Mar 12

The week that was: Ford loses major transit vote as Sheppard gets LRT

Council Scorecard: Transit Votes

While I was out: Rob Ford experienced yet another spectacular defeat on the floor of council. True to form, the mayor refused to endorse any workable revenue plan for building his beloved Sheppard subway – even the one that came from his council allies. Instead, Ford stuck with what the political strategy that has sustained him since he was first elected councillor over a decade ago: yelling and losing.

Here’s how it happened.


March 18, 2012

Rob Ford devotes much of the time on his crazy boring radio show toward the transit discussion. As recapped by OpenFile Toronto’s David Hains, the mayor and his co-host Councillor Paul Ainslie hit all the same notes you’d expect: people want subways; St. Clair’s a disaster; all glory to the private sector; and the power of repeating the word subways endlessly.

Notably, Ford and stalwart Ainslie agree that the Sheppard Subway should be funded with “creative financing because people don’t like taxes.” This attitude would continue throughout the week, and sink any remaining chance Ford had of winning the council vote.


March 19, 2012

With the special council meeting just two days away, subway advisor and noted dentist Gordon Chong again makes public his opinion that the mayor must support new tolls and taxes if he wants to see a subway extension on Sheppard Avenue. Ford continues to ignore the advice of the man he picked to make the case for subways in Toronto.

Meanwhile, many of the swing vote councillors begin to make their opinions known. Councillor Josh Colle tells reporters he’s just looking for some kind of indication of where the mayor will get the money to build subways. “A pie graph would be nice, just something that would show where the source of funding would come from.”

But the mayor’s “plan,” even presented as a pie chart, would prove unconvincing. It’d end up looking a lot like this:

Ford's Subway Plan: As A Pie Chart (Artist's Representation)

Ford's Subway Plan: As A Pie Chart (Artist's Representation)


March 20, 2012

More mighty middle voices tip their hat toward the LRT plan. Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon tells the Toronto Sun’s Don Peat that she’ll be supporting light rail because “Nothing has been concretely brought forward and I don’t see a [subway] plan.” Councillor Ana Bailão also hints that she’ll be a light rail vote.

In a bit of a surprise, Councillor Ron Moeser joins the group of councillors supporting the expert panel’s recommendation for LRT. Moeser has been battling an illness for several months that has caused him to miss virtually all council votes relating to transit. His support for the mayor had been widely assumed, but the mayor may have pushed things too far with the Scarborough councillor.

At this point, a majority of councillors have firmly pledged their support for light rail on Sheppard.


March 21, 2012

Council begins its session by endorsing the use of Skype as a means for Professor Eric Miller to take questions from councillors. Miller was the lead on the expert panel that ultimately recommended the light rail plan. After much debate, Skype finds strong bipartisan support, though the mayor objects.

Soon after, battle lines are drawn. Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker moves the motion that will support the panel’s recommendations. As a counter, budget chief and Scarborough Councillor Mike Del Grande proposes what we’ve all been waiting for: new revenue tools to fund transit.

Del Grande’s motion includes a levy on non-residential parking spaces, and seeks to raise $100 million per year for transit funding. The proposal is rightly criticized for being light on detail and short on scope. Those kinds of revenues would only fund about 300 metres of subway construction every year.

But, still, the motion is welcome news, acknowledging that even the most thrifty of suburban councillors have recognized the need to build public transit with public money. Del Grande finds support from most of council’s right-wing, but is stymied when the mayor — stubbornly, foolishly, inexplicably — refuses to lend his support to the plan.

Del Grande would end up attempting to withdraw the motion the next day. Without Rob Ford’s support, he knew it was doomed.

In another bit of procedural pettiness, Ford’s allies end the day with a good old-fashioned filibuster. The plan, which nobody expects to work, is to run out the clock and force a continuation to Thursday, with the hope that they can use the time to convince some councillors to support them.


March 22, 2012

Having exhausted all his remaining options, Ford pulls out a would-be trump card: a loud and rambling speech in which he uses the word “subways” repeatedly. The point, buried in amongst the repetition, was to convince council to delay any decision until after the release of the federal and provincial budgets. The mayor appears to actually believe that those governments – both of whom are in full-on austerity mode – may announce billions of dollars in transit funding for Toronto.

As has become their custom, council mostly ignores the mayor.

The vote happens shortly after lunch, with the results breaking down mostly as expected. With 24 votes in favour, council supports the recommendations of the expert panel for light rail on Sheppard. Nineteen councillors stand opposed. Notably, Giorgio Mammoliti, who had promised on Wednesday that he would fight against the light rail plan on behalf of his constituents, ends up missing the vote on Thursday.


March 23, 2012

The fallout from the vote comes quick and looks obvious. The mayor declares, yet again, that his election campaign begins today. The plan is to foster so much support for subways that he gets yet another strong mandate from voters in 2014. By Sunday – on his still-boring radio show – the mayor will even go as far as floating the idea of running a slate of Ford-supporting candidates in wards across the city, in the hopes of ridding council of those who oppose him.

This brings to mind two immediate questions:

  1. Would any legitimate candidate actually want to be part of a slate backed by a mayor with a terrible approval rating and a record of refusing to work with his allies to accomplish anything?
  2. If Ford’s going to be in full-on campaign mode for the next two years, then who the hell is running the city?

Ford’s stubbornness on this issue has made for even more alienation. Councillors like Jaye Robinson, Peter Milczyn and David Shiner went as far as to publicly question the mayor’s leadership on the transit file. Their comments were tinged with the kind of frustration that comes about when a mayor refuses to support a revenue tool that he recently championed in an editorial. It’s the same frustration that comes when someone ignores advice from everyone, even in the face of overwhelming reason and common sense.

It’s the kind of frustration that comes when the guy you’re trying to help ends up spitting in your face.

Despite protests from the mayor and his brother, this chapter of the Rob Ford mayoralty appears to be over. There’s little chance the province will re-open the subways debate and even less chance that more money materializes for subway construction. As was originally endorsed by Mayor David Miller and council, Toronto will see light rail transit built on Sheppard, Eglinton, Finch and the Scarborough RT corridor. Transit City lives again.

Jan 12

Mike Del Grande wastes a bunch of taxpayer money just for spite

The Toronto Sun’s Don Peat:

Budget Chief Mike Del Grande says he was just giving left-leaning councillors a taste of “their own game playing” when he called for the removal of $16.4 million from the plan to revitalize Regent Park.

In a move opposition councillors likened to firing a “torpedo” into Regent Park, Del Grande asked Toronto’s influential executive committee last week to divert funding for affordable rental units in the area to a shovel-ready project at Finch Ave. W. and Weston Rd.

Del Grande’s move enraged Councillor Pam McConnell, who represents Regent Park, and in the end, the committee voted to decide on the issue at city council next month.

But Del Grande conceded he will support the original staff recommendation to leave the money in Regent Park.

via Del Grande pokes the left | Toronto Sun.

The Star’s Daniel Dale confirms that Del Grande’s motion — one he intends to ultimately vote against — will cost us, the vaunted taxpayers, a fair amount of money. Because the budget chief supported a deferral motion by Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, Del Grande’s motion will go to the City Manager, who will draft a report to council. Who will then, I guess, summarily reject it.

The City Manager, Joe Pennachetti, whose name will be on this report, draws a salary of more than $300,000 per year. His time and attention does not come cheap.

The worst part of all this is that even if we accept Del Grande’s claim that left-leaning councillors were “playing games”, that doesn’t excuse his behaviour. This is straight-up kindergarten “two wrongs don’t make a right” stuff. It’s not complicated: Del Grande is a guy who spent the last eight months telling us, as part of the core service review and budget process, that we had to get our fiscal house in order. That we had to make hard choices to save money. He shook his damn piggy bank again and again and again.

And now he’s got city staff working on a report for literally no reason beyond spite.

Ignore the bleeding heart stuff. (Though a politician musing about halting construction on a poor person’s home just for the hell of it seems a mighty good reason for a heart to bleed.) Let’s look purely at the business side: the Regent Park revitalization is, at the core, a large-scale financial transaction with dozens of public-and-private-sector partnerships moving things forward. There are hundreds of millions of dollars tied up in these projects. It’s a mini-economy supporting hundreds of jobs in Toronto. This is not something responsible and mature people play games with.

Jan 12

Budget Week 2012: What to Watch For

From way back in November, when Rob Ford first unveiled what he has been calling a “smart, reasonable and responsible” budget, as reported by the Globe & Mail’s Patrick White, Elizabeth Church and Tu Thanh Ha:

“For the first time ever, folks, we will spend less next year than we did this year,” Mr. Ford said during a morning press conference. “That is unheard of.”

Budget chief Mike Del Grande hailed the document, telling the budget committee: “It’s too bad the rest of the world doesn’t have the courage to do what we are doing today.”

via Ford’s 2012 Toronto budget includes hikes in property tax, transit fares | Globe & Mail.

But that was then. This is now.

With council set to meet tomorrow to kick off what will probably be a three-day-long budget debate — packed with yelling and screaming and wild accusations of extremist political ideology — the piece I’m watching most closely is whether the mayor emerges from the fray with that key talking point in his jacket pocket: after all is said and done, will the 2012 gross operating budget actually be smaller than the 2011 budget?

Early indications say maybe not. At the beginning of this process, Ford’s gross budget was a slim $50 million below the 2011 level. Earlier this month, approximately $2.5 million was added to that budget to stave off cuts to community centres and student nutrition programs. Another $3 million was added at executive committee to reduce the number of requested cuts to the Toronto Public Library, joined by $1 million to save sidewalk snow clearing in the suburbs and $2 million to preserve some community grants. Other assorted tweaks also increased the total.

All told, the margin between the 2011 and 2012 budgets is down to about $41 million.

And now, via the Globe & Mail’s Patrick White, we learn that members of council’s opposition along with several middle-aligned councillors have been working on a plan that could inject anywhere between $20 million and $40 million back into the operating budget to preserve services:

While the core of the Ford budget remains intact – $350-million in cuts and efficiencies, a 2.5-per-cent tax, increase, nearly 1,200 layoffs – members of City Hall’s centre and left factions have been plotting for weeks about whether they’ll support the budget and, if not, how they’ll unravel it.

Many have been using Google Docs online to analyze and share strategies for portions of Mr. Ford’s budget that remain in play: TTC route cuts, reductions to community grants, terminated swimming-pool funding, three homeless shelter closings, a trim to priority centres and a cancelled leaf-collection program in Etobicoke.

One plan from middle councillors would stave off most of those cuts $20-million cost. Left-leaning councillors want to go even further with a plan to undo about $40-million worth of the mayor’s budget, according to several councillors speaking on background.

via Mayor’s team scrambles as moment of truth approaches | Globe & Mail.

So council may just go and overrule the mayor’s spending priorities to the tune of $40 million. Not only would that be unprecedented, but that kind of outcome would threaten to push Ford’s reputation away from what he most wants to be: a hardline budget buster. Instead of cutting back on overall city spending, he’d be the mayor who has essentially maintained spending levels set by his predecessor and the previous council. The people he derides as socialists.

The Revenue Game

Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday has told the Toronto Sun that he plans to ask council to approve next year’s property tax rates early on during tomorrow’s meeting, to avoid games later on where councillors might seek to slightly increase rates to preserve certain services. Councillor Gord Perks tried something like that last year, when he moved an amendment that would have increased residential property taxes by 0.155% to preserve bus routes and other programs. (It didn’t pass.)

With a prior-year surplus that will total almost $200 million when all figures are calculated, I don’t see councillors looking to the property tax base to preserve programs and services. Nor do I see them messing with staff revenue projections. Instead, all eyes will be on that surplus. It’s ripe for the taking and, despite claims to the contrary, hefty enough that it can serve double duty as a life preserver for programs and a capital debt killer.

As this strategy has gained steam, opponents have been pulling out lame household budget analogies to  caution against applying any of the surplus toward operating costs. The Globe’s Marcus Gee characterized the move as “like relying on sofa-cushion money to pay the mortgage.” Councillor Doug Ford said it would be like using a Christmas bonus to buy toys “like a drunken sailor.” (Sailors, as we all know, love toys.)

None of these analogies work, of course. Calling the 2011 surplus “one-time money” is disingenuous, because the city has seen continued surpluses going back at least six years. This year’s surplus was widely expected by everyone who rightly scoffed at the mayor’s scare-tactic figure of $774 million. And if someone was finding money in their sofa cushions as regularly as the city finds year-end surpluses, they would really  need to take a good look at what the hell is going on with their couch.

When it comes to the surplus, the real question can’t be boiled down to some oversimplified household budget analogy. What councillors have to consider is this: does the near-term value of preserving services (like transit) outweigh the long-term value of paying down debt on capital purchases slightly faster?

Budget Ideology

Let’s end with this: last week, the Toronto Star’s David Rider reported on a recorded conversation Budget Chief Mike Del Grande had with a constituent this past summer. In it, Del Grande reflects on some of the thinking that apparently shaped this budget:

Del Grande defended a proposed $400,000 cut to student breakfast programs — he recently and unexpectedly started to oppose the cut — during an hour-long, Aug. 10 city hall chat with then-constituent Hakim Kassam, who recorded it on his iPhone.

“I don’t support the way that’s funded because if we’re going to do breakfast in schools, to me personally, if you have children you’re responsible for children,” Del Grande said in the recording provided by Kassam to the Star.

“The nation is not supposed to be in the bedrooms of the people. But then when you come out of the bedroom and you have children, why is it the state’s responsibility to look after your children? I didn’t tell you to wear a condom or not wear a condom or how many children — you made that decision.”

via Toronto budget: Mike Del Grande’s candid chat about social programs | Toronto Star.

Kind of puts all that “radical conservative” talk in perspective, doesn’t it?

I don’t think what Rob Ford ultimately presented as his budget is a purely ideological document, but I do think it was informed by the kind of ideological thinking Del Grande talks about in the recorded conversation. But that ideology was tempered by the mayor’s famous populism and a political reality that demands certain services be kept. The end result is a fiscal stew: a cobbled together collection of arbitrary cuts and decisions.

Indeed, the budget’s greatest failing is that it lacks any kind of unifying purpose. There is nothing in these pages that reveal a coherent theme for this city going forward. There’s no indication of what our collective priorities are — are we a city that values transit? The environment? Revitalized neighbourhoods? A better business climate?

Who can say? There’s very little in this budget that tells us what kind of city we actually want to be.

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.

Jan 12

“Radical” Rob Ford’s Sinking Budget

The City issued a press release this morning touting the budget committee’s decision to approve the 2012 capital and operating budget yesterdays. It’s about what you’d expect:

“It has been Council’s policy since 2004 to use surplus funds to pay for capital costs. We immediately need a good portion of the $154 million surplus to go towards funding buses, streetcars and subways,” said Budget Committee Chair Mike Del Grande (Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt). “The City’s efforts in permanently reducing $355 million from its annual expenditures coupled with additional efforts to introduce $700 million in non-debt financing for the capital budget and plan has allowed us to reduce the City’s reliance on one-time surplus revenues from $346 million to $77 million. This is a major breakthrough in bringing the City’s expenses more in line with its revenue.”

“This is simply best practices in financial management,” said City Manager Joe Pennachetti.” With the uncertain global economic outlook, we need to safeguard and restore City reserves to respond to the needs of Toronto residents and withstand the greater occurrence of extreme weather events.”

via City of Toronto on track to build a sustainable, affordable and well-managed city | City of Toronto Press Release.

The whole thing is just an echo of what we heard again and again at yesterday’s budget committee meeting: futile attempts to justify budgetary decisions that are, at this point, almost purely ideological. After spending a year telling us about doom scenarios  — $774 million! 34% property tax increases! Becoming GREECE! — we’ve ended up at a place where the city’s fiscal situation justifies virtually none of the major cuts on the table.

With the surplus figures we’re looking at, the city has enough money to maintain services, keep property taxes low and still set aside significant cash for capital projects and reserve funds. Absent a compelling financial need to cut programs, all we’re left with is the impression that the group of councillors running the city are cutting mostly because they just really like cutting.

Austerity-as-ideology, not austerity-as-necessity.

But don’t take my word for it: just look to the actions of the budget committee yesterday. With the stroke of a pen, they took several items off the chopping block: child nutrition programs, school-based community centres and two pools conveniently located in the wards of executive committee members. There’s no doubt that other programs — like, say, Bellwoods House or the 17% cut to the Toronto Environmental Office — could be reversed the same way.

What’s missing is not the money. It’s the will.

“Radical Conservative Agenda”

Sometime over the holidays, a bunch of left-leaning councillors decided to make use of the phrase “radical conservative” to describe the budget and pretty well everything the mayor does. As cloying and simplistic as this type of repetition can feel to people who actually spend their time nerding about politics, this kind of message discipline isn’t rare and it tends to be more effective than people think. (“Gravy Train” sure worked pretty well.)

Still, let’s ask the question: is there really truth behind the messaging here? Are the mayor and his council supporters behaving in  a way that’s, you know, radical?

Yes and no.

Yes, because there’s definitely an undercurrent where the mayor is cutting simply because he wants to cut. The 2012 budget was seemingly designed with two key mayoral priorities in mind, neither of which seem particularly relevant to people who actually rely on city services: first, that its gross total be less than the previous year’s and, second, that the property tax increase be kept to 2.5%.

That the 2012 budget may be a touch smaller in gross terms than the 2011 budget is totally irrelevant. It’s a stat that only appeals to those who get all excited by right-wing boilerplate. Ford was elected to spend money in a less wasteful way, not to just spend less money. (Anyway: there’s a good chance Ford will lose his ability to claim the gross budget shrunk year-to-year after councillors propose amendments next week.)

The 2.5% figure is similarly arbitrary — it doesn’t seem any analysis was done to show why 2.5% is a more desirable figure that, say, 2% or 3% or even higher.

These type of arbitrary financial decisions — made to fit an ideology that just believes government should be smaller and do less, full stop —  do seem a bit radical. Or, at the very least, kind of radically dumb.

But on the other hand, this is kind of a milquetoast budget. It contains a series of compromises and half-measures to the point where it looks little like the kind of city budget Rob Ford would have approved of when he was a councillor. Perennial Ford targets seem mostly untouched. And every indication that even more cuts will be reversed at council.

There’s no doubt that Ford and his team had their sights set on a budget more radical than the one we ended up with. If the intent was radical conservative budgeting, the outcome isn’t.

Quick Hits: Budget Edition

Library Must Cut More: The big news coming out of the budget committee yesterday was a further request that the library committee cut another $7 million from their operating budget in order to meet the arbitrary 10% target. It’s worth noting that several other departments and boards failed to meet the 10% target but only the library has been asked to go back and cut more. The decision came after a weird speech from the Budget Chief in which he expressed the view that some libraries may be duplicating the services provided by schools and community centres and so there’s room for cuts. Okay.

Ford’s Arts Cuts Will Hurt: Quick Quiz! Guess which councillor said this: “If the cuts go through, things could go into a tailspin.” It was Ford-ally Gary Crawford, who has been a pretty steadfast supporter of the mayor’s agenda thus far. The arts cuts in this budget — like a lot of things — are kind of stealth cuts, as they’re hidden in general 10% reductions to various budgets. In any case, any cuts to the arts fly in the face of the Creative Capital Gains report council unanimously endorsed this spring.

Ford The Program Saver: As Ford has backed off some of the cuts he presented with the budget in November, he’s developed a strategy in which he points to city staff as the ones who wanted cuts to things like nutrition programs. With this narrative, Ford becomes the guy who “saved” these programs from the budget axe. Councillor Josh Matlow summed the whole thing up pretty well, when he tweeted this:

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/JoshMatlow/status/155433596939812864″]

Credit Where Credit Is Due: In his weekly Facebook update, Ford also took some credit for the city’s mounting surplus. In his weekly Facebook message, he wrote, “much of the surplus is a direct result of smart management, as City staff implemented millions of dollars in efficiencies this year.” Which is a true statement, I guess, as long as you indicate that the smart management must have emerged way back in the David Miler era. The city has enjoyed big surpluses for years and Ford’s 2011 budget — which essentially held the line on David Miller’s 2010 budget — didn’t do anything that would directly lead to this year’s surplus.

Cuts On The Table: For those looking to make sense of what’s being cut and what’s been saved, the Toronto Star’s Paul Moloney has a great rundown.

Nov 11

Visualizing 2012: How to manufacture a budget crisis

“A smart budget,” the mayor called it. “A responsible budget.” But what we got this morning was anything but. Instead, Rob Ford finally produced evidence, under the guise of launching the City’s 2012 budget process, that the apocalyptic budget scenarios his administration has been spinning for the last year have been a waste of everyone’s time. Toronto isn’t Greece or any other bankruptcy-skirting nation. We’re simply a city that cut too much revenue last year, and now we’re using service cuts to make up the difference.

Standing behind a podium labeled with a “Rebuilding our Fiscal Foundation” sign, Ford introduced the messaging he’ll be using through the budget process and probably well into next year. It goes like this: we’re the first government in Toronto’s history to reduce the size of the operating budget year-over-year; we inherited this mess from the previous administration; and this is what the taxpayers want us to do.

His numbers, of course, don’t add up. Ford claimed that his team had found $355 million in savings “through our Core Service Review, service efficiencies and modest service adjustments.” But to get that number, he had to include budget reductions that came from things like restructuring debt payments and delaying capital financing. It also includes $28 million from a lowered forecast for employee compensation. So staff overestimated on a budget line, then reduced that estimate, and Rob Ford claims it as a savings to the taxpayer. Like magic. His claim of lowering the operating budget year-over-year is also dubious, as the net operating budget — the part funded by property taxes — still increased by almost $100 million. The reductions, then, come exclusively from areas funded by grants or user fees, like the TTC.

The reality, as displayed in the chart above, is that 2012 would have been one of the easiest-to-balance budgets in post-amalgamation Toronto’s history if not for a series of fiscal decisions made by the Ford administration. Had Council not approved a property tax “freeze” and the hasty elimination of the Vehicle Registration Tax, more than $100 million in annual revenue would be available to balance next year’s budget. If Ford would acknowledge that, with the Land Transfer Tax and other revenues, the City actually enjoys something of a structural surplus, some of the staff-estimated $139 million left over from the 2011 budget could justifiably be rolled over into 2012, preserving service at the TTC, the Toronto Public Library and other agencies and departments currently facing the budget axe.

Instead, Ford will continue down the same clumsy path he’s been on for the last year. The one where he tells us that an insurmountable budget gap — one he “inherited” from a government he was part of — requires cuts to service, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary. Now that we have the numbers in front of us, the mayor’s rationale makes even less sense: taking even a small percentage of the surplus revenue generated by the Land Transfer Tax last year could, for example, eliminate the need for all the TTC cuts currently on the table.

It’s time to put all the phoney talk of the $774 million shortfall behind us, and wake up to the fiscal reality. The City has — and always has had — options beyond the budget axe. It’s the refusal to acknowledge these options that hurts the city the most.

Toronto’s Operating Budgets: A History of Balancing Strategies

With the release of today’s budget documents, I’ve updated the chart below from a previous post to include the staff recommended balancing strategy for 2012. The most striking difference is the lack of surplus dollars. Ford and Budget Chief Mike Del Grande aren’t eschewing the use of one-time funds to balance the budget, however: they’re taking a generous amount of reserve dollars for similar purposes.

City of Toronto Operating Budgets, 2006-2012 (Recommended)

Nov 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As reported by the National Post’s Allison Haines:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recycled Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nov 11

Layoffs, Lies & Statistics: Does the City of Toronto employ too many people?

There will be blood. And also layoffs.

That’s the word from City Manager Joe Pennachetti, who has to be loving his life these days, and from the mayor and his assorted hangers-on. The strategy seems to be to pretend that layoffs were always on the table — of course they were! –, even though Rob Ford himself promised there was “no need for layoffs” during his campaign.

The National Post’s Natalie Alcoba covers the story:

Pink slips are on the way for city employees, the municipality’s top bureaucrat warned on Thursday, as officials feverishly put numbers together to see what it takes to balance the budget next year.

“There will be layoffs and that’s been known for a long time,” city manager Joe Pennachetti told reporters as the budget committee deliberated on garbage and water rates.

Budget Chief Mike Del Grande would not say whether he is expecting layoffs to be part of the financial mix.

“We’re feverishly putting numbers together to see what it takes to balance the budget,” he said. He pointed out that the city’s labour force has ballooned since amalgamation, when the whole idea was to reduce employees and be more efficient.

via ‘There will be layoffs,’ city manager warns | National Post. (Emphasis added.)

That last bit is a familiar refrain at this point. And it’s the sort of thing that people assume is true, even without evidence. Of course our big government socialist bureaucracy would never get any smaller, what with all the chipmunk suits and confusing public art they keep spending our tax money on.

But, hold on, once we get past the rhetoric and the ideology, we’re still left with the fundamental question: is it true? Did the number of city staff only increase after amalgamation?

Looking to the numbers

Between 1998 and 2007 — the last year I could find numbers for — the following City departments actually saw a net reduction in staff:

  • Clerk’s Office (-97 positions)
  • HR (-73)
  • Finance (-69)
  • Mayor & Council Offices (-51)
  • Facilities (-42)
  • Fleet (-30)
  • Public Info & Creative Services (-28)
  • Auditor General’s Office (-24)
  • City Manager (-13)
  • Something called CS-SII (-9)
  • Legal (-4)
  • Toronto Water (-432)
  • Public Library (-194)
  • Transportation (-122)
  • Housing (-107)
  • Public Works (-53)
  • Solid Waste (-49)
  • Business Support (-41)
  • Policy, Finance & Admin (-14)
  • Economic Development/Culture/Tourism(-11)
  • Parking Authority (-6)
  • Fire (-7)

On the other hand, here’s where the city added employees:

  • IT (+44 Positions)
  • Planning (+5)
  • Waterfront/Clean & Beautiful City (+8)
  • Other/ABCs (+15)
  • Zoo (+20)
  • Municipal Licensing & Standards (+21)
  • Building (+30)
  • 311 (+33)
  • Parking Enforcement (+54)
  • Works – Technical Services (+83)
  • Exhibition Place (+164)
  • Parks, Forest & Recreation (+186)
  • Court Services (+251)
  • EMS (+340)
  • Police (+875)
  • Social Development (+30)
  • Homes for Aged (+111)
  • Child Services (+114)
  • Social Services (+195)
  • Shelter & Housing (+353)
  • Public Health (+704)
  • TTC (+1,927)

Whew. So what do we learn from all that? This chart from the City’s 2008 Operating Budget Presentation sums things up pretty well:
City of Toronto Net Change in New Positions - 1998 - 2007(There’s also this more detailed chart if you’re so inclined.)

Post-amalgamation, the city actually shed staff positions in the places where you’d think they would. The number of people doing administrative duties decreased as departments were combined and services shared. Basic municipal services — things like economic development, solid waste, etc — saw either similar reductions or limited growth, with a few exceptions.

Where there was growth, it was either because of the times we live in (increases to the number of IT staff, for example) or because council decided to put emphasis on specific departments or services  in order to grow or improve the city. If a mayor decides that he or she wants to improve the cleanliness of the city, as David Miller did with his Clean & Beautiful City initiative, you probably need to put some staff on it.

Some of the biggest increases in places where the city has limited ability to control costs. Social Development, Homes for Aged, Child Services, Social Services, Shelter & Housing and Public Health are all cost-shared services with the provincial government. Like we saw earlier this year with the vanishing-and-reappearing public health nurses, often the province will provide fully funded positions to municipalities. They also mandate minimum service levels, tying the city’s hands. (To be fair, they also transfer money to the city to cover — or partially cover — the delivery of these programs.)

The big spikes, of course, came from the Police (and EMS) and the TTC. As Rob Ford just learned, the police budget is challenging to rein in. To say the least.

The TTC growth is even easier to explain. Over the last seven years, TTC service was expanded far beyond the dismal levels of the mid 90s. And people noticed, as ridership has increased to record highs. But with transit, the staffing equation is simple: if you add a bus, you add a driver. And with more drivers comes more supervisors, more mechanics and more support staff.

So-called ‘efficiencies’ will only get you so far with transit, unless you start putting Total Recall-esque Johnny Cabs in the driver’s seat of city buses and streetcars. The only way to significantly cut staff here is to cut service.

Layoffs almost always mean service cuts

With a well-executed plan for continuous improvement, any corporation — including the City of Toronto — can start doing more with less. Toronto has, in fact, been doing this for years. Each of the city’s last six approved budgets included significant savings from efficiencies. With continuous improvement and employee attrition, you’re able to successfully shrink the size of government without layoffs and buy-outs.

But Rob Ford’s government has blown away any notion of continuous improvement, instead opting to look at the budget — and the city’s workforce — with a hatchet in hand. A look at where the city has seen staffing growth over the last decade makes it clear: any layoffs will almost certainly mean a roll-back in services.

Nov 11

Sorry Mr. Budget Chief, Rob Ford doesn’t have a mandate for a ‘tough medicine’ budget

Writing for his pals at the Toronto Sun, here’s city budget chief and Scarborough councillor Mike Del Grande:

Our mayor was elected because voters perceived him as a simple guy, the people’s mayor, who would clean up City Hall.

But last year’s election is clearly not over for news outlets like the Star and CBC.

Apparently they cannot stand to think changes in the way City Hall operates are imminent, and they will do all they can, not to offer any alternative, but to derail them, simply for the pleasure of saying, “I told you so”.

We have a “tough medicine” budget coming and I expect more of the same conduct from them.

via Anti-Mayor Ford agenda is clear | Columnists | Opinion | Toronto Sun.

I praised Del Grande last week for taking the right stand on the shark fin soup issue. His vote came packaged with a nice speech that I thought showed a sincere commitment to the environment. I also praised the budget chief earlier this year when he took a bit of a stand — albeit by excusing himself, instead of voting ‘no’ — when his allies at council attempted to repeal a ban on the sale of bottled water at city facilities.

Unlike some Ford allies who seem driven by a gleeful desire to spitefully tear down all things associated with David Miller, Del Grande strikes me as a rather back-to-basics fiscal conservative. His attitude toward the 2012 budget has been relatively consistent: he thinks we should take the pain of significant cuts, fix the structural deficit, and move on from there.

I disagree with him, of course. Trying to fix a structural shortfall — one that we’ve had to deal with for more than a decade — in a single budget cycle is insane and also unnecessary. It’s insanely unnecessary. There’s no reason to do things this way.

But that’s my perspective. The budget chief has his. We disagree. That’s okay.

But here’s what gets me about his editorial, and it’s something I see from a lot of the crowd that still clings to the Rob Ford steamship: Rob Ford is not some paragon of austerity and old school conservative thinking. That wasn’t his platform last year and it doesn’t seem to be his position now. Instead, the mayor clings to some rather dubious magical thinking about gravy and how he’ll cut it and save us billions of dollars.

If Mike Del Grande wanted a mayor with a mandate to pass ‘tough medicine’ budgets, he should have run for the office himself. As much as he might want to project his principles onto the guy in the mayor’s chair, it doesn’t hold up. Because the guy in the mayor’s chair said there would be no cuts.

He assured us.

Del Grande’s Budget Notes

While we’re on the subject, Del Grande’s office recently posted some “budget notes in brief” on the councillor’s appropriately austere blog. They also were included in the fall newsletter.

I’d take issue with a couple of his points.

The first is the off-hand reference to capital debt “caused by the previous mayor’s spending.” Capital spending did increase over the David Miller years, but I would challenge people to look at that spending and identify high-ticket items that shouldn’t have been bought. Like it or not, this municipality bears responsibility for one of the largest transit systems in North America. Replacing end-of-life subway trains and streetcars, coupled with a continued emphasis on state of good repair projects after that incident where people died in a train crash, make for the brunt of our capital debt challenge.

Second, there’s the continued spectre of large property tax increases. Simplifying this complex budget debate down to alarmist concerns about 30+% tax increases is a dumb strategy. It just ends up making Del Grande and company look like they have no strategy, no ideas and no direction. The city has had years where they faced much larger opening pressures — bigger, yes, than $774 million — and council was able to find a way to balance them without double-digit increases in residential property tax rates.

Enough with the fear mongering. Show us your plan.

Oct 11

Catching Up: Provincial Election Fallout, TTC Customer Service, Library Cuts & Budget Blues

After nine months of episodic thrills — Public Housing Chicanery! Disappearing Bike Lanes! Marathon Meetings! A Waterfront Under Attack! — the loud political drama that has surrounded Mayor Rob Ford since he took office last year seemed to finally quiet down last week. The only thing to really come out of City Hall was a committee decision to ban the sale of Shark Fin. Which, sure, is a good thing, from what I can tell, but it’s hardly an issue rich with intrigue or nuance. It’s simply good news for sharks.

So I decided to take last week off from blogging.

But just because shark fins were the only major thing up for debate at City Hall doesn’t mean there weren’t rumblings of larger stories to come. Here are a few jumbled thoughts on the bigger stories from the past seven days.

Provincial Election Fallout

Ford did a mini media-tour on the morning after the provincial election, going so far as to stop by the CBC studios to speak to Metro Morning’s Matt Galloway. The results of the provincial election — a complete Tory shutout in Toronto — can realistically only be seen as a major defeat for the Fords and their agenda, but the mayor still came out with his own spin on things.

The National Post’s Natalie Alcoba:

Mr. Ford met with the three major party leaders during the campaign but did not endorse anyone. During the radio interview, the Mayor dismissed any suggestion the Progressive Conservatives’ inability to crack through the 416 may have been a repudiation of his approach to balancing the books.

“Not at all. Last time I checked, we never had a seat, Tories never had a seat, my name was never on the ballot… I’m getting a lot of support, people are saying stay the course,” said Mr. Ford. “I’ve worked well with Mr. McGuinty. He helped us make the TTC an essential service and we’re not going to have strikes anymore…we have a great working relationship.”

via Liberal minority government ‘excellent’ for Toronto: Rob Ford | National Post.

The spin is, of course, kind of lame, but there’s actually a bit of truth to what Ford’s saying: his October 2010 victory did hinge on the support he got from voters who wouldn’t describe themselves as conservative or even right-leaning.

He got that support because his major platform plank wasn’t conservative or right-leaning.

Here’s the thing about all that stop-the-gravy-train, spending-problem-not-a-revenue-problem stuff: it all rested on the premise that there wouldn’t be service cuts. Ford wasn’t preaching good, right-wing austerity and the elimination of social programs. He was calling for the status quo, only cheaper. People believed in that. They voted for that. But, in return, they got the same conservative, let’s-cut-everything governance they had roundly rejected in the past.

And that’s why the mayor is unpopular.

Improving customer service while cutting actual service

TTC Chair Karen Stintz announced a “customer service liaison panel” and an upcoming Town Hall meeting as the first step toward improving customer service on the TTC. This is incredibly boring news.

Steve Munro points out that trying to improve customer service while cuts are moving forward that would increase overcrowding on transit vehicles — thus providing worse service in general — seems kind of ridiculous:

What nobody mentioned is that most of these recommendations address problems of communication in a broad sense, but the report is silent about system management and service quality.

There has been no discussion of the service implications of the budget cuts beyond the general policy change in loading standards — we don’t yet know which routes and time periods will be affected, or how much more crowded they will be.  Chair Stintz stated that the proposed cuts, in detail, would be part of the budget process at the TTC and Council.

via More Icing, Less Cake (Updated) | Steve Munro.

I don’t think you need to have a big discussion to determine that riders don’t like it when their bus driver is rude, and that they especially don’t like when their bus driver is rude and their bus is late. Customer service suffers on the TTC when service itself suffers.

Major cuts to Library Service

While Ford took branch closures off the table — finally –, library cuts are still very much on the table for the 2012 budget. And they’re significant.

The Toronto Star’s Raveena Aulakh:

Closing libraries was suggested by consultant KPMG some months ago. Ford backed down after an unprecedented public outcry led by Canadian author Margaret Atwood. But the mayor left the door open to a reduction in operating hours and other cuts.

Now the cuts are here:

•An almost 30 per cent reduction in the number of hours that neighbourhood branches will be open on Sundays.

•At least 25 neighbourhood branches losing some morning service from Monday to Saturday.

•Nearly 20,000 fewer open hours from Monday to Saturday.

•Two research and reference libraries will lose two mornings each.

•A reduced acquisition budget, meaning more than 106,000 library items won’t now be bought.

via Toronto library services face cutbacks | Toronto Star.

In an edition of the National Post Political Panel from earlier this year, Post columnist Chris Selley noted that “Ford told the Post in a sit-down interview that closing a library on a Sunday, never mind entirely, constituted a major service cut in his mind.”

So: this would be a major service cut. Do you think Rob Ford will oppose these staff recommendations, which were made to meet his edict that departments reduce their budgets by 10%?

$774 million is wrong. So wrong. Incredibly wrong.

That $774 million figure — the purported budget shortfall for 2012 that leads us to apocalyptic budget scenarios and 35 per cent tax hikes — was always BS. This is continuously confirmed by reports coming from city staff, who can’t help but point out that there are significant revenues that have come in or will come in from the 2010 and 2011 budget years.

Here’s the latest, via The Star’s Paul Moloney:

In a report to the budget committee, finance staff project the tax windfall and cost cuts mean there will be a $139.3 million surplus left over at the end of this year. That’s money that will make it easier to balance the 2012 budget.

The large surplus results in part from a hiring freeze and other cost-saving measures, but most comes from the higher tax haul.

via City headed for $140M surplus thanks to tax Ford wants to scrap | Toronto Star.

“City headed for $140M surplus thanks to tax Ford wants to scrap” is a great headline.

Ford’s allies were quick to dismiss this news, arguing that we shouldn’t use one-time funds to plug systemic budget issues. Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday told a group of his constituents that “We’ve got to make balancing the budget repeatable and accountable every single year without a provincial bailout or pulling a rabbit out of a magic hat.” The budget chief echoed that: “You should use one-time surplus money for one-time expenses. The problem for the city for a long time has been the use of one-time monies to balance the budget. We can’t get back into that trap.”

And, yes, I suppose, in a perfect world we’d have budgets that balanced without prior-year surplus dollars, which would allow us to put the surplus dollars in reserves and save them for a rainy day. But we don’t live in that world. And the only alternative we’ve been shown so far to using these one-time funds to get us through 2012 is to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from programs that people seem to value a lot.