Mar 12

Rob Ford’s Toronto has a revenue problem

Days after his landslide victory in the October 2010 election, mayor-elect Rob Ford returned to the AM radio station that had launched his political career into the stratosphere. With his electoral triumph still fresh, he told John Oakley — Ford calls him Johnny — about his ambitious plans for the city, starting with the immediate cancellation of the $60-a-year vehicle registration tax.

When Oakley asked how Ford planned to make up the revenue that would be lost after killing the tax, the new mayor was nonchalant. “It’s only $40 million,” he said. “There’s more than enough money. We have a major spending problem at City Hall, not a revenue problem.”

A lot has changed since then. Less than eighteen months removed from those comments, Ford faces a new reality: one where he wants things he can’t pay for. To deliver the subways he’s been promising, Rob Ford has got to deal with a revenue problem all his own.

And, funnily enough, he’s actually looking at things like a revived vehicle registration tax as a way to solve it.

The Globe & Mail’s Kelly Grant & Elizabeth Church:

It remains unclear how Mr. Ford intends to finance his subway plan without relying on road tolls and other new sources of revenue that he has adamantly opposed in the past. Several councillors confirmed that in private meetings the mayor has even floated the option of bringing back the vehicle-registration tax – and jacking up the annual fee to between $80 and $100 from the $60 charge that was killed last year.

Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon said Mr. Ford mentioned a VRT of between $80 and $100 as he ticked off a list of possible revenue tools, including road tolls and parking levies, during a meeting last week with her and fellow centrist councillor Ana Bailao.

via After meeting developers, Ford claims unanimous support for subways | Globe & Mail.

This news follows a Globe editorial last week wherein the mayor — writing under his own byline — expressed initial support for a new tax on parking across the city. “According to KPMG, a modest parking levy could generate more than $90-million annually,” he wrote. “That would fund a public-private partnership model to build the Sheppard subway and generate ongoing revenue for future subway expansion.”

Looking closely, the mayor’s numbers are totally out of whack. A report released by the Toronto Parking Authority in 2007 pegged revenues for a city-wide annual levy of $25 applied to all off-street commercial parking spaces at about $23 million. A $100 levy applied only to parking spaces downtown would bring in even less: just $7.5 million. To generate the kind of dollars KPMG and the mayor are talking about — and, yes, you need those kinds of dollars to pay for expensive capital projects like subways — you’d be looking at a per-space levy of closer to $100 per year charged at all commercial properties across the city. (And that’s not even taking into account the displacement factor — commercial businesses would immediately slash the size of their parking lots in response to a new tax.)

In addition, the existence of new revenues doesn’t magically make the idea of subways on Sheppard and Finch any more sensible from a planning perspective. If Ford really wants to justify these projects, he needs to go beyond just raising the capital money and also provide a strategy for financing long-term operational and maintenance costs. Cutting bus routes to subsidize empty subways is not a strategy.

He also needs to tell the people in North York & Scarborough that their neighbourhoods will need to change to accommodate dozens of 40-story condo towers.

But I don’t want to sound like I’m down on the idea. That Rob Ford is actually having these kinds of conversations about revenue tools is monumentally good news. This is a major turning point for the mayor and for Toronto. Under a conservative regime, the city as a whole may finally be coming to terms with the fact that the budget process has been seriously constrained by limited revenue sources since amalgamation.

Former budget chief Shelley Carroll has been pointing out the need for new revenue drivers — including a sales tax — for years. It’s a relief that Ford-allies like Councillor Norm Kelly and the mayor himself are starting to come around to the idea.

Here comes the sun

But wait. The Toronto Sun editorial board:

The problem with new taxes is that they have a way of growing like topsy.

Within days of Ford floating his $90 million-a-year parking tax, key Ford council ally Norm Kelly was pitching a 0.5% Toronto sales tax to raise $250 million annually for new subways.

We can’t think of anything more off brand for Ford and his allies to be running up the flagpole than a new tax.

What about all that private sector enthusiasm for the Sheppard subway Ford’s been talking about?

What about the city living within its means?

via Ford should bury subway tax idea | Toronto Sun.

Oh, right. We can’t ignore this truth: Ford Nation hates taxes and fees. Sure, they’re also the ones being most vociferous about their demands for subways instead of cheaper alternatives, but can their collective desire for underground transit trump the anti-tax sentiment that was at the core of the mayor’s election campaign?

Early indicators say no.

So far, Ford hasn’t publicly endorsed any new revenues aside from the single mention of a parking levy in his Globe editorial. And even that was kind of hand-waved away in the next paragraph: “Some partnership models don’t require any taxpayer funding in the first few years,” he wrote.

Ford is at a tough political crossroads with the transit file, and I’m worried he’s likely to retreat. Without the bedrock support provided to him by outlets like the Toronto Sun and AM radio, the mayor’s bound to start feeling pretty lonely. On the other hand, these kinds of compromises and face-saving moves are the only workable strategy Ford’s got if he wants to continue to drive the agenda at council.

Council will be revisiting the idea of transit in the Sheppard corridor on March 15. The lead-up to that meeting is critical. If Rob Ford is serious about his plan for transit, he needs to make a clear public statement in support of new revenue tools. No weasel words, no call for studies, no vague requests to the province: if Rob Ford really wants underground transit, he has to tell us he wants new taxes and tolls.


Aug 11

…Only Outlaws Will Have Panhandles: How The Sun got it wrong on poverty & panhandling

Produced for a 2008 study, this map shows the major panhandling locations downtown. The larger balloons indicate the presence of three or more panhandlers.

The venerable Toronto Sun is on the warpath. Their enemy is — and has been for more than a week now — the act of panhandling. First, they declared the practice one of the three things Mayor Rob Ford must deal with this year, along with eliminating the nickel charge for plastic bags and slapping a licence on cyclists. They then followed that up with almost a dozen articles and columns calling for an immediate and effective end to panhandling. Their preferred method? New laws. Policing. Cracking down.

All this comes despite a complete absence of statistical support and the fact that the city’s hired consultants — you remember them: they said we should consider cutting everything — actually advocate providing more resources to the homelessness program implemented under former mayor David Miller.

As if millions of voices suddenly cried out

No other newspaper in the city is as effective at marshalling their writers around one singular cause. The Sun brought out a parade of reporters and columnists to give their two cents on the matter, with no one deviating from the editorial line. Joe Warmington declared panhandling a “scourge” and did some back-of-the-envelope math showing that, apparently, some panhandlers in Toronto earn more than $40,000 per year. “Robbers,” he called them, hiding behind politicians who “love the homeless and use them as pawns to advance a socialist agenda.”

The parade went on: Sue-Ann Levy declared that it’s “time for action on panhandlers” and quoted a resident who claimed that “shopping on Queen Street in the Beach is like running the gauntlet in a ghetto” due to an onslaught of panhandlers. Ian Robertson had a story about beggars and their “tricks”, making the whole thing sound a bit Tolkienish. Terry Davidson was actually given an assignment to go out and panhandle himself for a while, and report back on what it’s like.

A Thursday editorial was most emphatic: “Solving this crisis begins with making it illegal to live on our streets, period. No excuses.” The same editorial, bizarrely, goes on to advocate treatment programs for homeless people but also seems to condemn the thought of spending more money on such programs.

It’s an impressive display of uniformity, but what’s most notably is what’s missing from all the invective and calls for a law-and-order approach is the answer to two questions:

  1. Has there been a documented increase in the number of panhandlers or homeless people in the last few years?
  2. Has there been a documented increase in the number of complaints about panhandlers from residents or businesses?

You’d think answering these questions is where journalists would start, but the Toronto Sun — maybe in the interest of efficiency — simply skipped the statistic-gathering step and barrelled onward.

Which is too bad, actually, because the City actually put together a rather comprehensive study on panhandling in 2008. It’s well-worth reading, and includes useful things like facts and numbers. (They also produced a map, as above.)

For example: per the study, most panhandlers make about $20 to $25 per day, or about $3.57 an hour. Eighty percent of panhandlers surveyed indicated that they would like to quit panhandling. The biggest barrier they face, according to more than three-quarters of respondents, is a lack of permanent housing. (Contrary to a popular stereotype, the study finds no real evidence for a class of panhandler that is either employed or employable and has permanent private housing.)

But wait, there’s more: business operators in the downtown study area “did not believe the police were the best response” to panhandling. More generally, the report noted that police blitzes of panhandlers in other urban areas “does not seem to necessarily impact panhandling behaviour on a City wide level, though they may curtail the activity in a particular area for a period of time.”

The study was part of a pilot project that saw city social workers — under the Streets to Homes banner — connect with panhandlers. The workers identified more than 100 panhandlers who had access to some form of housing and provided them links to community agencies and other services so they could collect provincial benefits, establish a treatment program for addiction or mental illness, and find employment and/or improved housing.

And I know, this all sounds like silly bleeding-heart liberal stuff that just coddles people and doesn’t produce results, but the numbers are there: after a mere twelve week pilot, more than two-thirds of the panhandlers involved in the program were no longer panhandling. You can read some case studies as part of Appendix C of the report.

Social services programs are the only way to effectively address any panhandling problem, because panhandling is — almost always — a symptom of poverty. We cannot make poverty illegal, nor can we make it disappear. We have to deal with it.

The Gravy Question

But isn’t Toronto’s “Streets to Homes” program just part of the big, ineffective gravy train? Isn’t this just useless bureaucracy? I don’t think so. Since it launched in 2005, Streets to Homes has found permanent housing for more than 3,000 people who were previously living on the streets. Most remain housed for more than a year, which is a substantive achievement when you consider the issues — addiction; mental illness; disability — that lead to poverty and homelessness in the first place.

But, hell, don’t take my word for it. Let’s look to KPMG, who recently put together a big fat whale of a study that essentially put all of the city’s social and cultural services on the table as potential cuts. All, that is, except for Streets to Homes. In fact, on page 48 of their report to the Community Development & Recreation Committee, KPMG actually advocates providing more resources for that program.

It is, as far as I can tell, the only place these consultants have put forth a consideration for more program spending to reduce other service costs.

Panhandling and — more critically — poverty are major issues facing our city, but all the data seems to indicate that Toronto does have an effective strategy in place that could, given more resources, continue to limit the number of people living on the street. It’s unfortunate that the Toronto Sun seems to have missed that and has instead run headline after headline trying to get us to join the cause for police action on homelessness.

We shouldn’t listen. No matter how much they beg.

The KPMG consideration on Streets to Homes

The KPMG consideration on Streets to Homes