Toronto The Good? / by Simmon Li

This is just a little addendum to my "Transit City Kneejerking" post. It seems that the kneejerk reactions go past Transit City itself. At least, downtown Toronto (where I work and play, but not where I live) is embroiled in what I can only describe as a Ford hate-fest. Granted I dislike the guy on what I imagine his principles to be (outrageous conservatism similar to the Tea Party brand), I don't think I'm prepared to just hate on him for no reason. He got rid of the vehicle registration tax a few days ago. While no taxes are inherently good or bad, I think it's fair to say that the Vehicle Registration Tax had to work extra hard to prove its worth. Quite frankly, I think it did, considering some of the improvements that we got on our highways (QEW renos, the GO HEV lane). I don't drive into downtown often, but I felt that the tax was justified. I'd rather pay the VRT, than have to deal with road tolls. We here in Toronto seem to think that our roads have some magical self healing ability or something. Steels Ave's fixing was nice, I wonder how much Toronto pitched in, I can only find figures for the federal input. Anyway, I am sure the VRT helped to make that a reality. Anyway, Ford also passed a motion to bring down councillor budgets from 55,000 and some odd to a flat $30,000. Again, not much, but very symbolic and to be quite honest, appreciated. ((http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/toronto/ford-basks-in-a-day-of-triumph/article1841183/))

Now, onto the question that actually matters: 68 million is now gone from the budget due to VRT. How do we tackle that hole? Toronto's debt has inched up pretty fast. While it's important to take a look at why the debt built up in the first place, I think it'd be much more intuitive to see how we can start to work towards a balanced budget. Once we balance that side of the coin, we will have a much better idea of how to tackle addressing our (it seems) structural debt. The TTC is reporting a surplus which is nice to hear, which means they won't be asking for a different operating subsidy in 2011. I'm not exactly sure what that figure is (though I may edit it in later), but it's nice to know that the TTC at least is not in a huge deficit. Without cuts in service, I don't expect Mayor Ford to make up the shortfall. There was a short lived story about the library budget for Toronto, and as far as I know, instead of complying with the 5% cut, they tacked on a 3.3% budget increase. ((http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/toronto/library-budget-by-the-numbers/article1812809/)) Perhaps that was the test balloon to see how strongly Ford would stick to his election rhetoric. In any case, I haven't heard a word from the administration.

Curiously, this is where the point of the post comes in. Ford's administration (apart from killing the VRT, passing a motion to ask Queen's Park to consider tabling a motion to make the TTC an essential service, and cutting the councillor's office budgets down some $23,000) has not said much. There are no concretes on almost every aspect of the city. Budgets, policy implementation, or much of anything else. The council voted to get rid of the VRT, and that's bad news bears, but there's not been a plan to address the shortfall. Perhaps Ford doesn't have a plan? I certainly hope he does have one (and I'm sure, if he isn't smart enough to realize this fact, at least one of his staffers will). So, what the heck is with all the anti-Ford rage? Why are we all so angry that he's killed a token tax and bad mouthed at-grade LRT lines?

To be clear, I stand with those that believe the planned Transit City lines fulfil the goal of expanding access to the system. As I have mentioned in the past, what we should be saving that subway boring money for is a downtown relief line. And again, just so all our marbles are sorted, I don't think killing the VRT was a good idea, and that as a driver (I don't even own a bike, GASP) I understood the need for me to contribute to infrastructure maintenance instead of making Toronto rely on raising/fiddling with property taxes.

City manager Joe Pennachetti has said repeatedly that he can [draft a budget that freezes property taxes, is no larger than the 2010 budget and includes “no major service cuts"]. The draft budget is slated to be unveiled Jan. 10. ((http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/toronto/ford-basks-in-a-day-of-triumph/article1841183/)) [Emphasis mine.]

But I just can't help but wonder why people are so happy to judge Ford so quickly. Has he done some things I find questionable? Yes, but that's no reason to berate him and declare war. The VRT is, in the end, a small chunk of change like the councillor budgets. We have to deal with them, but they matter only slightly for the big picture budget issue. I implore my fellow pinkos to save your fireworks and megaphones for when he actually brings his budget or Transit City proposal to council. On January 10th, the draft budget will be released. Kick and scream then if the budget is crap; all of this kneejerking is spending our political capital when there is nothing worth buying. Let's cut the rage and bring some substance to the debate, all the better we do too if we want to have a lasting effect on policy making at the municipal level.