Mar 12

On labour, the Ford administration proves quietly effective – so why doesn’t anyone care?

Early last week, Toronto’s library workers went on strike. Everyone assumed they would. The city and the library have been at each other’s throats for much of the last year – through budget cuts and branch closures and threats of service reductions. The animosity between the library union and the Ford administration never quite got to the point of outright profanities and name calling, but it got pretty damn close.

If you had asked me on the weekend, I would have predicted a long and drawn out work stoppage. Libraries are vitally important to the city – especially when it comes to youth, seniors and low-income people – but their absence is less likely to cause an emotional response than, for example, a lack of garbage pick-up or reduced EMS response times. The city’s negotiators had a lot of breathing room on this one.

Which is why this, as reported by the Toronto Star’s Liam Casey, comes as a bit of a surprise:

Toronto Public Library workers have reached a tentative deal with the library board, according to its union.

The workers went on strike March 19, closing all 98 branches.

CUPE spokesperson Cim Nunn said the two sides have been meeting since the strike began and reached a deal through “long, hard work.”

via Toronto library strike: Union and board reach tentative deal to end strike | Toronto Star.

And, lo and behold, it looks like the city has found common ground with much of Local 79, the city’s inside workers. Yes, there’s still work to be done with part of that union, but we’re worlds away from speculation last summer that said the mayor would jump straight to a lockout, damn the torpedoes.

Like with the out-of-nowhere deal signed with the outside workers at CUPE 416 last month, these seemingly quick resolutions have got to be seen as a victory for the Ford administration. Contrary to the expectations of a lot of people who claim to have their finger on the pulse of things down at City Hall – including, um, me – the mayor has done reasonably well with labour, wringing the kind of concessions he promised without declaring bloody war on the public sector.

The unions deserve credit too, of course. What we’re seeing now – speedy resolutions to labour issues, a willingness to concede on certain sticking points – is a tacit admission from union leadership in this city that they really screwed things up in 2009, when workers went on strike for 40 days before ultimately conceding and accepting a deal. The public sector seems to know that they need to rebuild political support. And so they’re being conciliatory — often preemptively so. As far as workable long-term strategies go, this is the best the unions have.

Still, if Ford’s been pretty smart on the labour file, he’s been totally inept at turning that intelligence to his political advantage. While Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday and the negotiating team at City Hall have been knocking out deals with various Locals, Ford’s been tilting at transit windmills and repeating the word “subways” so often he’s probably broken an obscure Guinness record for word repetition.

With the subways/LRT debate taking all the headlines, Ford’s done little to attach himself to the negotiations. Instead of holding press conferences and giving interviews trumpeting his ability to wring cost-saving concessions from city workers and open the door for the kind of contracting-out he promised in his campaign, the mayor has been almost invisible in this process.

You could make the argument that the mayor’s invisibility has been a blessing for the city’s negotiating team. Ford’s not particularly well-liked by a lot of union members, and his comments – followed, inevitably, by his brother’s comments – could serve only to add fuel to fire. The Fords have an uncanny ability to make any situation worse just by talking about it.

The other side of the coin, however, says that the mayor is a politician who’s been taking a beating lately. He desperately needs some checkmarks in his “win” column. These labour negotiations could provide that. Yes, it makes sense to maintain some space between the mayor and labour negotiations, but there’s a fertile middle ground between invisibility and overbearing involvement that would still allow Ford’s star to shine in the wake of signed deals.

The only real explanation that makes sense to me is one that harkens back to an underlying theme through Ford’s mayoralty: the mayor is simply understaffed. He doesn’t have the resources in his office to effectively strategize on more than one issue at a time – they can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. His advisors are hilariously ill-equipped to effectively manage policy and communication at the level demanded by Ford’s position. They’re obviously lousy at marshalling support at council and they don’t seem to have many cards to play with the media either, except for with a few names at the Toronto Sun and on the broadcast side. Even simple tasks like ordering business cards or keeping up with municipal conflict of interest law have led to major (and public) screw-ups.

But, hey, they are pretty good at getting back to constituents who have problems relating to sizeable piles of dirt.

Ford’s office has copped to the issue somewhat – there’s money for a new position in the mayor’s office in the 2012 budget. But that may be too little too late. Change needed to start soon after the Port Lands debacle. There have been at least a half-dozen debacles since then, with no sign of improvement. Meanwhile, Ford still lists slashing his own office budget as a major achievement.

But back to the labour issue: signed deals with all the city’s major unions would stand as an undeniable success for the Ford administration. But it doesn’t amount to much if his office isn’t able to effectively communicate that success – and if  it all gets drowned out by the noise and controversy of other things.

Jan 12

Toronto’s Library system is a model of efficiency (so why does Rob Ford want to cut it?)

Let’s play a game. Pretend you’re the CEO of a 10 billion dollar corporation with 50,000 employees spread across dozens of departments and subsidiaries. Because you’re a vigilant, waste-fighting CEO with a finger on the bottom line, you’re always reviewing your corporate make-up to ensure across-the-board efficiency.

One department — the eleventh biggest item on your general ledger — looks like this: key performance metrics are up. Per capita costs are down. The department has seen a dramatic increase in the number of users while adding about a dozen staff to its payroll. Adjusted for inflation, it’s seen less than a 10% budgetary increase over six years — half the increase other departments have seen over the same period.

And, oh yeah: this department is also recognized as the most popular of its kind. Worldwide.

So what would you do? Probably nothing, right? Move on and focus your waste-fighting efforts elsewhere. On programs that aren’t so efficient and beloved.

Which is why we have to ask: why the hell does Rob Ford’s administration continue to demand cuts from the Toronto Public Library?

Numbers, by the book

The Ford administration has been relentless in their drive to find library cuts, pushing for 10% despite repeated assurances by the Library Board that a cut of that size inevitably means cuts to library hours. When the Library Board finally and categorically rejected the demand for a 10% cut — they’ve already found 5.6% in so-called efficiencies — the budget committee, led by Mike Del Grande, refused to let things go, demanding the board find the remaining 4.4%.

(A pause here to note that TPL is not unique in its inability to meet the arbitrary 10% threshold. Several departments, including Fleet Services, the City Manager’s Office and — really — the Mayor’s Office also failed to meet that target.)

The saga continued at last week’s Executive Committee meeting, when perpetually drifting councillor Jaye Robinson moved that TPL only look for about $4 million in cuts, down from the budget committee’s request for $7 million. Her motion also stipulated that the savings be found without cutting library hours.

And while it’s commendable that councillors want to avoid cuts to hours, they’re really into blood-from-a-stone territory at this point. The library, at its core, provides two things: resource material and service hours. To save real money, you have to go after one or the other. There is not some magic pool of savings just awaiting discovery somewhere in the stacks of the Reference Library.

Responsible budgeting means being able to differentiate between the programs that are wasteful, inefficient and underused and those that are well-used and well-run. Every indication is that the Toronto Public Library fits into the latter category.

Continued attempts to raid TPL’s budget serve only to reveal the dangers of Rob Ford’s arbitrary fiscal strategy: it threatens the parts of the city that actually work.

Dec 11

Councillor Michelle Berardinetti doubles down on supporting the mayor

When I first started following the crazy mixed-up world of Toronto City Council, I flagged two Ford-allied councillors — and Executive Committee members — as likely to move away from their support for the Ford administration in 2011. It felt like a safe bet. Both Michelle Berardinetti and Jaye Robinson were new councillors with political histories that didn’t really lend themselves to loyal support for a mayoral administration that would inevitably define itself with a series of deep service cuts.

I was mostly right on Robinson, who in her pre-council life was a City of Toronto staffer linked to Nuit Blanche and other city events. She’s currently in a slightly maddening in-between stage where she’ll sometimes leave the room during council votes, preferring to be recorded as ‘Absent.’ But it’s hard to hold that against her too much, given that a record of publicly opposing the mayor could very well cost her a seat on Ford’s Executive Committee. And it was her public stance against Doug Ford’s Ferris Wheel Dream that finally swayed things on the waterfront file in September.

But my other pick, long-time Liberal Party member Berardinetti, has blazed her own trail. In the past couple of weeks, she’s come out smiling as the “compassionate” flag-bearer of Rob Ford’s 2012 budget, a role that requires some giant-sized leaps of logic and ideology.

To wit: She waged a vociferous public war against the availability of “Hollywood” movies at the Toronto Public Library, calling for a $2 charge for titles like — and these are her examples — Rambo and Little Fockers. She acknowledged that such a charge would require a change to provincial law, but when she attempted to get MPPs on board, her efforts were roundly shot down. She later engaged in an on-air battle with Councillor Adam Vaughan on NewsTalk 1010, in which she denied voting to close a library in his ward last year, despite the official record indicating that she did, in fact, vote to close the Urban Affairs Library. She denounced Vaughan’s use of the phrase “War on Children” to describe the 2012 budget, despite her own council campaign pushing a message that David Miller waged an “attack on motorists.” And on Josh Matlow’s radio show on Sunday, she spoke glowingly of Ford’s former Chief of Staff Nick Kouvalis, and raised no immediate objection when the spin doctor suggested cutting the entire Toronto Environmental Office to pay for school nutrition programs. Her December 2011 newsletter to constituents includes a section on the 2012 budget that reads like it came directly from the mayor’s office.

Perhaps the best example of her new brand of compassionate fiscal conservatism came when she floated (to the Toronto Sun) a proposal to encourage retailers to donate revenue from the mandatory five cent plastic bag fee back to City Hall, to cover the cost of programs that are currently on the chopping block. Not a terrible idea on the surface of it, but it continues the disturbing trend where Ford-allied councillors seek to boost recently-eliminated city revenues with voluntary fees and donations, as if you can run a $10 billion corporation like a branch of UNICEF.

(In the midst of all this, Berardinetti also appeared alongside the mayor in a National Ballet of Canada production of The Nutcracker. This might be notable as an indication of just how deep into the mayor’s inner circle Berardinetti is these days, but she and Ford deserve nothing but praise for their appearance. It was a really cool thing for both to do.)

All this brings to mind only one question: Why? After Berardinetti’s husband was returned to Queen’s Park in October — the venerable Liberal brand victorious over the once-mighty Ford Nation — there was a reasonable expectation that she may start pulling back. The mayor’s less-than-stellar poll numbers in recent months certainly don’t make for a compelling case for throwing your lot in with the Rob Ford crew. And while the mayor is definitely more popular in Scarborough than he is in other parts of the city, neighbouring councillors like Raymond Cho and Glenn De Baeremaeker (and sometimes Chin Lee) don’t seem to be taking much flack from constituents over their opposition.

So maybe Berardinetti’s support isn’t a game of political calculus or hedging her bets but rather just, you know, sincerity. Maybe she’s found a way to reconcile her Liberal Party roots with the Ford brand of politics at City Hall. But then again: if it’s possible for a card-carrying Liberal to unreservedly embrace the policies and outlook of one of the most conservative mayors Toronto has ever seen — a guy with a photo of Mike Harris hanging in his office — what the hell does that say about the Liberal Party?

Aug 11

Budgeting and the art of distraction

Those opposed to service cuts as part the City of Toronto’s 2012 operating budget were reasonably happy when they heard that Councillor James Pasternak, a fairly consistent ally of the Fords, had come out publicly in general opposition to library branch closures. They were even happier when, soon after, heretofore stalwart Ford supporter & TTC Chair Karen Stintz voiced the same opinion. But when Councillor Frances Nunziata jumped on the I-oppose-library-cuts bandwagon yesterday, things started to feel a little contrived. With all these Friends-of-Ford making headlines with their valiant support for Toronto’s libraries, the question has to be asked: were library branch closures ever really on the table at all?

Torontoist’s Hamutal Dotan thinks all these “Save Our Libraries” shenanigans may add up to little more than a big distraction:

So where does this leave us? The library system is just one item in the giant inventory of City services (a.k.a. “savings opportunities”) that the municipal government might cut in anticipation of the 2012 budget. And the public’s strong defence of the library system, heartwarming and essential though it has been, has had one unfortunate side-effect: distracting attention from other services that have less vocal or less organized supporters, are less politically favoured, and are much more likely to actually be cut, even though they too are much beloved and much relied-upon by a broad community of users.

via “Look Over Here, Guys!” (Or, How Libraries May Be Safe but Other Services Aren’t) | Torontoist.

This isn’t really a conspiracy theory, despite appearances. The Ford administration’s only strategic move throughout this whole budget consultation has been to hold all cards to the chest and offer little comment on what might get cut. This enables them to wave off passionate defence of services as premature and paranoid, while at the same time continuing to advance the idea that all programs and services are on the table for potential cuts. The consequence of this vague and inexact approach is that engaged citizens have to play their politics like a game of Twister, attempting to cover all the spots on the board they care about.

At linebreaks.com, Mike Smith explores this notion further:

The Fords likely never had any realistic intention of closing libraries. I have little doubt they would if they could. But by trundling it out as a possibility, they make more generalized cuts — staff, hours, community programming, circulation — feel less severe, like a concession. They may even potentially neutralize a certain amount of activism by making people see victory in “reducing” cuts to the ones that had been planned all along.

Well, alright. To be honest, I don’t know if they actually plan it that way. For all I know, blinkered prejudice and bumbling contempt just happen to have the same effect in the end as keenly enacted right-wing strategy. But it’s the effect that matters, and the effect is twofold: expand the boundaries of the possible for yourself, while limiting the same for your opponents.

via So, Rob Ford and Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci walk in to a library… | linebreaks.com.

If I had to speculate, I’d bet that the vaunted 2012 budget shortfall is made up for with some combination of the following: Some 250+ million in unused surpluses from prior years combined with other revenues; a property tax hike at two or three percent; further cuts to TTC bus routes (this may be accompanied by a fare freeze as a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down); steep hike to user fees for city-run recreational programs; the elimination of some or all of the Community Partnership & Investment Program (CPIP) grants; a reduction in hiring for Police and Fire Services; reduction in hours at community centres and libraries; and probably some asset sales, including city-owned old age homes. They’ll also knock a few million off the top through continued administrative efficiencies, continuing a trend started several budgets ago.

CPIP is the one sure-thing in the list. It’s the mayor’s go-to example for waste at City Hall and the cover provided by this year’s convenient budget crisis makes for the perfect opportunity to take a knife to it.

Jul 11

The end of Toronto’s Rob Ford experiment?

This may be a monumental week in the world of municipal politics. The Globe’s Marcus Gee referred to it as a possible turning of the tide while the National Post Political Panel posed it as an ‘unravelling’ of the Fords. Torontoist’s Hamutal Dotan penned a very good editorial on the Fords and their tactics, calling this a “particularly bad week.”

However you want to characterize it, somewhere in the midst of an embarrassing CP24 interview, allegations that the mayor gave a child the finger while breaking traffic laws, and a weird incident where the mayor’s brother gleefully stated his total ignorance of one of Canadian’s most well-known literary icons, something changed. The unlikely — and maybe underserved — sheen of respectability that has coated the mayor and his inner circle since he took office last fall may actually be wearing off.

And if I can be cynically smug for a second: of course it is. Anyone who was paying attention would have to know it could end up this way. The Pygmalion-ish notion that we could dress Councillor Rob Ford and his history of gaffes up as a Big City Mayor, one who somehow represents a new post-partisan, post-ideological era with a solid mandate for change, was always tied up in a lot of overly-optimistic bullshit.

It’s too soon to dub Toronto’s Rob Ford experiment over — this week will still likely fade into the past — but I have to think that the consistent bad press, coupled with the high-profile departure from a piece of the agenda by TTC Chair and Ford ally Karen Stintz, will ultimately end up meaning something.

It is important to remember, however, that Rob Ford is and will always be Rob Ford. The real path to change lies not in trying to convince Ford, his brother, and their small inner circle of councillors to somehow see the light on key issues, but instead to exert pressure on councillors like Stintz (or James Pasternak, who also came out against library cuts.) who like to think of themselves as more reasonable — and/or politically ambitious — and convince them that Rob Ford isn’t the guy they want to bet their political career on.

Jul 11

Cutting through 2012: Ten places the Fords might look for savings

There are 194 budget considerations — not recommendations — in the KPMG Core Service Review reports, commissioned by Council to help us fix our budget shortfall. A shortfall that, we’re told again and again, totals $774 million this year. Though it’s impossible to get an accurate estimate of how much would be saved if all of KPMG’s considerations were taken and implemented, some shoddy-guesswork-mixed-with-math puts the total at more than $2 billion.

So, problem solved, right?

That figure really is nonsense, of course. In fact, any attempt to put a dollar value on these budget considerations will inevitably be complete nonsense. Because KPMG lists “detailed articulation of cost savings” as out of scope. They weren’t hired to tell us how much money we could save. Instead, all they’ve done is taken a stab at guessing whether each of their considerations will yield small (5% or less), medium (20% or less) or large (more than 20%) reductions in overall department budgets.

But I don’t want to dismiss the study process outright. KPMG’s work would actually have value if it was presented as only a first step in a long line of studies and planning that will, over many years, yield efficiencies in government. Looking at it like that, this is good data. But, unfortunately, we’re supposed to believe that these documents will serve as the shining star that leads all of us through the 2012 budget crisis and into the promised land.

So let’s look at 2012 — and only 2012 –, because that’s what the mayor seems to be doing. Let’s throw out the 109 KPMG budget considerations that won’t produce savings in the 2012 fiscal year, and instead focus only on the remaining 85 that could possibly produce results within the next year. Of those, only about a dozen look like they could yield savings amounting to more than a few million dollars off the gross budget. (On the net budget, once user fees are other revenues are accounted for, the savings are even smaller.)

The small stuff for 2012 — Riverdale Farm and the Centreville Petting Zoo at $1.4m; Heritage Toronto at $900K; Community Enviroment Days at $500K, and so on —  is important, of course, and may still face the axe of the overzealous administration at City Hall, but it’s not going to amount to much in the face of that $774 million figure we keep hearing about.

So let’s stick with the big stuff. Below are ten of the biggest cuts or “efficiencies” for 2012, as identified for consideration by KPMG.

10. TTC & Other Agencies: Integrate administrative services with the City

This is a good one to start with, because it’s one of the many places where KPMG has actually identified something kind of reasonable. They say there might be duplication of administrative services across the City’s departments and its boards and agencies. Finding a way to share administrative staff might provide a cost savings without impacting services. This is a legit efficiency that’s worth pursuing.

Service Cut or Efficiency? Efficiency.

How much could it save? Just looking at the TTC as an example, KPMG projects up to 5% savings off a gross budget of $264m, which works out to $13.6m in the best case. In actuality, though, given the administrative needs of the TTC — one of the largest transit corporations in the world — and the complexity of integrating things with the City, it’s unlikely you could just flip a switch and see immediate savings at that level.

Will Council go for it? This isn’t an angle that’s gotten much press throughout this process — it’s kind of boring when compared to, for example, selling the zoo — but it may well come up. Administrative, HR, Payroll and other such functions probably could stand to be better integrated and shared. It’s an idea worth considering.

9. Community Development & Recreation: Cut some Recreational Programs

The City offers a variety of recreational programs, including arts programs, summer camps and fitness & wellness programs. They also offer subsidized access — some based on income — to athletic facilities, including pools, rinks and golf courses. Offering these programs costs $68.2 million gross, though when user fees are taken into accounts, the net cost drops to $38.8 million.

KPMG is detailed in their analysis of this item, asking that we consider questions like, “Should taxpayers pay $2 an hour to have a child figure skate or play hockey? How about an adult? Should it provide extra support for children who can’t afford fees? For adults? Can clear targets be set, and used to evaluate programs, supporting those that provide good value, and changing or terminating those that cost more than they are worth?”

Service Cut or Efficiency: Service Cut.

How much could it save? KPMG says it could be a Low-to-Medium savings, putting it somewhere between 5 and 20%. If we work off their high estimate, that’d be about $13 million.

Will Council go for it? The Ford administration cut access to recreational programs in the 2011 budget, when they removed free access to community centres in the city’s priority neighbourhoods. Odds are good that we’ll see continued cuts to subsidies through an increase in user fees for these programs. Eliminating some programs outright would also be a way to quickly slash the operating budget.

8. Childcare: Reduce funding & subsidies

The goal here would be to reduce the childcare spaces that are funded 100% by the City. Most of the cost behind childcare spaces in Toronto are shared at an 80/20 split with the Provincial and Municipal Governments. But there are some 2,000 such spaces this year — with another 700 set to be added next year — that the province doesn’t provide funding for. These spaces, and maybe even others, could be eliminated.

Keep in mind that there are almost 20,000 children on the waiting list for subsidized childcare in Toronto.

Service Cut or Efficiency? Service Cut. Anything that means a net reduction in the number of childcare spaces has to be considered a service cut.

How much could it save? KPMG pegs this as a ‘Medium’ cost-saver. Childcare costs the City $78 million on its gross budget, but a lot of that is balanced by provincial funding, with the net cost coming out to only $11 million.

Will City Council go for it? I don’t think a reduction in the number of childcare spaces is workable. Even the most cold-hearted councillor will have balk at putting “eliminated spaces for children” on their political résumé. Still, though, the mayor has appointed Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti to head up a task force on childcare in the City, which means we’ll probably get some kind of ridiculous suggestion on this file as part of the overall 2012 budget discussion.

7. Library: Reduce hours & days of operation

KPMG points out that the Toronto Public Library has the highest number of library holdings per capita of all the comparable municipalities they looked at, along with a “high rate of library use.” Our cost-per-library-use is only slightly above the median figure, despite much higher usage.

If this sounds like an efficient service that probably doesn’t need to be cut, too bad. Cuts to library service hours is an easy cost-saver that doesn’t require a lot of administrative upheaval. Even David Miller once tried to close some libraries on Sunday as a cost-saving gambit.

Service Cut or Efficiency: By definition, less hours of operation means less service. A Service Cut.

How much could it save? TPL’s budget for collection use is $87 million gross, which levels out to $78 million net when you account for revenues from late fees, etc. KPMG identifies reduction in service hours as a low-to-medium savings, which pegs it around $17 million at the extreme high end.

Will Council go for it? Cuts to libraries are politically challenging, but we could see a scenario similar to last year’s closing of the Urban Affairs library, where suburban councillors argued that the downtown facility was redundant given its proximity to other branches. No one wants to vote to close or reduce hours at branches in their own ward, but targeting branches in places that are decidedly not part of ‘Ford Nation’ is a possibility. If councillors can deal with the public outcry and the hurdles posed by the existing collective agreement, library cuts are surely on the table for next year.

6. Toronto Fire: Reduce the number of calls

The National Post’s Megan O’Toole has a very well-done look at the ongoing turf war between Fire Services and EMS in this city, which explains the issue better than I ever could. But, in short: the number of fires is down, yet Fire Services is often sent out on calls that they are not fully equipped to deal with. They often then just have to wait until EMS arrives. Changing the system such that Fire doesn’t so often show up at medical calls could result in efficiencies and cost savings.

Service Cut or Efficiency? As long as overall response time doesn’t take a hit, this would be an Efficiency.

How much could it save? KPMG says it’d be a small savings (5%) off the Fire Department’s very large operating budget of $335 million. Though I have to wonder if some or all of the projected savings would be offset by a necessary increase in funding for EMS. (KPMG also has floated the idea of merging EMS and Fire Services, but that couldn’t happen until 2014.)

Will Council go for it? Maybe, but it’s a delicate operation. No councillor wants to open the door to the bad press storm that would arise should a serious incident happen shortly after they’ve voted to make a cut to Emergency Services. Merging EMS and Fire in 2014 probably has a better chance of happening, if the political will is there.

5. Toronto Zoo: Get other levels of government to help

This one’s easy. KPMG says the City could off-load some of its costs for managing the zoo to other levels of government. But we all know that other levels of government are unlikely to go for it, so this isn’t going to happen.

Selling the zoo, something the mayor brought up in his infamous CP24 interview last week, is a move that KPMG says probably could not happen until 2014.

Service Cut or Efficiency? If they could get a government to provide funding that would maintain service levels, this would be an Efficiency.

How much could it save? If another government were to pick up, say, half of the Zoo’s operating budget, that would take $23 million off the city’s gross operating budget. Though when you consider that the Zoo only requires a $12 million subsidy when revenues are factored in, the numbers start to look substantially smaller.

Will Council go for it? They would, sure, but other levels of government are unlikely to come running.

4. TTC: Reduce or eliminate service

TTC ridership is at an all-time-high following the Ridership Growth Strategy introduced in 2003. Therefore, I guess, it’s as good a time as any to cut back on service. Cuts to bus service in 2012 would likely come paired with a fare increase for a double whammy of suck.

Service Cut or Efficiency? Service Cut.

How much would it save? KPMG pegs reductions in the amount of service as bring in ‘Small’ savings, but even 5% of the TTC’s $573 million budget for operating conventional transit is significant.

Will Council go for it? I’d bet heavily that we’ll see a reduction of TTC service in 2012. The Mayor’s Office showed their hand with their push to eliminate late-night and Sunday service on several bus routes in the 2011 budget. It’s worth noting, however, that they had to sell these service cuts as ‘reallocations’, meant to improve transit service on other routes. Even then, they met with enough resistance that they had to publicly revise their plan.

3. Police Service: Eliminate Paid Duty

This cut would target the practice — widely decried — of posting uniformed police officers at construction sites and special events. Council has already taken some steps to reform the policy, voting unanimously to develop “more effective criteria in delineating the need for paid duty policing in traffic control.”

Service Cut or Efficiency? Efficiency, mostly.

How much could it save? KPMG pegs it as a small saving — 5% or less — off the  Police Service’s $716 million gross operating budget. But when the item was debated at committee earlier this year, it was noted that the direct costs incurred by the city due to this program — from hiring police officers to stand guard at city-funded construction projects — stands at between $5 million and $8 million per year.

Will Council go for it? They seemingly already have, though it remains to be seen what the revised policy will look like.

2. Community Grants: Eliminate the Community Partnership & Investment Program

Rob Ford made direct reference to this $47 million program in his interview with Stephen LeDrew last week, indicating that he is unable to justify grants during a time when the city faces a budget shortfall. He has consistently voted against most of the grants covered by CPIP as a councillor, and continues to do so as mayor.

The program covers a variety of grants, from small amounts of money given to local artists under the Mural Program to funding for major events like Pride and Caribana.

Service Cut or Efficiency? Service Cut.

How much could it save? If the whole program was cut in 2012, it would save $47.4 million.

Will Council go for it? Cutting all grants would be challenging — though Rob Ford would seemingly support such a move, he did not find many allies when he voted against a round of community grants at the July Council meeting — but a significant reduction in the amount of grants given is a real possibility. The economic value of community grants is hard to quantify, but it’s generally acknowledged that they provide an economic benefit several times their cost. KPMG notes that every city they researched as part of this study also operates a community grant program.

1. Police Service: Reduce the number of officers and staff

Not much to explain here, as this is both a simple budget consideration and one that is very unlikely to go anywhere. The Toronto Police Service continues to add officers to its ranks despite a declining crime rate. KPMG points out that Toronto has a low arrests-per-officer ratio, but also notes that other cities — especially American cities — have more officers per capita.

Service Cut or Efficiency? It depends on how reductions in staff are achieved. If various crime rate indicators don’t rise as officers/staff are removed, this would probably be an Efficiency.

How much could it save? There’s a lot at play here, especially because the mayor recently inked a new deal with the Toronto Police Union that guarantees them substantial pay increases. Regardless, the Police Service is the biggest cost by far on Toronto residents’ property tax bill, costing nearly twice as much as the next biggest item, the TTC.

Will Council go for it? Layoffs seem very unlikely but the mayor did show a willingness to — quietly — reduce the number of police officers with his 2011 budget. That budget slowed hiring of new officers to replace those that retire. Still, any chance at achieving significant near-term savings on the police budget seem to have flown out the window when the new collective agreement was signed.

Total savings: not much

Let’s imagine a scenario: a new mayor gets elected in Toronto, swept into office on popular support calling for an era of smart fiscal management at City Hall. He’s said he can run a more efficient city, one that still delivers all the same services but with less bureaucratic bloat.

Due to low fuel costs, a mostly snow-free winter and a combination of various other pieces of good luck mixed with some decent planning on the part of the new mayor’s predecessor, the new council is blessed with a significant surplus going into their first budget. They opt to sock most of that surplus away, instead balancing the 2011 budget with a modest property tax increase — in line with inflation. They do cut the vehicle registration tax to $40-per-year, with an eye toward eliminating it completely when the books are in order.

With the 2011 books balanced and 2012 in decent shape due to the retained surplus and revenues, Council is now able to embark on a three-part Core Service Review aided by a consulting firm. First, they’ll identify which programs are mandatory and which are discretionary. Then, they’ll evaluate the value of all programs: both in terms of efficiency and economic/social benefit. Finally, they’ll detail a list of ways the city could save money, with a focus on savings that won’t significantly affect service levels.

Decent, right? But it didn’t happen. Instead, this administration is forcing us to look at a $774 million hole that they helped dig and telling us that we’ve got to throw libraries, community grants, recreational programs and transit service into the abyss to help fill the gap.

But the truth is there, in the very same reports the Fords and their allies keep telling us to look at: there aren’t enough potential cuts available to significantly reduce the 2012 budget shortfall.

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.

Mar 11

Deputy Mayor: “Seizing control” of library board would be “great”

Let’s not bury the lede on this one. Here’s InsideToronto.com’s David Nickle, writing about proposed changes to the structure of the Library Board:

Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday said he wasn’t aware of any attempt to seize control of the library board away from Toronto Council’s left.

“If we did seize control from the left it’d be great, but I don’t know anything about it,” said Holyday. “But I think we’re going to have some serious choices next year and if there’s a bunch of people not willing to make serious choices, then they should step aside.”

via InsideToronto Article: Council to restructure boards.

Emphasis added.

Lots of buzzing over the weekend about this item, set to hit Executive Committee at the next meeting. Agenda Item EX4.7 is a report from the City Manager that calls for numerous moves that would change the composition of the city’s boards.

Some councillors and city-watchers have seized on this as an attempt by Team Ford to exert greater control over these boards, in response to what I guess would be called “subversive” moves by boards (notably the Library Board, but also Public Health and the Police Services Board, among others) who voted against the mayor’s cut-everything request during the 2011 budget process.

Specifically, the Manager’s report calls for a reduction in the size of the Library and five other boards. It also calls for a change in the way board members are recruited. (Here’s a quick glance at the proposed changes to council representation on these boards.)

I’m willing to give the mayor’s office the benefit of the doubt on this one — I doubt this is part of a coordinated attempt to tighten control of these boards. That feels too sneaky and megalomaniacally evil, even for this bunch.  This report was commissioned by the David Miller council, and it includes a bunch of positive changes, notably a recommendation that boards seek a more “youthful perspective” by recruiting members between eighteen and thirty, and a new restriction on former councillors sitting on specific boards.

That doesn’t mean this report won’t ultimately be taken and twisted as a way to wrangle control of these boards, however, and it’s certainly something that has to be watched closely. Especially in light of Holyday’s comments.

Mar 11

End of the Urban Affairs

I meant to post this when it went live on Friday, but I got distracted by spreadsheets and such. At Torontoist, Steve Kupferman does a killer job telling the sad story of the Urban Affairs Library:

Toronto Public Library’s board voted to close the Urban Affairs Library at a meeting Tuesday night. They did it not because the majority of them thought shuttering the branch, located in Metro Hall, was a good idea, but because their legal counsel told them they didn’t have a choice.

via How the Urban Affairs Library Got Shut Down – Torontoist.

Feb 11

The Phoenix Saga (of libraries)

The Toronto Star’s John Goddard was on Toronto Public Library Board Meeting duty tonight, as once again that board is demonstrating their commitment to saving the Metro Hall branch:

Amid high passions calmly stated, the Toronto Public Library board voted again Wednesday to defend its downtown Urban Affairs branch from closure.

At the same time, the board agreed to budget cuts that bring it close to those demanded by city hall number-crunchers.

“We must act in the best interests of our patrons … (and) closing a library would not be doing that,” said city councillor and board member Janet Davis.

via Defiant library board votes to save Urban Affairs branch – thestar.com.

Still not safe, but now council will have to serve as the hatchet man and kill the branch themselves. Assuming that’s what they want to do. Kudos to the board for standing tough on this one.