Jul 11

The incredible shrinking budget gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jul 11

City infrastructure: something’s gotta give

The Toronto Star’s Paul Moloney reported last week that the city now carries $4.4B worth of net debt, as a result of a 20 per cent increase in 2010. Moloney talked to Deputy Mayor Doug Holday to get the scoop on how this administration is going to reduce debt levels:

“I guess we’ll have to look at capital requests with a fine-tooth comb,” Holyday said. “It’s things like the Fort York bridge, which was to be entirely borrowed — it went over budget and became unaffordable.”

“As we go forward, I wouldn’t be surprised if we found other projects that could wait or be reduced in some fashion. We’re just not in a position to keep increasing the debt load.”

via Toronto debt $4.4B and rising – thestar.com.

In other words: we’re going to cut things. Because previous councils have spent far too much on all the entirely unnecessary infrastructure we’ve seen spring up in recent years. Like, um… huh.

The reality is that a significant percentage of the city’s capital costs go to entirely necessary repairs to existing infrastructure. It’s never easy or cheap to run a major city, but it gets progressively harder and more expensive when all the stuff that helps the city function — the pipes, the roads, the tracks, the transit vehicles, the public housing — get to be at least 30-40 years old.

It’s worth noting that the last time a city agency got lax with prioritizing state of good repair costs in their capital budgets, people literally died.

Even ignoring the cost of maintaing the infrastructure we’ve got, no one could reasonably argue that a fast-growing city in a super-fast-growing region can or should make do with the infrastructure we have. As reported by the National Post’s Natalie Alcoba, the Toronto Board of Trade released a report last week calling for the expansion of transportation infrastructure to be a major issue in this fall’s provincial election:

Toronto-area residents are stuck in some of the worst traffic around, spending on average 80 minutes a day commuting, according to regional transit agency Metrolinx. That could hit 109 minutes by 2031. The congestion costs the Toronto-area economy $6-billion a year, a figure Metrolinx says will rise to $15-billion in 20 years if significant action isn’t taken.

“This is a critical issue, this is a top issue up there with the issues of health care, with the issues of education,” said [Board of Trade president Carol] Wilding. “At this point, taking options off the table, or a bidding war that goes down the path of what we don’t want to do, is not the right discussion to be having.”

via Funding to tackle ‘a critical issue’: Toronto Board of Trade | National Post.

The belief that solving the fiscal challenges facing the city is a simple matter of cutting a few wasteful things is, I think, one of the more dangerous elements of the Rob Ford administration. Serious, structural shortfalls — both fiscal and relating to infrastructure — require serious leadership, especially with regard to intergovernmental affairs.

Of course, Councillor Doug Ford stepped it after the Board of Trade report, fulfilling his role as Requisite Diversion and proposing some dumb magical private-sector thing where the Gardiner Expressway would be three storeys high and people would live in it. Problem solved.


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

Presto Chango: TTC looks to adopt new fare card

The TTC will consider a report this week wherein staff recommend adopting the Metrolinx Presto Card program. This program, now in its fourth year of a slow roll-out, aims to give every transit user a pre-loaded card that they can use to pay their fares on local and regional transit vehicles across Ontario.

It’s a good idea, but implementation has been stalled for years in Toronto because the province has only promised to provide partial funding. Given that the TTC faces a huge (and growing) backlog of necessary capital projects, asking local taxpayers to pick up about half the cost of implementing a system that will primarily benefit commuters coming from outside the 416 seems a little crazy.

In his well-worth-listening-to exit interview with Spacing Radio, former mayor David Miller spoke of a very early briefing note he was given regarding Presto. He paraphrases: “Warning! Warning! Presto will bankrupt the TTC! Don’t ever allow the cost of Presto to be put on the TTC.”

So what happened? Wasn’t it only a few weeks back that TTC Chair Karen Stintz was dismissing Presto as too expensive? Essentially, because the province holds all the cards when it comes to infrastructure funding, the TTC got squeezed enough that they’ve given in.

The Globe & Mail’s Patrick White:

The TTC’s refusal to adopt Presto had become increasingly untenable. Provincial funding for the Eglington cross-town subway contained a condition that Presto would be available on that line. In addition, all new streetcar orders have required Presto-compatible units and much of the TTC’s gas-tax revenue is contingent upon Presto adoption, according to Ms. Stintz.

“The commission has a decision to make: we could continue with open payment and put a number of funding agreements with the province at risk, or we could move with Presto,” she said.

via TTC report backs province’s electronic fare-collection system – The Globe and Mail.

The full TTC report is available. All in all, it’s a rather unenthusiastic endorsement for Presto, and the question of the remaining funding gap is left open.

The weird thing is that both the TTC and the minds behind Presto acknowledge that an open payment system (using a debit card, credit card or cell phone to pay your fare) is the logical end-point. The adoption of the current Presto card, then, is merely a stop-gap measure leading to the more open “Presto Next Generation” project, set for 2014ish. (But, then again, with a provincial election looming, who knows?)

The report also indicates that the TTC had a successful bidder from the private sector, willing to implement an open payment system in return for a percentage of fare revenue. That this option is being set aside in favour of the larger program peddled by the provincial government is kind of funny, given city hall’s preference for all things privatized and low-cost.

May 11

Stintz versus Stintz, on Presto

Councillor Karen Stintz, August 2010:

The Province would like to implement a smart-card system across the GTA and currently the TTC is the greatest roadblock. While the TTC should be working closely with the Province to embrace the smart-card, it works against the Provincial initiative by promoting open-payment.

via Open Payment System || Karen Stintz.

TTC chair Karen Stintz, April 2011:

The Presto fare system could vanish from the Toronto Transit Commission unless the cost gets down well below $200 million, TTC chair Karen Stintz said Thursday.

“The cost to the TTC cannot be $200 million, period,” Stintz said.

“Because we don’t have it and it’s not on the table,” she said.

via Presto pass could vanish | Toronto & GTA | News | Toronto Sun.

What a difference nine months makes. Adam Giambrone, on this item, we give you permission to feel smug.

Apr 11

Provincial money for Sheppard Subway derailed by Ford’s demands

On his site, Steve Munro looks into “The Mythical Private Sector Subway” and leads off with this tidbit:

Recently, I learned that Queen’s Park had offered $2b toward the Sheppard Subway provided that the Fords would allow the eastern part of Eglinton to remain on the surface, but this was turned down flat.  So intransigent is the Mayor on the subject of incursion by transit into road space that the possibility of substantial funding for his pet project was not an option worth embracing.

via The Mythical Private Sector Subway | Steve Munro.

Two billion dollars toward a Sheppard Subway extension would likely not have been enough to ‘complete’ the existing subway line with an extension to Scarborough Town Centre — TTC estimates pegged that cost at $3.6 billion this past fall — but it certainly would have put the city in a position where some kind of public-private partnership could have been workable.

Putting this in perspective, and assuming that Munro’s source is reliable, this means that the top transportation priority from this mayor is ensuring no transit vehicle ever runs on-street. He’d rather spend an unnecessary two billion extra dollars burying a line, even if it means denying a large number of transit riders access to new, high-capacity service.

A note on in-median LRT: A few weeks ago, Ivor Tossell wrote an article for the new Toronto Standard outlet, questioning the desirability of on-street LRT:

Transit City might have been a genuine boon to its neighbourhoods. But it gave every indication of being a lousy way to get across town.

For one thing, it’s slow. Advocates like the Toronto Environmental Alliance claim that, on average, Toronto’s street-level LRTs would be only slightly slower than subways. But these numbers, like Ford’s fundraising schemes for the Sheppard line, live in the gauzily optimistic land of theory.

via Transit City’s Dead! Long Live Transit! | Toronto Standard.

It’s all hypotheticals, but I’d point out that two things. First, that if speed is (or was) a major concern on the surface sections of the new LRTs, there are far cheaper ways to deal with those concerns: elevated sections over intersections, side-of-road operation, etc. Second, it’s important to separate inherent problems with infrastructure from potential issues with line operation. Put another way: if the TTC just plainly sucks at running on-street transit, we’re better to work with management to fix that problem than we are to simply bury all future projects.

From an open house consultation regarding the Eglinton LRT, here were the proposed operating speeds of the line as originally envisioned (as found on page 12):

Eglinton LRT Operating Speed

Munro also posted a number of other interesting transit-related articles over the holiday weekend. Check out “The Vanishing Eglinton Right-of-Way“, which notes an item on the Government Management Committee’s upcoming meeting agenda that would transfer land adjacent to Eglinton to Build Toronto for eventual sale. This would close the door forever on using this land for transit. Also fun –if totally nerdy — is “Reading the Fine Print” which breaks down the TTC’s capital and operating budgets.

Apr 11

One Ford silent on election issues as other canvasses for Tories

The mayor actually spoke to reporters on Friday. About issues beyond graffiti removal! He didn’t say much, but I thought his response on the federal election question was interesting:

He continued to stay away from the federal election. He is not endorsing any party, but will help out Conservative finance minister Jim Flaherty, a long-time family friend. Asked what parties could do to woo Toronto voters, Mr. Ford was reticent. “I’m not going to pass the buck. I’m responsible for our city and I’m not going to blame the provincial or federal government. Whatever they can do, whatever they think is the appropriate measure, I appreciate it.”

via Ford takes questions on Gordon Chong, councillor expenses | Posted Toronto | National Post.

He’s not going to blame the provincial government. But just over a month ago he did blame the provincial government. He asked them for more money for city programs. Then he threatened to unleash ‘Ford Nation’ if they didn’t give him what he wanted. Does he not remember that?

To be fair, he has been very consistent in giving the federal government a pass when it comes to city issues. He voted against condemning federal cuts to immigration services. He’s remained silent despite this current election atmosphere being a great time for municipal leaders to make their case for urban issues. And today he voted against receiving Adam Vaughan’s motion that the city ask the federal government to clarify compensation rules for shop owners who suffered damage during the G20 summit last summer.

While Ford isn’t getting actively involved in the election, his brother is. Both Nick Kouvalis and Rocco Rossi tweeted about Doug Ford canvassing for the Conservative Party in Toronto ridings this past weekend.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with councillors supporting and campaigning for federal and provincial candidates, but Doug Ford’s incredibly close relationship with the mayor’s office works to betray his younger brother’s attempt to remain neutral.

Mar 11

Family matters at City Council

The Toronto Star’s Robyn Doolittle speaks to Councillor Michelle Berardinetti, who in addition to being a total Ford loyalist also happens to married to a Liberal MPP:

By accepting the position on Ford’s executive, Berardinetti says she was agreeing to side with the mayor. So far, it hasn’t been a problem, because Ford has strong support in her ward.

But would that change if the mayor sics “Ford Nation” on her husband’s seat?

“I don’t think he will,” she said.

But if he does?

“I really think that was just Rob being Rob,” said Berardinetti.

via City councilor must choose between Rob Ford or her husband — in politics – thestar.com.

I knew there was a reason municipal politicians tend to stay out of provincial and federal races. It can backfire.

With this upcoming provincial election, though, Ford wouldn’t be able to stay out of it if he wanted to. The Progressive Conservatives are already using him symbolically — cut the gravy! Respect for taxpayers! Blah blah blah –, and the “Respect for Taxpayers Action Group” that Nick Kouvalis is putting together seems to be gaining steam.

If the provincial election pushes Berardinetti away from the mayor and into the ‘mushy middle,’ it becomes a whole lot more difficult for the mayor’s office to wield control.

Mar 11

Ford vows to campaign against McGuinty if City isn’t given money it apparently doesn’t need

Twisted and twisted. More fall-out from Ford’s letter to the province asking for money.

Anna Mehler Paperny:

While Mr. Ford insisted he doesn’t want to blame other levels of government for the city’s financial woes – something he accused his predecessor David Miller of doing too often – he said that if the province isn’t forthcoming with cash, he’d have “no other choice.”

“If I need help from the province then I’ll ask for their help. And if they choose not to help us, then I have no other choice but to get out, as I call it, ‘Ford nation’ and make sure they’re not re-elected in the next election.”

via Toronto mayor vows to campaign against Liberals if province won’t boost funds – The Globe and Mail.

What a scumbag move. He still won’t admit that the city needs provincial money but, also, he’ll campaign against McGuinty if he doesn’t get it. Meanwhile Tim Hudak has made no indication that his government would provide funding for Toronto.

Mar 11

Miller’s surplus is the gift that keeps on giving

Oh, yeah. You know that thing where it was revealed that the mayor secretly asked Dalton McGuinty for hundreds of millions of dollars? Despite the fact that he was once adamant that the city didn’t need provincial funding? The premier said no.

On another note: Sometimes I wonder if maybe Miller shouldn’t have just spent the 2010 surplus money on a city-owned hovercraft and spared us all the smoke and mirrors of the 2011 budget.

Kelly Grant and Karen Howlett with the Globe & Mail:

The mayor’s press secretary said that Toronto routinely asks for more money in its pre-budget submission to the province and this year is no different.

However, Adrienne Batra stressed that Mr. Ford didn’t need provincial aid to balance the city’s 2011 budget without a property-tax increase.

“There’s one fundamental difference,” Ms. Batra said. “The funding here was not needed to balance the (2011) budget.”

via McGuinty shoots down Ford’s request for more than $350-million – The Globe and Mail.

The obvious response to Ms. Batra is, of course, “Would you have been able to balance the 2011 budget without a property tax increase without prior year surpluses and reserves?”

Related to this is a “Talking Points Memo” memo circulated to  22 “friendly councillors” of the mayor’s office last week. Uncovered and posted by OpenFile Toronto’s Jonathan Goldsbie, it is all sorts of ridiculous at various points, but the capper is the last page, which gives justification for spending all surplus and reserve funds to balance the 2011 budget with no thought to 2012:

By applying all accumulated surpluses to the 2011 budget, we unmasked the true financial condition for all to see. The 2012 budget forecast reflects the true gap between the city’s revenues and spending habits.

Gee, thanks. It’s a bit like emptying out someone’s savings account just to make it really obvious how little money they make.

P.S. The 22 councillors who received the talking point memo? The results from the vote on the Tenant Defence Fund from last week probably serve as a good indication.

The “No” votes are Team Ford. I’m thinking Jaye Robinson would be considered a friendly too. Perhaps Doug Ford isn’t included in the list of 22 councillors since he works out of the mayor’s office.