Sep 11

Six Years of Budget Balancing Strategies: Rob Ford’s 2012 approach presents false choice

For the last six years, City Council has dealt with each budget shortfall with a mixture of surplus funds, new revenue projections, property tax increases, investment income and spending cuts/efficiencies. The 2012 approach under Mayor Rob Ford has been different.

Update: I’ve made a minor edit to the chart above to clarify how the implementation of the Land Transfer Tax & Vehicle Registration Tax changed the city’s financial situation. Quick summary: in 2008, both new taxes combined to take about $175 million in budget pressure off the city’s books. That new money was folded into expected revenues for future years, but LTT revenues tend to surpass staff estimates, resulting in extra cash in 2009, 2010 and especially 2011.

Through this Core Service Review process, the (growing) group of councillors opposed to Mayor Rob Ford’s fiscal strategy has continuously complained about a lack of information. While Budget Chief Mike Del Grande and assorted hangers-on have been quick to cite a figure of $774 million as the opening “pressure” for 2012, they’ve been less forthcoming with revenue figures that will significantly reduce that pressure.

Increased revenues from the Land Transfer Tax in 2011 alone look to total almost $80 million. And remaining surplus dollars from the 2010 and 2011 budget years could total another $100 million or more. Add in potential investment revenues, dividends from Toronto Hydro, assessment growth and other miscellaneous revenue lines and that big scary $774 million figure looks to drop down to something a lot more manageable.

The chart above reveals why this revenue information is so critical: each year, that opening pressure figure — which, it should be noted, was bigger in 2010 than it is this year — is brought down through a variety of strategies. Yes, there are spending cuts and efficiencies — Rob Ford’s favourite things — but also other revenues. Each year — until this one — the budget has been balanced without apocalyptic talk of slashing childcare, closing libraries and decimating public services or else raising property taxes by 35%.

That’s a false choice. It’s one that ignores the balancing strategies used over the past five years that have kept the city moving forward.

A note on sustainability

Critics would point to the chart above and say that the budget balancing strategies employed by Mayor David Miller, Budget Chief Shelley Carroll and the rest of the the left on council were largely unsustainable, short-term fixes, relying too heavily on reserves and other one-time funding sources.

And, for the most part, that’s true.

That said, if you believe — as even right-leaning councillors like Giorgio Mammoliti and Doug Ford seem to these days — that the city’s structural deficit is due in part to the province, who reneged on its responsibilities for supporting things like transit, child care and welfare, then one-time strategies tend to be the best Toronto can hope for these days. Unless the province comes to the table and commits to uploading more transit costs, a truly sustainable 2012 budget — one that doesn’t completely destroy the kind of public services that contribute to the economic viability of our city — is nearly impossible to achieve.

An Alternate Path

That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t paths Toronto can take toward fiscal independence.

  • A service review process and efficiency study — like the one we’ve just been through — was a good idea, but the timeline needed to be longer. Set annual goals to increase across-the-board efficiency and work with management to achieve them. You’ll save more money this way than you will with layoffs.
  • Set a long-term path forward for residential and commercial property tax rates. A multi-year strategy to put the average residential tax levy on par with, say, Markham would bring in vastly more revenue. Commercial rates should continue to decrease relative to residential. Review tax increase deferral and cancellation policies for seniors and disabled residents to ensure we’re not kicking anyone out on the street.
  • Consult with Metrolinx on their upcoming revenue strategy to ensure that a fair percentage of revenue from road tolls — an inevitability in this province — go toward transit operating costs, in addition to capital.
  • Review parking rates and increase them in downtown, high demand areas. Think like the private sector.
  • Look at new revenue sources, including a City of Toronto sales tax. Big cities across the world have one, and they’re not dying because of it. We keep hearing about the necessity of hard choices: here’s one.

The key is to think long-term and not to rush toward slash-and-burn fixes. More than any other level of government, municipal public services are directly tied to economic success. We can’t afford to risk that.

Sep 11

Victory on the waterfront (for now)

The Toronto Star’s David Rider:

Mayor Rob Ford and his councillor brother Doug have abandoned their dream of seizing the Port Lands from Waterfront Toronto and replacing neighbourhood-based development with glitzy attractions.

Faced with public uproar and a revolt among council allies, the Ford administration was forced to reach across political divisions and has reached what one councillor calls “a consensus, not a compromise,” for council to vote on as early as Wednesday.

via Toronto News: Ford gives up goal of seizing Port Lands – thestar.com.

Rider goes on to describe the consensus outcome — someone has been very clear that this is not to be described as a compromise — as “a stunning defeat for the Fords.”

And it is. Despite the sure-to-be-a-good-time displays of bravado we’ll see from the mayor and his brother over the next few days, there’s no way to conclude this as a victory for the Ford brothers. This battle was never about a monorail or a ferris wheel or a competing vision for Toronto’s waterfront: it was about wrenching control of land away from an established agency — Waterfront Toronto — in order to ensure all development revenues would go directly to the city. Under the current scenario, Waterfront Toronto will retain virtually all those revenues and use them to fund further development.

This crazy gambit in the Port Lands didn’t emerge because Rob Ford rolled over one day and decided to make city building a priority. It was a calculated move designed to play a significant part in fixing the city’s long-term budget problems.

Hell, the budget chief even admitted as much in an earlier story by Rider:

Councillor Mike Del Grande, the city’s budget chief, noted Tuesday that, under the current arrangement, the proceeds of land sales go to Waterfront Toronto.

If the city gets out of the Waterfront Toronto agreement, every dollar from sales of the city’s 263 hectares in the Port Lands would go straight into the city’s coffers.

via Waterfront Toronto ‘keen to collaborate’ on Port Lands | Toronto Star.

As the consensus decision coming to council tomorrow apparently leaves Waterfront Toronto in place as the lead agency responsible for Lower Don Lands & Port Lands, the city isn’t going to be able to look to the water’s edge to solve their apocalyptic budget crisis. The Fords lost the only part of this battle they probably ever cared about: they’re not going to be able to use our waterfront as an ATM.

What next?

I think it’s safe speculation to say that selling the Port Lands was probably one of a number of options bandied about in the mayor’s office as a strategy for improving the city’s fiscal outlook and potentially for allowing the reduction or elimination of the Land Transfer Tax prior to 2014. Ford seems very serious about honouring that campaign promise, despite the logistical challenges associated with its removal.

With the Port Lands now firmly in the hands of Waterfront Toronto — for now, anyway — Ford will have to turn his attention to other assets. This is where things like a potential sale of Toronto Hydro — Rocco Rossi’s big budget fix-all — could work their way back into the discussion. More ominously, this is also where we could see a fight for the future of Toronto’s streetcar system.

A half-hearted defence of all this

Over at the Globe, Marcus Gee, doing that contrarian columnist thing, tries to spin a tale that tells this saga as a good thing for this city. “We may thank [the Fords] some day,” he writes, because they’ve “shook us out of our complacency about progress on the city’s most valuable asset”, which is, of course, our undeveloped waterfront lands.

And, yeah, I guess the groundswell of support for Toronto’s waterfront and the current planning process has been a good thing. It’s raised awareness. It’s engaged people. But if the Fords really gave a crap about developing the waterfront, they would have expressed their vision and desire in a way that wasn’t so much a transparent attempt to cash-in on valuable property. Portraying the Fords as well-meaning types who just wanted to build a great Toronto waterfront is, I think, a charitable take.

If the mayor really wanted to create a legacy on the waterfront, he could have engaged himself in the process of working with Waterfront Toronto. He could have attended board meetings instead of skipping them. He could have discussed a vision for these lands in his campaign, instead of telling the crowd at a waterfront debate last year that he didn’t feel the city could afford to develop its waterfront right now. If you want to contribute to building a great waterfront, surely leveraging a bureaucratic turf war between two agencies and getting your brother to play the huckster for ferris wheels and monorails is not a good or sensible way to do it.

The power of council

If nothing else, I think this is worth stating clearly. Let’s look at this saga in three parts: 1) the mayor tried to do something; 2) the people of Toronto rose up and expressed outrage; 3) councillors effectively blocked the mayor by opposing him.

This is a beautiful example of how city council can work — and should work — to protect our interests. Let’s hope it continues.

Sep 11

2012 Budget: Trading tax cuts for service cuts in Rob Ford’s Toronto

After months packed with a weak, barely-heard consultation process and a maddeningly non-specific communication strategy employed by the mayor’s executive committee — who told us that nothing, specifically, was on the table for cuts, except everything —, today we finally received, by way of the city manager, a list of concrete recommendations for service cuts in the 2012 budget.

They amount to, at best, $300 million worth of cuts over the next three operating budgets. For 2012, the best case scenario sees $100 million worth of cuts, mostly coming in areas like transit, planning & heritage, parks & recreation, street cleaning & snow removal, policing and libraries. We could see further cuts to both policing and libraries (including branch closures) in 2013 and 2014.

That $100 million in cuts does very little to fix the city’s perennial structural budget gap. It actually only barely covers the damage done in last year’s budget, when Council voted to significantly reduce revenues by cutting the vehicle registration tax and freezing property taxes. In essence, this fills the hole Rob Ford created and leaves us staring, rather fruitlessly, at the remaining shortfall — the same one that has dogged us since amalgamation.

Ford and his executive committee will attempt to make up the remaining difference — they’d peg it at $664 million, but really it’ll be closer to $350 million — through the forthcoming user fee review (which will undoubtedly recommend that user fees go up sharply) and the so-called efficiency study, which might end up being yet another set of veiled cuts to services. There will also be the inevitable TTC fare increase and a perfunctory property tax increase, though Ford has said he’d like to keep any increase on the low side. (To make up for last year’s freeze, we should probably be looking at something in the neighbourhood of at least four percent, but Ford has floated numbers in the two percent range.)

If it wasn’t clear already, this morning’s announcement should kill any lingering doubt that Ford has, rather spectacularly, violated his campaign promise not to cut city services. Ford voters now must look square in the face at a fiscal reality that says that damn near every dollar of revenue — taxes — removed from the city’s coffers must be complemented with an equivalent cut to service. Most of the 2012 savings come from proposed TTC cuts, including to Blue Night service, which would have a devastating effect on low-income people across the city, particularly in suburban neighbourhoods. Many of the remaining cuts are nickel-and-dime stuff, and little analysis seems to have been done to measure the financial impacts cuts to services can have to other departments or agencies.

City Manager Joseph Joseph Pennachetti has also passed the buck on a number of items, ensuring that we’re still several months away from a real debate about what to cut. Pennachetti recommends sending nearly all of the KPMG budget considerations back to various boards, committees and agencies, where they can be further debated, deputed on, and probably once again referred to executive committee. It’s an endless cycle, which cries out for the kind of fiscal leadership from the mayor’s office we were promised on election night. Rob Ford has sat in council chambers for over a decade’s worth of city budgets: it’s time we heard his ideas for plugging the budget gap. No more hiding behind expensive consultants and endless process.

Deputants to committees, left-leaning councillors and progressives in the city have been called out several times by those in power for merely championing existing programs, instead of proposing solutions to the city’s budget shortfall. What became clear today was that those running the city — Rob Ford, Budget Chief Mike Del Grande, assorted council hangers-on and staff — have no real idea how to balance the budget either. Their last, best hope is to skate through 2012 with assorted surplus revenues, these cuts, and user fee hikes, and then begin a fire sale of city assets — including, as we learned last week, the Port Lands — in the inane hope that using those revenues to pay down capital debt gives them enough room in the operating budget to make things balance.

It’s a bad idea that could significantly damage our city, and it continues to ignore Toronto’s only real path to fiscal sustainability: a coordinated approach to intergovernmental relationships, new sources of revenue — which must include consideration of road tolls and a sales tax — and a massive push for the provincial government to take back the funding responsibilities that rightfully belong to them.

Aug 11

City Budget: This isn’t about austerity & four other notes

Note: A version of this post also made an appearance at OpenFile Toronto.

Some notes on the budget that continues to barrel toward us like a… — I’d say train, but I feel like we’ve squeezed all the life out of that analogy. In any case, it’s coming for us, this budget, and there is no escape.

(1) The 2012 budget isn’t about austerity

Ex-Ford Chief of Staff Nick Kouvalis took to his Twitter account this week, dropping a bunch of references to the need for austerity in the light of that recent thing where the United States — temporarily, we hope! — tanked the world economy. “Economies, banks are failing — time for austerity” he wrote, presumably sincerely, when asked by poverty activist Ken Wood about library cuts. “Spending must be curbed, reductions made.”

But while there might be an argument to be made for austerity at the provincial and federal levels, that strategy makes almost zero sense at the municipal levels. The other orders of government make their revenue through taxes that are very much dependent on economic conditions — when people lose their jobs, income tax revenues decline; when people stop spending, sales tax revenues decline — but Toronto derives the majority (54%) of its revenue from property taxes and user fees. We’re not in a position where we should cut services for a few years until the economy recovers as our revenues are, for the most part, not linked to overall economic performance.

Any talk that we should cut things like arts funding due to present economic troubles ignores that what we’re talking about here is a structural shortfall requiring structural change. These cuts will be, for all intents and purposes, permanent.

(2) The City’s debt is manageable

Everyone knows Toronto can’t run a deficit on its operating budget, but we do have significant capital debt. Charges related to that debt are the third biggest item on the average property tax bill. Looking beyond the simple fact that the City of Toronto has comparatively far less debt than other governments, however, there remains a critical difference between how the province and the federal government handle things and how we do things on the municipal level. And that difference is this: Toronto is actually paying down its debt.

Debt Charges (Interest Only) — Government Comparison

A fun chart comparing debt charges (interest only) as a percentage of overall operating budget. Toronto is the only government actively paying down its debts.Â

That chart (page 50) shows the relative health of the city’s indebtedness compared to other governments. It’s also worth noting that the City has some $20 billion in assets

The way the city handles things — we also have our own municipal debt ceiling, of sorts, capped at 15% of operating — is a departure from the expected status quo where governments tend to roll with interest-only payments, especially during times of austerity. Toronto’s problem is not so much the level of existing debt — which is manageable — but rather needed future capital spending projections, primarily relating to the TTC.

This is where a strong commitment from other levels of government is most required. Transit should be a major issue in the provincial election this fall, and Toronto City Council should be leading the charge.

(3) The City has not seen out of control spending

Another chart (page 59):

Comparison of spending increases: Federal vs. Provincial vs. Municipal

Comparison of spending increases, 1998 to 2010. (Not including debt charges which, as mentioned, the other governments tend not to make principal payments on.)

From 2003 to 2010, the City’s Net Operating Budget — the portion paid for by property taxes — increased from $2.9 billion to $3.6 billion. Or about $100 million per year. The budgetary magic of the David Miller era was pulling in some $500 million in transfers from the provincial government to fund (often provincially-mandated) programs and adding another half-billion in rate-supported programs. But even then, the city’s year-to-year spending increases still fell below the rate-of-growth for other levels of government.

(4) Budget Chief Mike Del Grande has finally come clean about surplus dollars

Councillor Del Grande made a surprise phone-in appearance on Josh Matlow’s new NewsTalk 1010 show on Sunday, and in doing so finally made reference to the fact that there will be significant surplus dollars and other revenues coming out of 2010 that could be applied to the 2011 budget. (These would probably total enough to bring the shortfall down to at the very least last year’s staff estimate of $530 million.)

But here’s the catch: Del Grande wants us to ignore the extra revenues behind the curtain, arguing that the City might need to use those surplus dollars to pay for buy-outs for staff under the program launched this summer. Which, in addition to seeming like a questionable use of funds, could make for a double barrelled shot to the face for residents who rely on city services: not only could they see funding for services reduced, the city is also in danger of prematurely shedding staff who play important and longstanding roles in successful service delivery.

(5) We could have avoided this

One of the first things Speaker Frances Nunziata did when she opened council’s debate on the 2011 budget was rule any mention of the 2012 budget as out of order. An audacious move for an administration that had touted their fiscal prowess and a sincere desire to get the city’s fiscal house in order. Any discussion of long-term planning was, apparently, not allowed.

It’s been noted again and again, but a simple combination of a small property tax increase in last year’s budget and a partial retention of the Vehicle Registration Tax would have resulted in very straightforward budget processes for both 2011 and 2012. This would have allowed the budget committee to focus on a long-term strategy for reducing the city’s annual structural shortfall through a combination of further monetization of city assets, good faith intergovernmental negotiations and some efficiencies — and, yes, potentially cuts — to programs and services.

That’s the part that’s so hard-to-stomach about this whole process. It didn’t have to be this way. But now our city faces an utterly avoidable scenario shaped by a mayor that seemingly harbours a naked ambition to gut services.

Jun 11

Does vote on public health nurses reveal the real Rob Ford?

The Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale has more on Monday’s totally baffling Executive Committee decision to defer indefinitely a recommendation that the city accept, at no cost, two additional public health nurses, courtesy of the provincial government:

Council’s budget committee had recommended that the city accommodate the nurses by increasing the health budget by $170,000, all of which would come from the province. At Monday’s executive committee meeting, Ford asked, “How are we going to pay for these two public health nurses on an ongoing basis?”

Told by a health official that the provincial funding would continue on an ongoing basis, Ford said only, “I just want to defer this indefinitely, then.”

via Health minister criticizes Ford’s rejection of nurses – thestar.com.

Ontario Minister of Health Deb Matthews criticized the decision, noting that Toronto is the only municipality thus far to reject the province’s offer for more public health funding.

Despite sticking to a promise to record every vote made at City Council — including routine motions to provide extensions on speaking time — votes at Executive Committee are not recorded. So far, and to their credit, it’s been reported that Councillors Denzil Minnan-Wong, Mike Del Grande, Norm Kelly and Peter Milczyn voted against the mayor’s deferral motion.

Since Ford’s taken office, there’s been an effort to soften his image, portraying him less as a curmudgeon with extreme libertarian tendencies and more as a curmudgeon who, sure, is conservative but who also loves this city and if council would just join hands and work with the mayor maybe we’d all be better off.

But what if this vote — and his similar negative vote on a motion that saw the city accept $100,000 of provincial money for STI screening — reveals the real Rob Ford? Did voters really elect this mayor in the hopes that he would reject needed funds for things like public health, all in the name of ideology?

Jun 11

Executive committee moves to cut out the private sector

The Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy writes about a decision made by the Executive Committee on Monday following an amendment by Councillor Mike Del Grande:

[Del Grande] proposed that city officials start to phase out the capital loan guarantees once they expire — and not continue to roll them over again. He also suggested once the Waterfront’s Corus building sells and their $128 million outstanding loan is repaid, the maximum of capital loans given out be limited to $125 million in total. Both motions were approved by executive committee.

“We’re not in the business of providing loan guarantees,” Del Grande said. “It is not a core activity… simple as that.”

Added Mayor Rob Ford: “I don’t think we should be in the business of loaning money … we’re here to deliver services, I think that’s what banks are for, to loan money.”

via Toronto’s $449-million loan groan | Toronto & GTA | News | Toronto Sun.

Phasing out loan guarantees would impact the financial situation of institutions like the Evergreen Brickworks, Artscape Wychwood Barns, Ricoh Coliseum and, after 2020, BIXI.

Ford says that the city should not be in the business of loaning money which, actually, is true. The city shouldn’t and is not in the business of loaning money. What the city does is guarantee loans taken out by private companies. It’s like your parents cosigning your apartment lease when you were in college — they’re not giving you any money, but they’re on the hook if, for whatever reason, you skip town and stop paying your landlord.

That Ford and Del Grande are railing against this practice at the same time they have people working on a deal to get the private sector to pay for the Sheppard Subway is a massive contradiction. If the city isn’t going to provide capital loan assistance for a subway project, the prospects of such a plan actual coming to fruition are even dimmer than we thought.

Jun 11

City looking at 10% budget reduction

The Toronto Star’s Paul Moloney:

City departments that struggled to meet directives to slash 5 per cent of their annual budgets are now being ordered to double that, for a total cut equivalent to Toronto’s entire parks and recreation budget.

Cutting 10 per cent would save $375.9 million and go halfway toward filling the $774 million gap in the 2012 operating budget.

via City ponders the 10% solution – thestar.com.

This is going to be a bloodbath. Asking departments who just cut their budgets by 5% this year to look at a further cut of 10% is more than a little insane. We’re not a city with a declining population or a stagnant economy. We’re a city that enjoys low property tax rates compared to 905 municipalities and has been getting screwed by a bad financial relationship with the provincial government for more than a decade now.

We’re also a city that should be continuously looking to find ways to save money and create efficiencies, of course. The problem with this administration is that the Rob Ford campaign estimated that there were $230 million in potential savings immediately available in the city’s operating budget. Since taking office, they’ve only been able to identify a small fraction of that figure.

Bright side: Mike Del Grande seems committed to maintaining the land transfer tax. Without it, the city’s budget gap for 2012 would be more than a billion dollars. The Toronto Real Estate Board is mad about this. Duh.

Jun 11

Lame budget analogies

Budget Chief Mike Del Grande is, to his credit, making a point of attending the consultation sessions regarding the city’s core service review. This is a good thing. Less good are the analogies he’s giving reporters.

Here’s what he told The National Post’s Natalie Alcoba:

“We’ve done all kinds of crazy things down here,” budget chief Mike Del Grande told reporters on Tuesday. “We’ve sold our furniture to pay the rent. We are no different than any family in Toronto who spends more than we earn. We need to get a second job. We would love to send our kids to camp, but it may not be the most nice camp. Or maybe the kids don’t go to camp at all.”

via City turns to citizens to solve looming deficit | Posted Toronto | National Post.

See, the thing about that example is that you have to follow it through. The city is a struggling family, sure. Let’s go with that. But last year the city did have a part-time job. It paid more than $60 million per year. The city quit that job.

The city also ended the past year with a bit of money in the bank. But instead of investing that cash or keeping it around for future years, it decided to use that money to pay for groceries. Worse, it decided to forego taking a salary bump at the job that pays most of the bills. So the saved money disappeared really quickly.

And, of course, the city said nothing to the kids about the possibility of not going to camp at the last big family meeting. In fact, the city promised the kids they would be able to go to the same camp like always.

All this to say: pretending that the operating and capital budgets of a $12 billion metropolis is equivalent to the budget of a suburban family with a dog and 2.3 children is ridiculous.

Jun 11

Rob Ford, October 2010: “I will assure you that services will not be cut”

Over at Torontoist, André Bovee-Begun does a hell of a job tearing through the online survey the city is pushing as part of their ballyhooed core service review:

One of the most striking features of the survey: respondents are asked, for any given service, whether “maintaining the quality is more important” or “lowering the cost to the City is more important.” Think the service should be improved? There’s no check-box for that. It provides another misleading set of choices when it asks respondents how they would choose to pay for any cost increases—via increased property taxes, higher user fees, or a combination thereof. Conspicuously absent: the array of other revenue-generating tools the City has at is disposal, such as the now-cancelled Vehicle Registration Tax or the Land Transfer Tax Ford has promised (but cannot afford) to cut. The survey simply chooses from among the full range of options the City could consider, and presents only some of these to the public for deliberation.

via Toronto’s Budget Survey Deeply Flawed – Torontoist.

He’s right, of course. The survey takes a subjective scenario — the city is totally broke and we must cut costs now or face doom! — and presents it as objective. If you believe, as many do, that the city has a revenue problem instead of a spending problem, there’s little opportunity in this survey to express that view. Worse, the survey seems to suggest that the city is clearly trying to do too much, something those who believe in city building definitely disagree with.

I think most people would probably fall somewhere in the middle, believing that there are surely places where the city can find savings but also that more of the money we send to the provincial and federal governments should return to us in the form of services. But even that view is difficult to express given the constraints of the survey.

If you don’t believe services must be cut, you’re crazy. Or so the story goes.

Hilariously, Budget Chief Mike Del Grande has taken to carrying around a plastic piggy bank to remind people that “we have a financial problem that we have to fix.” He speaks as if the city is on the verge of bankruptcy, even though the majority of this year’s budget hole comes from an ill-advised property tax freeze, the elimination of the vehicle registration fee, and mismanagement of the surplus dollars this administration inherited.  (Yes, the city has a structural deficit it needs to tackle but we could have at least made it through 2012 without too much wrangling.)

This week’s National Post Political Panel also looks at the survey and the public consultation sessions that came with it. Even staunch right-wing 905er Matt Gurney wonders about the wisdom of the mayor’s promise “to find hundreds of million of dollars’ worth of gravy while also promising no service cuts.”

Which brings up another point that I feel must be made continuously through this whole process: Rob Ford has no mandate for service cuts. None. As he probably told a reporter who was standing within earshot of the Toronto Star’s David Rider and Paul Moloney last October:

Although his rivals insist Ford’s savings can’t happen without reducing services Torontonians value — and he would need to somehow convince a majority of councillors to agree with his cuts — he insisted there is enough waste to make his fiscal surgery bloodless.

“I will assure you that services will not be cut . . . guaranteed.”

via Ford fiscal plan big on numbers, short on details – thestar.com. (Emphasis added.)

He broke that guarantee less than two months after he took office. And now he’s getting in gear to break it some more.

May 11

The Fort York Bridge: it’s now or never

At Spacing, Luca De Franco has an interview with activist Richard Douglas, who’s been working to save the proposed pedestrian/cycling bridge that would span the rail tracks near Fort York.

The mayor and his allies have presented their opposition to the bridge as simple fiscal prudence. The bridge is over-budget, they say, so we must study cheaper alternatives. The reality is a bit more complicated, as Douglas explains. If we don’t build this thing on the planned schedule, it’s essentially never going to happen:

The returning of the Fort York Bridge project to Committee at Council effectively eliminates this project. The situation becomes even more time-sensitive when you consider that Metrolinx has provided a small window of opportunity to build this bridge.  Once that window closes, surrounding communities and the City of Toronto will have lost out on a tremendous opportunity.

via Headspace: The Fort York Pedestrian Cycle Bridge « Spacing Toronto.

A commenter to the article also shares an automatic response sent to him by Councillor Mike Del Grande, received after he emailed the Budget Chief regarding the bridge:

I now have too many e-mail messages to read each and every one. So my answer will be automatic. Bridge yes but not at any cost. But… does not carry the day. This kind of thinking has caused a great financial problem for the City. We spend more than we bring in and I have to find $774 million.

Post Script- Sat May 14th I visited the area. This bridge will cost 22 + the opportunity to gain 25 million from proper usage of the site. So it will really cost 47 million at the end of the day. Sorry, that is very poor use of limited funds the City has. I also noted that there were a total of 2 people in City park and a few people in the dog park and on the other side of King there was one person. Does not strike me as demand usage, at least not for today.

In addition there is concern about City land which if the bridge is built in a certain fashion will increase the value of City Lands by millions and this cannot be ignored. An overage of 4+ million and other planning considerations does not justify the just spending because it is a nice bridge. What I am more open to is how about a special levy on all those properties to pay for the overage?

I added some paragraph breaks for clarity. Also added some emphasis.

Councillor Del Grande recounts visiting the area where the bridge will be built on Saturday, May 14, which was not a particular nice Saturday in Toronto. At best it was overcast and drizzling. Regardless, he feels observing the area for a brief window on an unpleasant day is enough to declare that there is no “demand usage.”

As Richard Douglas puts it in a follow-up comment to the article on Spacing, “Aside from the poor weather conditions and the muddy, water logged parking lot as deterents did he really expect to see citizens standing at the roped off opening of the parking lots waiting for the bridge to be built?”

If this is the way Del Grande is going to judge the necessity of infrastructure projects, I’d hope he’ll soon pay a visit to Sheppard Avenue to gauge the need for a multi-billion dollar subway project.

Councillor Mike Layton has put a motion on the agenda for this week’s City Council meeting that would, if passed, essentially reverse the earlier decision by the Public Works & Infrastructure Committee to kill the project. It will require a two-thirds majority, which I initially dismissed as an impossible requirement. Layton has been working really hard to get the votes, however.