The mayoral debates have morphed into an endless and mindless broken record of who can insult who best, who has the least personal baggage and whose transit plan can be done the fastest, with the best financing schemes and the fewest hits on our pocketbooks.
In fact, transit and traffic have so dominated this mayoral race that John Tory’s lawn signs promote his $8-billion Smart Track plan – as if that is No. 1 issue in the race.
Look, I’m all for getting on with building transit and I agree with Tory there’s been far too much talk and no action.
But, I would have sooner seen Tory’s sign adorned with the slogan Minding Your Money.
For this issue – No. 1 for many overtaxed and underserviced Torontonians — has been given only lip service in this race, lost in the constant yapping about who’s a bully and who many of my media colleagues have already anointed as mayor.
It’s as if the hard work and sweat budget chief Mike Del Grande put in to balance the city’s books; to end the city’s reliance on one-time bailouts, surpluses and near-depleted reserve funds; and to lower the city’s debt service charges substantially – after years of reckless spending and creative taxing by the Millerites – has been taken totally for granted.
Some residents – and I’m not talking about the special interests, the unions and the lefties – want to know whether the mayor they elect has the will and capability to live within the city’s $12-billion budget. As I’ve observed over the years at City Hall, it is far easier to say ‘Yes’ to the constant demands of the NDP on council. Indeed, that is how both Mel Lastman and Miller built consensus and bought support on highly dysfunctional councils.
I want to know whether any of the candidates have the guts to say “No” and how committed they are to continuing to lower the debt, drive efficiencies and not be beholden to special interests.
“I think that’s been a miss by everyone … there’s not been enough focus on the financial capabilities of the city and managing what we have,” Del Grande said, adding it’s especially important considering they came out of the Miller era with all kinds of new taxes but that still doesn’t seem to be enough.
“Candidates aren’t tapping into the understanding of the anger of more and more money being squeezed out of (taxpayers),” he said. “They don’t want to continually be squeezed.”
I fear Olivia Chow would return the city to the days of Miller in no time. She won’t contract out garbage any further. Nor does she view reducing the debt, finding savings or taking a hard stance in upcoming union negotiations as priorities. No surprises there.
Tory has talked about contracting out garbage east of Yonge St. and bringing the city’s largest construction projects under far better control. In fact, he told a Toronto Sun editorial board earlier this week that, if he were to win, he’d bring the managers of the 10 largest projects in the city into his office weekly to determine the status of each project.
Del Grande said it’s far more than that — that city officials don’t know how to budget a project properly in the first place. Most projects are budgeted too low or too high and numbers are constantly “thrown around,” he said.
Some have no doubt a tax increase would come out of Tory’s lips far faster than out of Doug Ford’s lips.
To fill the void, the Toronto Taxpayers Coalition, under the diligent leadership of Matthew McGuire, has spent considerable time putting together a Taxpayers Voting Guide (you can find it at www.torontotaxpayer.ca) outlining where the mayoral, councillor and trustee candidates stand on a variety of fiscal issues.
McGuire said Del Grande is one in a million but still wants to see people on council with a “dogged determination” to keep costs down. He says the coalition has not seen any discussion about that continuing to be a priority at City Hall.
“What we’ve heard is that (councillors and the mayor) have to make up for the past four years,” he said.
His group also supports a reduction in the Land Transfer Tax – a “completely unfair tax.”
Ford has come out saying he’d start by reducing it 15% a year – the equivalent of $50 million – while Tory won’t eliminate it unless he has revenue to replace it. Chow wouldn’t touch a reduction to this cash cow with a 10-foot pole.
McGuire said he hasn’t seen a real costed plan either for any big ideas from the mayoralty candidates, not just on the transit file but on affordable housing.
Which brings me to the second key issue that has been all but ignored in this race: Homelessness, social and affordable housing. We’ve heard nothing from any of the mayoral candidates about how they’d tackle the homeless file or the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC), Canada’s largest social housing operation.
During my 15 years covering municipal politics I’ve seen millions of dollars flushed down the drain on homeless handouts, shelter beds and drop-in centres. Since 2005 – and continuing under Mayor Rob Ford – some $14 million a year has been budgeted for an army of social workers whose job it is to get the homeless and panhandlers off the streets. Each time a homeless census is taken, the number of hardcore homeless on the streets keeps going down but the dollars don’t change.
On affordable housing, Chow has murmured about wanting to build 15,000 new units with no indication of where the money will come from. Tory has referred to a “housing strategy” involving investment from all three levels of government. Good luck to him.
And what about the scandal-plagued Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC)? Neither Tory nor Chow have dared tackle this monster.
In late April, CEO Gene Jones was forced out essentially for his “take-no-prisoners” style, for being too closely allied to the Fords and for taking the job he was hired to do – clean house – far too seriously. There’s no doubt he ruffled feathers. Yet, just two months later, Auditor General Jeff Griffiths released a report proving Jones had indeed cleaned house with the help of his CFO Jason Gorel. Under their watch, 62 of 80 audit recommendations were put in place related to getting tighter control on procurement, employee expenses, oversight of subsidiaries and fleet management. The changes have resulted in $10 million in savings a year and some $50 million over five years.
Yet, we’ve heard nothing about Jones’ successes publicly.
Tory and Chow also have deliberately, I believe, avoided the issue of expansion of Billy Bishop Toronto City Centre Airport to bring in jets.
We know Chow, who is aligned with NoJets TO, doesn’t want to talk expansion at all, seeing as she didn’t want the Porter Airlines CEO Bob Deluce to set up shop there in the first place in 2006.
Last July, when council voted to defer a decision on expansion to conduct further studies and hammer out infrastructure issues, Doug Ford was only one of four who supported expansion and jets.
Tory was defensive when I asked about his position on the airport this week. He said he’s sided with the 44 councillors who wanted to get answers to a number of issues – grilling me as to whether I knew the number of flights that will be going in and out of the airport and who will pay to fix the mess at the bottom of Bathurst St.
“I will not sit here and apologize to you or anybody else that I’m going to run a city government that makes decisions based on facts especially major decisions like this,” he said, adding that the issue of jets is a “red herring.”
A source close to the situation, who did not want to be named, said the number of slots for expansion is already set out in the Tripartite agreement and there is already a process in place that strictly limits the flights in and out of the airport.
The source said Tory should consider that the mess at the foot of Bathurst St. has far more to do with the number of new residents (some 37,000) and the 70 high-rises that have been introduced to the area in recent years with no plan for proper transit or roads made, as well as many road closures in the area due to fixes leading up the Pan Am Games.