Jan 12

That damn streetcar purchase: how Rob Ford made transit a budget scapegoat

The mayor, in his “Weekly Update” message, sent out the Friday before last week’s budget vote:

We are also going to take this year’s $154 million surplus and invest it vehicles for the TTC.

As I have said – the previous administration placed a $700 million order for TTC vehicles [new streetcars] with no money set aside to pay for them. That was irresponsible.

The $154 million surplus must go towards paying that $700 million debt as the bills come in. This is the responsible thing to do.

via My Weekly Report – week ending January 13, 2012 | Rob Ford’s Facebook.

This streetcar gambit was the second strategy the mayor’s team tried as part of their attempt to take back control of the 2012 budget narrative. In the face of an almost $200 million surplus, the whole “we’ve got to make a lot of cuts!” thing required some finesse. Their first idea was to frame any notion of using one-time “windfall” funds to maintain programs as totally and completely irresponsible. The kind of thing dumb consumers do.

That quickly fell apart, though, because the 2012 operating budget was always going to include so-called “one-time” funds. From the very moment Rob Ford stood at the podium and endorsed the staff-recommended budget, there was $80 million in non-sustainable reserve funds built right in. What became challenging for the mayor and his allies, then, was defending using some one-time funding but not any more than that.

They set an arbitrary line at $80 million but quickly realized they weren’t standing on solid ground. And so: streetcars.

Pointing to the streetcar purchase as part of the budget process was actually a shrewd move. It took something a lot of Ford opponents are passionate about — transit infrastructure — and dangled it precariously over a fiscal edge. The notion that the city might not be able to pay for its new transit vehicles if it didn’t devote more money to its capital budget at least had some logic to it. It gave proposed service cuts more legitimacy than they would have had otherwise in a budgetary surplus environment. We’re not cutting because we love cutting, they could say. We’re cutting to save transit.

All of this, of course, was mostly baseless scaremongering.

A brief history of Toronto’s streetcar purchase

Council Scorecard: New Streetcar Purcahse

David Miller's council voted to buy new streetcars twice. The first time, it was with the understanding that the federal government would cover a third of the costs. The second vote came after the federal government said no.

PART ONE: Having looked at various options for rebuilding the current fleet of Canadian Light Rail Vehicles (CLRVs) and and Articulated Light Rail Vehicles (ALRVs), the TTC decides that the best course of action is to replace the entire fleet with new streetcars. As an added bonus, the new vehicles can be made low-floor so they’re more accessible, theoretically lessening some of the demand on WheelTrans.

Leading into a design and tender process, the TTC includes 204 new streetcars in their capital budget request to council in 2008. The full cost is about $1.2 billion and the wording in the budget indicates that council’s approval is contingent on both the provincial and federal governments each paying one-third of that figure — about $400 million each. The City’s portion is to be funded with debt.

No one passes any amendments objecting to the purchase of new streetcars. (Though Rob Ford does attempt to pass amendments eliminating both 311 and Toronto’s bike plan.) The capital budget as a whole passes 29-11.

PART TWO: There’s no delicate way to say this: the federal government — through Conservative MP John Baird –, upon receiving Toronto’s request for streetcar funding as part of the 2009 federal stimulus package, literally tells Toronto to “fuck off.”

Yes, despite the province tabling no objections to funding its share of the vehicle purchase under its stimulus program, the federal government objects to paying for the purchase on a technicality and sends Toronto scrambling. At this point, the contract for the new vehicles has already been awarded to Bombardier and the clock is ticking before their bid — significantly lower than a comparable bid from Siemens — is to expire.

PART THREE: Council holds another vote to preserve Bombardier’s streetcar bid and keep things on schedule. The plan is to cover the federal government’s portion of the purchase price through debt financing. Room is made in the capital budget by deferring items like the Eglinton Bus Terminal replacement, the station modernization program and other capital projects. By doing things this way, the City is able to finance the purchase without increasing its net debt beyond what was originally planned and approved.

Council votes overwhelmingly to continue with the streetcar purchase, making the necessary changes to the TTC’s capital budget. The contract is signed with the first new streetcar set to debut in the city sometime in the next year or so.

Where we are today

As of this year’s capital budget, the streetcar purchase is still on the books, part of the ongoing capital plan that was approved by council last week. The only change is that the number of streetcars ordered was reduced from 204 to 189 as part of some cost-saving measures this past summer. The plan to use debt to finance the purchase won’t result in any kind of doom scenario, as the capital plan on the books keeps debt service charges below council’s self-mandated 15% limit. Even working from the almost stupidly conservative assumption that there will be no future surplus money or revenue from asset sales to devote to capital payments, the city has a fiscal strategy to meet its capital obligations.

That’s not to pretend that there aren’t serious issues related to TTC funding, however. Yes, the TTC has many capital needs beyond the limits of the approved capital budget. And, yes, they could absolutely use more funding to provide infrastructure to improve service across the city. There continues to be a need for all levels of government to sit down and figure out a long-term solution for transit infrastructure in this city.

But never in this budget process  — or in any other — was the city’s ability to pay for its new streetcars threatened. Following tales of $774 million deficits and 35% property tax increases, this was just yet another example of a mayor who tends to use fear as a means to build support for his agenda.

The streetcars we desire roll on.

Jan 12

Eglinton LRT resurfaces as Karen Stintz breaks with the mayor

The Globe & Mail’s Adrian Morrow:

Karen Stintz argues it makes more sense to put the LRT underground only along the most congested part of the route, in midtown, while building it on the surface in the spacious suburbs.

“If the decision is to go with an LRT, it should be at-grade,” she said. “If there’s a decision to put it underground, it should be a subway.”

via TTC head favours surface LRT on suburban stretch of Eglinton | Globe & Mail.

At this point, this issue seems to have enough critical mass to make some serious waves at council. I don’t believe the mayor would win the resulting vote if he worked up the courage to ask council to endorse current transit plans.

Morrow states rather emphatically that “any rethink on the [Eglinton] line, however, would lead to further delays.” But a report by the Star’s Tess Kalinowski disagrees: “if the TTC returned to the original environmental studies for surface LRT – part of former mayor David Miller’s Transit City plan – there would be no delay.”

For what it’s worth, Steve Munro seems to agree with the Star. Last week, he speculated that the province “wants to keep their options open as long as possible depending on whatever position Council eventually takes.” Because, for them, not having to do new design work for the tunnel and stations along the eastern section should actually save time and money. And with an in-median route, there’d be no question about how to deal with those sneaky goddamned valley crossings which are vexing the hell out of engineers.

The best — and most obvious — outcome of all this would be for council to endorse moving the eastern section of Eglinton back to the surface and using the savings (which should approach anywhere from $1 billion to $2 billion) to build some form of higher order transit on Finch West. The LRT design for that corridor is sitting on a shelf somewhere and it wouldn’t take much to put those wheels in motion once again. (Last year, David Miller described reactivating the project as like flicking a switch, which is probably overly simplistic. But not too far off.)

Still, there’s reason to be concerned that we’ll just go from one goofy transit plan to another with this move. In her interview with Kalinowski this morning, Stintz floated the idea of using the savings from un-burying Eglinton to build the mayor’s desired Sheppard extension.

Not only does the Sheppard subway offer far less in terms of cost-benefit than the Finch route — any subway extension will add way more to long-term operating costs than surface LRT –, such a move would also seem to require the city to renegotiate the agreement they made with the province last year with their Memorandum of Understanding.

In that memo — which famously was never approved by council, even though it was supposed to be — the province pegged their maximum contribution to the Sheppard project at $650 million. And they said that the money would only materialize should Metrolinx come in under budget on the $8.4 billion Eglinton project. (This past summer, the mayor sat down with Dalton McGuinty to try to get him to release that money ahead of schedule. The premier, more or less, told the mayor to get bent.)

But Rob Ford can be stubborn, and reports out of the mayor’s office are that he’s not shown much willingness to compromise on his Sheppard Subway campaign pledge. Trying to get the province to agree to devote more funds to Sheppard is likely to cause further undue delays as things get sorted out. Meanwhile, riders on crazy overcrowded bus routes will continue to suffer.

Another reason to worry: there’s a small-but-terrifying chance that the province — which is flirting with big-time austerity measures at the moment — may seize on this debate as a golden opportunity to decrease their total financial commitment to transit in Toronto. Queen’s Park has to be getting nervous about their capital commitments beyond 2015, when the bulk of this spending is due, and a fractured and indecisive council is only going to embolden Metrolinx to swoop in and start tinkering with Toronto’s transit plans.

So here’s the plea to council: get the transit file in order soon. Find a plan that works for a strong majority of people across Toronto and that fits within the current funding envelope. Then tell the province, unequivocally, that this is what Toronto needs.

Then just build the damn thing.



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?

Dec 11

Notes on Rob Ford’s budget, written as it starts to fall apart

The Toronto Star’s Royson James:

The budget committee meets Tuesday to vote on motions aimed at avoiding a showdown on kids’ programs. Will the torrent of complaints from Toronto residents derail the so-called “gravy train”? And is Ford on a course correction?

His council opponents are in a holding pattern. Both Gord Perks and Adam Vaughan said Monday they won’t table any budget changes until the mayor plays his hand and outlines his fixes.

“There’s no need to start making deals yet. We need the third-quarter report (on the surplus, assessment growth and investment incomes, for example), we need to see the changes from the budget committee and the executive committee,” Perks said.

When the budget deals are negotiated, expect a big push to save TTC routes earmarked for service reductions, and protection of the Wheel-Trans service for ambulatory dialysis patients.

“It’s the mayor’s budget. He doesn’t have the votes. He will have to fix it,” said Vaughan.

via James: Councillors push back against flawed budget | Toronto Star.

Rob Ford’s first real budget as mayor is gradually falling to pieces. Every indication is that the budget passed by council in February will look very different from the one Rob Ford first presented a few weeks back.

This will be a significant shift from the way things have traditionally been done. While there has always been a bit of public give-and-take with city budgets — a tweak here, a shift there — never before has a post-amalgamation mayor faced such strong opposition from council. Just as Ford has blazed a new trail by being a mayor who routinely and sometimes overwhelmingly loses council votes, this mayor will also break new ground should he prove to be a mayor who loses complete control of the budget narrative in February.

This is, of course, mostly a good thing, especially because the other alternative is going down a road where important programs get cut for essentially no reason. But there’s a ring of sadness around it. Because this is a time in Toronto where political energy and engaged residents should be focused on the way forward. On building and growing and making things great.

But instead, we’re actually having public arguments about whether the city should continue putting $600,000 per year toward cost-shared programs that provide breakfast for kids who need it. It’s hard not to feel like this whole process is, in the long-term, a big waste of our collective civic time.

We can’t solve systemic capital budget issues by nickel-and-diming the operating budget

Most of the rationale we’re hearing from the mayor and his allies surrounding the 2012 budget is overly-simplistic: we need to cut the budget because the budget is too big. But beyond that, I have heard a slightly more compelling narrative from the budget chief and former chief-of-staff Nick Kouvalis, who hung around for the last hour of this week’s episode of The City with Josh Matlow and expressed this view repeatedly.

To paraphrase, the rationale goes like this: we have to drastically cut the operating budget to increase our debt payments so we can then pay for capital projects and eliminate all our debt and then, I guess, enjoy a happy fiscally-conservative utopia.

There is, at least, some sense to this. Our debt payments have been mounting. We’ll spend $400 million of property tax revenues on debt payments and interest alone in 2012. Our capital obligations total a ridiculously huge number going forward,and very little of that total is nice-to-have items like new parks and arenas. Most of it is the cost of simply keeping things from falling over.

But, ultimately, trying to work our way out of a capital budget crunch by pruning the operating budget is a losing battle. It’s like trying to dig your way out of a deep hole with a spoon. Our capital budget problems aren’t self-made. Despite what some on council will try to tell you, David Miller didn’t push for that new streetcar order because he loved spending money: he did it because the only alternatives were an expensive and risky rebuild of the current streetcar fleet to extend their lives, or a move away from streetcars toward buses, which probably would have cost more in the long-term. (And rightly pissed off a lot of people, who still remember the last time the government tried to kill streetcars.)

In fact, the bulk of necessary spending over the next decade relates to costs associated with maintaining and (ever so slightly) expanding the TTC. We’re facing these problems entirely because the province shirked its responsibilities and has been slow to come back to them.

And to those who will say provincial funding is impossible because the Ontario government is facing its own significant debt and deficit crisis, you’re letting them off the hook too easily. The province has budgeting techniques and revenue tools at its disposal that the city can only dream of. And transit is not one of those things that the province gets to defund when the economy goes bad. Because transit is a critical part of that economy.

But, still, maybe you’re cynical enough to believe that the provincial government will never understand that, and never come to the table. Even then, we’re still facing an issue that cannot be solved by shaving dollars off the operating budget and plowing the savings into capital. We can’t  fund the long-term capital needs of one of North America’s largest transit systems solely on a property tax base that brings in about 4 billion a year. It doesn’t work and it will never work. If the province won’t play ball, then we need to start looking at new revenues — road tolls and sales taxes — that can pay for the kind of transit Toronto needs.

Oct 11

What they’re saying about Rob Ford in other municipalities

Come with me on a whirlwind tour of smallish Ontario community newspapers, as we look at their many and varied references to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford over the past month.

Ray Martin, Cambridge Times:

[Cambridge Mayor Doug] Craig said he will also report on the fiscal health of the city as it rolls out of the recession.
“I want people to know that we are in strong shape and our focus now is on creating jobs and building our economy,” he said.

Unlike Toronto, where Mayor Rob Ford is seeking to cut 10 per cent from his budget, Craig said Cambridge has already been there and done that thanks in large part due to the work of senior city staff.

via Mayor looks to big picture for city | Cambridge Times.

Chip Martin, London Free Press:

[London Mayor Joe Fontana] said an ongoing review is better and more comprehensive than the one-month quickie review of the budget last year before it was passed.

“And it’s better than what’s going on in Toronto,” he said, referring to the proposals for budget cuts there by the Rob Ford administration that is producing public outcry.

“We intend to engage the public once we’ve decided on a cut- and-add list,” Fontana promised.

via It’s open season | London Free Press.

Brian Holstein, Guelph Mercury:

We have seen it before: voters believed Rob Ford and his Toronto gravy train; Guelphites were led by mayoral hopeful Kate Quarrie to believe the deliberate mismanagement of the city budget. There was no mismanagement, and the only thing deliberate was unfounded fear. But the people believed, only to quickly find they had been duped.

via Smart meter-era bills can bring validation | Guelph Mercury.

Editorial Board, Simcoe.com:

Rob Ford’s campaign for Mayor of Toronto is an example of a taxpayer-first tactic at work.
Ford promised ‘taxpayers’ that he would derail Toronto’s gravy train, ending wasteful spending at city hall.

What Ford discovered once in the mayor’s chair, however, was libraries, community grants, grass-cutting in parks, snow-plowing, neighbourhood zoos and child-care subsidies were not considered superfluous spending by citizens.

via Be a citizen | Simcoe.com.

John Kastner, Stratford Beacon-Herald:

Why is it when we talk cuts it’s always the things we hold most near and dear that are the first things rushed up to the sacrificial altar?

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has said the first tasks of his new financial regime will be to sell off theatres and zoos and cut back on snow-clearing and transit service.

Not sure how much that will save, but people will sure notice — and you almost get the impression that’s the plan.

Politicians aren’t really interested in cutting spending. The real goal is just to give that impression by picking the most visible targets possible.

via Hitting beloved services the unkindest cut of all | Stratford Beacon-Herald.

Mike Norris, Kingston Whig-Standard:

Madeleine Ross stands directly in front of [PC Candidate Rodger] James and expresses concern that the governments of Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, a Conservative supporter, are making decisions with little public consultation. How can Ontarians be assured that Tim Hudak won’t do the same if elected, she asks.

via He’s all business | Kingston Whig-Standard.

Editorial Board, King Township-Sentinel:

It’s been wisely stated over the centuries that people should be careful when it comes for what they wish for, because they may get it.

We believe voters in the City of Toronto are getting a good lesson in that, and we hope it resonates as far as possible.

Mayor Rob Ford and company have called for an across-the-board 10 per cent budget cut from all departments at the City of Toronto. That includes police and fire (Toronto residents might want to bear that in mind the next time they have the urge to call 9- 1-1). There’s no doubt that has a certain political appeal, but it sounds very simplistic to us. It could also result in a big mess that no one has yet thought through.

via Be careful about cutting programs | King Township Sentinel.

Geoff Zochodne, Oshawa Express:

The largest reaction of the night came when [PC Candidate Jerry] Ouellette made a jab about the NDP and their association with former Toronto Mayor David Miller. [NDP Candidate Mike] Shields fired back that he’d rather be associated with Miller than with Rob Ford to raucous cheers.

via Candidates square off on the eve of an election | Oshawa Express.

Ronald Zajac, Brockville Recorder & Times:

[Brockville Councillor Mary Jean] McFall stressed she is not interested in a broad service-cutting exercise such as the one proposed by Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, but rather in looking for ways to deliver the same level of service – or almost the same – at less cost.

via Council gives lukewarm OK to service review | Brockville Recorder & Times.

Rob Ford was elected with more than 47% of the popular vote last year. Recent polls have put his approval rating at very low levels. He chose not to endorse any of the candidates in the recent provincial election. He has not said why.

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.

Oct 11

Ford stays out of provincial race as Ford Nation goes up in smoke

The Toronto Sun’s Don Peat:

Days before the May federal election, Ford came out endorsing Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the federal Conservatives.

But Ford won’t be throwing his support behind Progressive Conservative Tim Hudak, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath or Liberal Dalton McGuinty

“There are no plans to,” Adrienne Batra, the mayor’s press secretary, told the Sun.

Batra did not provide Ford’s reason for staying out of this race.

via Ford staying out of provincial election | News | Ontario Votes | More | Toronto Sun.

Here’s the reason: he’s unpopular.

That Ford didn’t endorse Tim Hudak — the only guy he would ever endorse — is the clearest sign yet that the mayor is aware of his declining popularity. This inaction speaks louder than any poll. Rob Ford knows he doesn’t have the ability to help Hudak in the polls in the 416.

Don’t get me wrong: Ford staying out of the race is the right move. He would have been right to stay out of the federal race too — there really was no personal upside to his endorsement, as Harper promised little for Toronto — but that didn’t stop him. The mayor’s desire to endear himself to the provincial and federal Conservative parties is strong. He didn’t hang that picture of Mike Harris in his office for nothing, nor was it coincidental that Stephen Harper ate barbecue at Ford’s mother’s house over the summer. The Fords seem thrilled to be back in the good graces of the conservative political machine that once rejected them.

Ford’s silence on the provincial race — which, I have to assume, came because the powers-that-be decided his endorsement wouldn’t help anybody — is further proof that, if Rob Ford’s ascension was representative of any kind of political sea change, it was only a fleeting one. A brief, weird moment in time where Toronto collectively rolled the dice on a fascinating, one-of-a-kind politician, who spent his campaign tooling around the city in a (maybe improperly paid for) massive RV, telling everyone he could lower their taxes while maintaining their services.

Election night on October, 25, 2010 was not a massive rightward shift for Toronto. It was not the dawn of some great Ford Nation that holds sway over other orders of government beyond the City of Toronto’s borders. It was just an unlikely man winning an unconventional election in uncertain times.

That doesn’t mean that Ford couldn’t take a second term, of course. Just that, come 2014, the incumbent candidate will have to be a different Rob Ford, running on different terms, telling us something new.

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.

Aug 11

Ford administration demonstrates total incompetence with transit file

Mayor Rob Ford has proven himself almost entirely incompetent when it comes to transit policy and planning.

That’s the only conclusion I can come to after learning the details behind the mayor’s meeting with Premier Dalton McGuinty. Early speculation had it that the meeting — held early yesterday morning — would be about potential uploading and cost-sharing strategies to mitigate the city’s 2012 operating shortfall, but that actually ended up as seemingly only a small part of the agenda. The real dominating topic, at least according to media reports, seemed to be the mayor’s plan to expand the Sheppard Subway west to Downsview and east to Scarborough Town Centre. While Ford had expressed nothing but confidence throughout his first eight months in office that he would be able to build the extension solely with funds from the private sector, it became clear today — when the mayor asked for some $650 million in provincial funds for the project — that that confidence has been shaken.

Here’s the National Post’s Natalie Alcoba:

Mayor Rob Ford insists his prized Sheppard subway extension will be built, but he needs the provincial government to put up $650-million sooner, rather than later, to help make it happen.

Mr. Ford issued his plea to “accelerate” provincial funding in order to nail down money from Ottawa during a closed-door meeting with Premier Dalton McGuinty on Wednesday, before he goes into full provincial campaign mode.

This is not the first time Mr. Ford has acknowledged that government money is required to tunnel under Sheppard. But his demand of the province betrays a more urgent tone, with critics noting that the private sector won’t jump on board a major transit project until the public sector is committed.

via Ford pushes McGuinty for subway funding | National Post.

The only way to read this is as a tacit admission that the Sheppard subway plan, as it’s been explained to us for months now, is a total pipe dream. Private companies are not going to roll the dice on a low-ridership transit line with limited opportunities for residential and commercial development when the public sector won’t sit at the table with them. The Sheppard Subway deal, as pitched by Gordon Chong and the rest of Toronto Transit Infrastructure Limited, is a high-risk, low-reward affair, and they’re trying to sell it in the face of a world economy that is fraught with peril and bad news stories.

That the plan isn’t workable isn’t a surprise. But yesterday’s events, which all add up to a public indication that the mayor might actually be wrong about something, are definitely interesting. Rob Ford is not one to readily admit his own mistakes.

How Rob Ford might cost the Toronto more than $300 million in committed transit funding

The numbers behind Ford’s request to McGuinty tell a fascinating story of their own. In 2007, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and McGuinty emerged from a streetcar at a TTC maintenance shop and announced joint funding for the Sheppard East LRT, which was to be the first line constructed under former mayor David Miller’s Transit City plan. That line was to cost about $950 million, with the province kicking in about two-thirds of that figure, leaving the federal government to pick up the rest of the tab.

When McGuinty agreed to roll over all Transit City funds into the new transit plan announced last March, the province’s portion of the Sheppard funding got moved over to the now all-underground Eglinton LRT. It would now appear that the mayor’s office made an oversight with the remaining federal funds — which total more than $300 million — and they now risk losing them.

In short, the federal funds for Sheppard will expire if they’re not used by 2014. They seemingly can’t be moved over to projects. And the kicker: now that the province is providing no money for any transit project on Sheppard — ostensibly at the mayor’s own request — the agreement between the federal government and the city may be rendered entirely invalid. Without the province’s share of the cost, the federal money won’t flow without a new deal.

It seems likely that between the three levels of government, something will be worked out and the federal contribution for transit expansion won’t be lost. But that this administration has even put themselves in a position where we risk losing that money is demonstrative of their continued inability to effectively manage the transit file.

It’s worth noting, as always, that the Sheppard East LRT would have opened before the next municipal election, improving the daily commute for thousands of Scarborough residents and providing the basis for a network of light rail transit lines across suburban Toronto.

No talk of uploading for TTC operating?

Notably not part of today’s conversation between McGuinty and Ford, according to media reports: the potential uploading of a portion of the TTC’s annual operating costs. Ford’s silence on the issue is conspicuous, especially in light of an item, passed 41-1 with the mayor in favour at the July council meeting, calling for a reinstatement of the previous “fair share” funding agreement for transit, which saw the province pick up half the cost of the TTC’s annual operating budget.

Actual analysis of the City of Toronto’s budget from the mid-1990s until now reveals that the downloading of TTC operating costs onto the city — a ‘gift’ from Mike Harris — correlates with the beginning of Toronto’s budget problems. A return to a 50/50 agreement with the province would wipe out almost all of the so-called structural deficit facing the city.

But why would the mayor want that?

Aug 11

The Pride is Back: once again, it’s about more than just a parade

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/macdonaldfraser/status/99267683404623872″]

Noted impressionist and former member of the Rob Ford for Mayor campaign Fraser Macdonald asked a question via his Twitter account last week. “[Ontario Premier Dalton] McGuinty and [BC Premier] Christy Clark both skipped Pride parades. Media didn’t say a word,” he wrote. “Can you say ‘double standard?'”

I can, in fact, say “double standard” but I won’t in this instance. First, starting with the easy one, Christy Clark. Not only has the new BC Premier apparently marched in the parade before, her conspicuous absence this year was reported in dozens of media articles as per Google News. Next.

Dalton McGuinty didn’t attend Pride this year either, but has appeared often enough in the past that no one took that as a particular slight. His government has maintained their annual investment in Pride Toronto. Earlier this year, the premier told reporters that “we take Pride in investing in Pride.” Here’s a YouTube video of Dalton McGuinty presenting a lifetime achievement award at a Pride gala.

So there. Two politicians who, though they skipped their most recent pride parades, have at least made past appearances and been outspoken and demonstrative with their support for the community. And then there’s Rob Ford.

We’re continuing to see these kinds of disingenuous attempts to pretend like the gay community and their allies simply overreacted after the Mayor of Toronto opted to attend his cottage rather than go to the Pride parade. This is, quite frankly, total revisionism. The issue is not that Ford didn’t attend the parade but rather that he didn’t do as much as wave from his office window at the people assembled to raise the Pride flag at Nathan Phillips Square. He spent most of the week while Pride was in town outright ignoring a major tourist and cultural event, and snubbing an entire community.