Nov 11

The Don Revelation: renegade valley may thwart Rob Ford’s underground transit vision

There is a little known geological phenomenon that divides Toronto’s east and west sides. Planners — whose grand visions are frequently thwarted by this useless gaping chasm — call it the “Don Valley.” It is truly a scourge that continues to strike when we least expect it.

Its latest victim might be the Mayor’s bold, never-voted-on plan to bury the entirety of the Eglinton LRT. The mayor’s unilateral decision to bury the line came with a $2 billion price tag and two casualties, killing light rail projects for Finch West and Sheppard East.

Here’s John Lorinc, writing for the Globe & Mail:

Under the Transit City strategy, the LRT was to emerge from a tunnel east of Laird and continue eastward on a right-of-way in the middle of Eglinton. But because of Mr. Ford’s changes, Metrolinx officials have spent months grappling with the question of how to get the Crosstown line across the Don Valley.

A tunnel may prove to be too deep and too steep for light rail vehicles, so Bruce McCuaig, president and CEO of Metrolinx, said the agency is looking at building a grade-separated bridge for the LRT as it crosses the ravines. Public consultations on an environmental assessment examining a bridge and other tunnel configurations will begin in early 2012.

via Tunnel plan for Eglinton Crosstown LRT could stymie Ford | Globe & Mail.

Despite continually being reminded that the taxpayers told the mayor that they wanted subways — not streetcars! — and that the war on the car is over, this lazy, insubordinate valley refuses to budge.

Metrolinx is said to be looking at bridge options, but that’s a dangerous path to go down. Lengthy environmental assessment processes threaten to re-politicize transit expansion, forcing council debates and public consultation sessions. In addition, any elevated bridges will almost certainly mean cost overruns and delays, pushing the completion date for the Eglinton project back from the already-distant goal of 2020.

Running the Eglinton line in a median over existing road bridges is, of course, workable. It’s what Transit City called for. But going back to that strategy could potentially jeopardize plans to use automatic operation for the line.

Operating the line in an exclusive, right-of-way on the bridge-crossing sections also immediately brings up another question: why not save a bunch of money and build the line in a protected right-of-way across other sections of Eglinton?

Under Transit City, the surface sections of the Eglinton LRT were always designed to operate at speeds close to or exceeding that of the Bloor-Danforth subway line. Eglinton’s status outside the core as a wide arterial means there’s plenty of room for transit without impacting automobile traffic. In fact, the only upside to burying the entirety of the line is that drivers won’t have to contend with limited left-turn access along the length of the route.

How much is that worth? Is it worth a billion dollars? How about two?

Undermined confidence

Stories like this only serve to undermine any confidence Toronto residents had in ongoing transit plans. At this point, people are so jaded by the planning process that only the true faithful believe that they’ll ever see the projects politicians trip over themselves to point out on maps come election time.

That Metrolinx planners are only now coming to terms with the existence of the Don Valley shows how haphazard this process is. The provincial government made a political decision to appease Rob Ford, but they seemingly never had any idea how to make the mayor’s new transit vision work.

And so we end up here: with a bunch of planners working to overcome the unforeseen problem that is one of the city’s most well-known natural phenomena. Oh, Don Valley. You bastard.

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?

Sep 11

Toronto Spoke Coda: “When are you going to tell us what kind of city you actually want to govern?”

After twenty-two videos and a month of pithy commentary, let’s let Councillor Gord Perks sum this whole thing up: “Over the last twenty hours,” he says in the video above, his remarks coming in the very early morning. “I have experienced something that I have never experienced in twenty years as a community activist and five years as an elected official: I heard Toronto speak.”

That epic-length Executive Committee meeting has faded into the background over the last month, replaced with endless and seemingly circular debates around things like waterfront development and communism. The episodic nature of politics under Mayor Rob Ford unfortunately means that we run the risk of getting ourselves lodged in a deep rut of formulaic outrage and ridicule as this administration skips from one contentious policy announcement to the next.

But what really matters, I think, when you get past the weekly sitcom-esque plot lines, is the kind of overarching message expressed in these videos I’ve posted. It’s a sentiment that says yes, we do care about this city. And, yes, we will stay up all night and take time off work and speak — and sometimes sing and rhyme and present puppet shows — even if we know, deep down, that the elected officials at the other side of the table probably aren’t likely to listen or care.

Because Torontonians love Toronto. After the tone and the outcome of the 2010 municipal election, it feels good to write that. To believe it.

Anyway, if these videos represent anything it’s a defence against anyone who would dare to dismiss the deputants as nothing but union members or people representing organizations who get city grants. Of the 22 people I chose to highlight, I picked deputants who were mostly not speaking for or on behalf of unions. Most of them have little-to-no political history. To dismiss these people as trough-feeders or “left-wing NDP people that always got this money handed to them” — as the mayor did in an interview with Sun News Network soon after the meeting — is flat-out wrong.

This is what Toronto sounds like.

Continue reading →

Aug 11

City budget document pegs 2012 shortfall at $530 million (or less)

$774 million. $744 million. $774 million. That number has loomed ominously over every City of Toronto committee meeting for weeks now. The number is like a scythe. Like a sword. Like a scythe and a sword and a bevy of other sharp objects, swinging back and forth above our collective head, — lower and lower — ready to chop us and our finances to tiny bits.

Councillors have been singular in focus: let’s dig our way out of this budget hole before we do everything else. Yes, we have serious issues with customer service and crumbling infrastructure and a lack of social housing and so on, but, we’re told, we need to toss that aside until we can figure out how to address our $774 million budget shortfall. It’s the top priority — the only priority — and we’re going to have to make tough decisions to do it.

All that said, it really is kind of funny that a strategy to knock that $774 million down to $530 million without service cuts was included in a 2011 budget presentation adopted by both the City’s Budget and Executive Committees this past winter.

Here are the tables, direct from the City’s website, as found on page 63 and 64 of last year’s budget presentation:

What this says: We can reasonably expect, before any service cuts or efficiencies, at least $167 million in revenues that can go toward balancing next year’s budget. An expected TTC fare hike of 10-15 cents would bring in another $30 million, and a 2.2% property tax increase would add $47 million to the pile, making for a total reduction of $244 million off the much-ballyhooed $774 million figure, leaving us at $503 million in realistic opening budget pressure. (And these are low-estimate figures!)

This isn’t new information. Councillor Gord Perks has been saying for weeks that the $774 million figure is trumped up. Ed Keenan wrote a gold standard column for The Grid explaining why Perks is probably right. But it still seems startling to me that Ford and his council allies are continuing to trumpet their three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollars shortfall figure even though they were presented information last winter that showed the expected shortfall numbers for 2012 as significantly less.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a problem

Two things to keep in mind: for the most part, the left-wing’s skepticism regarding the Ford budget numbers isn’t meant to deny that a) there is a significant budgetary pressure for 2012 that will require some difficult decisions; and b) the city does face a structural annual opening deficit that is, ultimately, unsustainable. Both these things are true.

The issue we’re having is that Ford is leveraging a singular budgetary challenge for 2012 — which could be overcome through similar tactics as has been done to deal with same-size shortfalls in past years (see the above chart, from the same budget document) — to embark on a rushed and extremely flawed process to immediately tackle the city’s systemic budget issues. The only possible outcome to doing things this way involves drastic, sudden cuts to public services.

Which actually makes for the perfect scenario if you’re a politician with an almost fetishistic passion for killing government programs.

Jul 11

The incredible shrinking budget gap

Here’s the story, as advanced by Councillor Gord Perks and reported this weekend by the Toronto Star: That $774 million budget gap we’re all freaking out about? The one that has us talking sincerely about de-flouridinating our drinking water and shutting down parks? The one that’s so severe that it’s led to the City’s Budget Chief carrying around a plastic State Farm-branded piggy bank that he pulls out and shakes whenever one of his colleagues starts talking about programs that might potentially require more City spending? Turns out it might not be a real figure.

In actuality, the real budget pressure for 2012 — thanks to remaining, recently-discovered 2010 surplus dollars and an anticipated surplus for 2011 — might be significantly less. Like $331 million less.

But if we’re not actually looking at three-quarters-of-a-billion-dollars of “budget pressure,” why does that figure keep coming up? The Star’s Paul Moloney explains:

Critics accuse the Ford administration of exaggerating the city’s money woes to cow citizens into going along with serious cuts.

“I think the mayor is trying to create a political climate that suggests that the City of Toronto government is broken,” said Councillor Gord Perks, a key budget figure in the old David Miller administration.

“The kind of damage that Rob Ford wants to do to services Torontonians rely on can only be achieved if he terrorizes the public into believing we need to do it,” Perks said.

via City budget gap exaggerated, critics say | Toronto Star.

At Toronto Life, John Michael McGrath links this kind of  manufactured-crisis strategy to Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, a sentiment backed up by blogger Sol Chrom, who writes, “Whose interests are served by all this manufactured hysteria around the budget? Apocalyptic numbers and phrases get thrown around and amplified by the transmitters in the media, and soon the sense of crisis is so acute that the stage is set for extraordinary measures.”

Extraordinary measures. Like library closures. Like transit cuts. Like service cuts. You might remember that the Mayor’s Office actually justified their use of previous-term surplus funds to close the 2011 budget gap because it would  mean they had “unmasked the true financial condition for all to see. The 2012 budget forecast reflects the true gap between the city’s revenues and spending habits.”

At The Grid, Ed Keenan contributes a great primer on how the city’s budget process works, and underscores that this year’s budget gap isn’t unique: the previous council dealt with initial shortfalls that were even larger and dealt with them without slash-and-burn service cuts:

[G]oing into the 2010 budget season, David Miller faced a projected budget shortfall of more than $800 million, and he managed not only to balance the budget without cutting any services at all, but to eventually show a huge surplus. So why is the somewhat smaller shortfall that Ford faces an emergency? Why would this, lesser crisis, require considering slashing whole government departments?

via From $350 million surplus to $774 million deficit in one Ford year? | The Grid TO.

But so what? Even if the budget gap is only the $443 million Perks says it could be, that’s still a huge number. And isn’t it time that we got our fiscal house in order and stop with these annual budget games? Shouldn’t Council’s left-wingers know better than to suggest we get through 2012 with yet another short-term, unsustainable fix?

John Lorinc is asking for a more proactive approach from Council’s Left. In his Spacing column this week, he calls on opposition councillors to lay out a “Plan B” budget, proposing an alternative to spending cuts instead of just criticizing the mayor and his allies. It’s not a bad sentiment, but he also adds this: “By the way, if a Plan B hinges on an unspecified Provincial bail-out, it automatically fails the smell test.”

Okay, yeah, it’s not likely that the McGuinty government — much less a prospective Hudak government in the fall — will be willing to cough up new subsidies to the City of Toronto when they’re facing a giant-sized debt and deficit all their own, but to ignore the role the province must play in righting amalgamated Toronto’s financial ship is not realistic. The City’s annual deficit became structural the day Mike Harris cut the provincial TTC operating and capital subsidies. Without a return to a fairer funding model — which will require strong intergovernmental advocacy efforts from the Mayor and Council — the only workable long-term Plan B-type solutions will have to involve politically toxic revenue drivers like a return to something like the Vehicle Registration Fee or even — horror! — a Municipal Sales Tax.

Jun 11

There’s a hole in our budget

The city is currently holding a series of budget consultation sessions in advance of a three million dollar “core service review” set to take place this summer. There’s also an online survey available. It’s structured such that you could, if you wanted, advocate that publicly-owned theatres are the only vital service the city provides, and also that fire services should be contracted out. Don’t do that, though. It’d be wrong.

I haven’t been to a session yet — I’m hoping to make it to the one taking place at City Hall on Saturday — but from what I hear they, like the survey, sort of play out like an elementary school brain teaser. As in: Oh no! The city’s former left-wing Mayor Goofus was addicted to spending and got us in a $774 million budget hole! Help the valiant new Mayor Gallant fix the problem by identifying services that could be cut!

There’s little about revenue generation strategies. Nothing about reinstating recently-cut taxes. Nothing about directing more of the tax money we pay to the provincial and federal governments toward urban initiatives like transit and housing. Instead, it’s a kind of civic Sophie’s Choice: pick the services you love least, because some of them are surely going to die.

Over at the Toronto Standard, Ivor Tossell sums things up nicely:

The whole thing is insane, in a relentlessly logical kind of way. It offers the solutions its framers want to pursue to a solve a crisis they had a hand in creating. Toronto! We may have to raise the taxes we just froze to replace the taxes we just axed to alleviate the apocalyptic financial shortfall we face every year that we just deliberately made worse! What shall we do? Feel free not to care!

via The Useful Hole | Toronto Standard | News, Media, Art, Business, Technology, Fashion, Events.

Similarly, in this week’s NOW, Ellie Kirzner has a nice summary of one of the recent public consultations at Danforth CI. She highlights just how much more challenging Ford’s handling of the 2011 budget have made preparation for the coming year:

Gord Perks sums it up: if Rob Ford hadn’t frozen property taxes, ditched the vehicle registration fee and frittered away the surplus, “we would be in a position where property tax increases just over the rate of inflation could have kept the ship afloat. Now we face significant tax increases or cuts, not because services cost so much, but because Mayor Ford really blew it in his first budget.”

via NOW Magazine // News / Rotten core.

I would never deny that the city has financial problems, but it’s ridiculously short-sighted to think we’re a few service cuts away from a long-term solution. Toronto’s problems are complex and resulted largely from a series of moves from senior governments that dumped operational costs on the one level of government that is legally prohibited from running a year-to-year deficit. The path to fiscal sustainability for our city lies not in service cuts — though we must always be vigilant about the services offered and the efficiency with which they are delivered — but rather in coherent, strategic negotiations between levels of government, resulting in a fair deal for Toronto.

May 11

VIDEO: Giorgio Mammoliti on Drag Queens

During today’s council meeting, Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti rose to speak on item EX5.3, the elimination of citizen advisory committees. After submitting a motion that would refer the item to the mayor’s office for independent consideration, Rob Ford’s self-professed “quarterback” was questioned by Councillor Gord Perks. And then this happened:

The drag queen visit in question happened last week, as part of the awareness campaign for the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, which was celebrated Monday with a ceremony at City Hall. Mammoliti did not attend.

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.

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?

Mar 11

The problems with privatized services

Tomasz Bugajski at BlogTO has a great little interview with Councillor Gord Perks today, discussing the construction on Roncesvalles and the associated delays and headaches. Perks’ comments strike an important chord considering we’re a city that seems very likely to head down a road toward increased privatization:

Because of the history of the way road work is done in the city of Toronto we’re bound by a couple of problems. One is that it’s a privatized service, so these are not municipal employees and we can’t just tell them “you’re falling behind, bring in five more guys, and get the work done.” That’s one problem with privatized services, you can’t control their day to day decisions.

The second problem is because of a long history of people to the right of centre arguing that everything costs too much. We are required to take the lowest bid on a contract, so it doesn’t matter what your history is on completing other work for the City of Toronto, so if you’re a licensed, competent, legal bidder, we’re sort of required by law to take you as the guy who wins the bid.

via What went wrong on Roncesvalles?.

The belief that ‘privatization’ is some kind of magic that can lead to better services for lower cost is dangerous. There’s always a downside.