is that’s a good rating.”

via Rob Ford more popular now than at election – The Globe and Mail.

Always fun to see pollsters going by their “gut feel.”

Grant points out that while a 60% approval rating isn’t bad by any means, David Miller’s approval rating was 82% six months into his first term. Quick googling reveals that Miller’s approval ratings stayed very high until the garbage strike in 2009. In 2005, well into his first term, Miller sat at 69%.

More troubling is the nature of the poll questions. Forum Research asked respondents 11 questions about various policies. Of those, several of the questions are incredibly misleading, generally skewed toward pushing support for the mayor’s initiatives.

Here’s a quick breakdown, I’m assuming all questions began with “Do you agree with…” or “Do you support…” but that’s been omitted in the report.

  • “The privatization of garbage collection for parts of the city” – A fine question. Notable that only 54% of people agree with this. I’d have pegged popular support at a higher level.
  • “The mandatory 5 cent plastic shopping bag fee” – Another appropriate question. It’s hilarious how much older people hate this fee.
  • “Declaring the TTC an essential service that would ban strikes and lockouts” – I don’t have a huge problem with this question, but I’d guess that rephrasing it as “Declaring the TTC an essential service, increasing labour costs related to transit” would see very different results.
  • “Tearing down the eastern end of the Gardiner expressway” – Why even ask this? Has it come up at all? Was there more context given? A weird question.
  • “Providing jobs for life for city employees” – This is where these questions go off the rails completely. They might as well have phrased as this “Do you support fatcat union members?”
  • “Using private sector financing to pay for the Sheppard subway so it can be built sooner” – What the hell is this one? No one is proposing that private sector funds will get transit built on Sheppard faster than originally planned. The Sheppard East LRT would have been open in less than three years.
  • “Spending $3 million to hire an outside consultant to look at ways to make the City more efficient?” – If there’s bad news for Ford in this poll, it’s this question. Only 38% of people support the move to hire an outside consultant. A fair question. (Interesting, too, that the $3 million dollars only become public knowledge at council on Thursday, February 24  – this poll went into the wild on Friday, February 25.)
  • “Relaxing liquor regulations so that you can walk around with a drink at licensed events instead of having to stay in a beer tent?” – This is a provincial issue that doesn’t have anything to do with the City’s government.
  • Licensing bicyclists so that traffic laws can be enforced with them?”Oh, screw off. I love the implication that traffic laws can’t be enforced with cyclists currently because of the lack of some kind of licensing program. Cyclists already are subject to the rules of the road. A municipal licensing program wouldn’t do anything to change that and would cost a ton of money.
  • “In order to improve public transit, do you think more below ground subways or more above ground light rail streetcars should be built?” – No one is proposing more streetcar lines as Toronto knows them. A ridiculous question in the sense that even diehard Transit City supporters would probably be forced to answer for below ground subways. In an ideal world we’d have below ground subways everywhere.
  • “Should the City build more City owned social housing units or should the City provide rent subsidies so those needing social housing can rent privately owned units instead?” – Not as egregious as some of the other questions but, again, there’s a clear skew here. The subtext is “Should the city keep spending YOUR TAX DOLLARS on public housing or should we just let the awesome private sector deal with it?” As I noted yesterday, Section Eight housing subsidies exist across the United States and still lead to the same issues we see with our public housing system — slumlords eagerly accept the subsidies while “nicer” market rental buildings refuse them.

In summary, this poll reveals primarily that Ford is currently a semi-popular mayor and little else. Anyone who can read some of the questions contained within this poll and feel like they’re an accurate representation of anything is kidding themselves.

Feb 11

Privatizing garbage collection: still not about cost or efficiency

The Toronto Star’s Kenneth Kidd followed the lead of a bunch of other journalists this week and dug into the nuts and bolts of garbage privatization:

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford now wants to extend that idea to everywhere else west of Yonge St. He thinks the contracting out of garbage collection will save the city money, and he wouldn’t be alone in thinking that a private company could do the job a lot more cheaply than a bunch of city hall bureaucrats and unionized public employees.

There’s just one problem: Almost every assumption in that equation is doubtful at best.

via To save money, keep some trash collection public –

The piece is well-written — particularly the bit that points out the limited utility of privatizing big city operations –, but I still believe that all this talk about potential savings or service improvements misses the point that, at the core, this is a knee-jerk response to a 2008 labour dispute that left our parks filled with garbage.

The big worry here is that the process will be rushed through for short-term gain, allowing Ford to check a box on his big list of election promises. Will, as the article suggests, the area set for contracting out be divided into smaller areas to allow for competition, or will the entire western half of the city be awarded as one giant-sized contract, limiting the realistic pool of winners? Will city resources (trucks, facilities) be sold or leased to private vendors, and, if so, on what kind of terms? Will the city’s diversion targets for recycling and organics be kept? If so, who will audit that?

A lot of questions but not a lot of answers yet. Let’s hope the dialogue surrounding this amounts to more than doom-and-gloom strike talk.

Feb 11

All the best policies are motivated by revenge

So: garbage. We’re going to contract out garbage collection. At least west of Yonge Street, anyway. There is nothing really to say about this topic because it’s mostly a benign move, following in the footsteps of a bunch of other cities in the GTA. It’s not particularly dangerous or daring or dastardly. We don’t need to sound the ideological alarm. This is okay.

The only thing that makes this move at all interesting to me is that it seems primarily motivated not by money or customer service, but by revenge.

Here’s how the mayor phrased it this morning, as reported by David Rider and Daniel Dale for the Toronto Star:

“We are doing this so we’re not going to go through another 40-day garbage strike like we did last year,” the mayor said. “We’re going to save millions of dollars, and we’re going to reduce the size of government. That’s what people elected us to do.”

via Ford moves to privatize garbage collection –

I’m not a politician or anything, but making major policy decisions because there was a strike that annoyed you a couple of years back seems short-sighted. It’s the same line of argument he used for declaring the TTC an essential service.

Also, has “reduce the size of government” taken the place as “stop the gravy train” as the mayor’s preferred slogan? It’s not as catchy.

Feb 11

Mayor’s office is in total disarray but believes itself incredibly effective

In what has become something of a tradition, some crazy-ass news broke from the mayor’s office late Friday. This one is a bit complicated, so let’s try to step through it together.

The National Post’s Natalie Alcoba:

It was late afternoon when news broke of an incident at City Hall that led Mayor Rob Ford’s outgoing chief of staff, Nick Kouvalis, to ask security to escort the mayor’s long time staffer Andrew Pask out of the building.

Before the workday was up, Mr. Kouvalis and Councillor Doug Ford, the mayor’s brother, marched down to the Press Gallery to “clarify” what happened on Jan. 21, insisting there is no discord in the Mayor’s office, while simultaneously declaring that a new plan for subways is almost finalized.

via Ford’s office holds meeting to ‘clarify’ incident with Nick Kouvalis | Posted Toronto | National Post.

Okay. So Nick Kouvalis, the mayor’s chief of staff and the guy who essentially got Rob Ford elected, is a total jerk, right? And I say that not in a disparaging way because I don’t think he aspires to be anything but a jerk. It’s a label that fits him. In any case, we learned a few weeks back (on a Friday afternoon) that Kouvalis would be stepping down from his role. According to others in the mayor’s office, this was both something that was and was not planned for some time.

So a footnote of Kouvalis’ leaving was that another guy, Andrew Pask, was also leaving. This didn’t really receive a lot of attention because Kouvalis was the bigger story.

But today news broke that Kouvalis actually called security and had them escort Pask out of the building after an altercation at a meeting. Keep in mind that Kouvalis is a man who was accused of uttering death threats against Essex MP Jeff Watson and once pushed a Ford supporter out of the way because the mayor wnated a Diet Coke. When news of this so-called “blow-up” was leaked, with the suggestion that it led to Kouvalis’ leaving, Doug Ford and Kouvalis himself called a press scrum to clarify things.

And clarify they did. Toronto Star blog The Goods has the audio of the conference, and it’s well-worth listening to. (Little moments, like the attempt to get everyone to go off-the-record in the middle of the scrum, and that the apparently semi-serious question as to where Sue-Ann Levy would be running for office, are great.)

Some choice quotes:

  • Doug Ford confirms the mayor’s approach to accountability by saying that it is “no one’s business what happens…in the Mayor’s office.”
  • Kouvalis makes the claim that this administration has done “done more than Miller did in seven years in a month-and-a-half.” Which seems to suggest that the last seven years amounted to less than the elimination of a sixty-dollar-per-year user fee, a bunch of bus route cuts and a single year tax freeze.
  • Doug Ford says, of Kouvalis, “Public record, he’s going to privatize garbage.” I really think he expects people to break into spontaneous applause every time he says this.
  • Kouvalis says that he would already be gone if not for the transit deal. In a curious turn-of-phrase, he says, “Transit City is alive and well and it’s going to be buried underground.” He may have just misspoken and meant to use the Ford-branded “Transportation City.”

In conclusion? Who the hell knows. But even diehard Ford supporters have to be feeling like maybe this isn’t the greatest example of efficient, well-run and customer service-oriented government.

Jan 11

Levy: Privatizing garbage will let us throw more stuff away

I know Sue-Ann Levy is too easy a target and I really should just lay off, but I will not be deterred. Here she is on privatizing garbage collection:

A few hours later, on the flight back to T.O., my seatmates happened to mention that in Florida the garbage workers take everything — and twice weekly at that — while in Toronto, one virtually has to gift-wrap the garbage before it gets picked up.

I couldn’t have said it better.

via Gift-wrapped garbage has to end | Sue-Ann Levy | Columnists | Comment | Toronto Sun.

Of all the reasons to look at privatizing garbage, so we can throw more stuff away has to be the worst I’ve heard.

We should be honest about why the mayor has a mandate to privatize waste collection: it’s to punish the union after the protracted strike two years ago. This isn’t necessarily bad reasoning — I lean toward supporting the move — but don’t pretend it has anything to do with day-to-day customer service, the city’s finances or your ability to throw out bags upon bags of trash and have them picked up twice a week.