Fundamentally, Howard Hampton gets it.
And it frustrates him.
Earlier this week, Hampton “lashed out” at the media.
“We’ve become the child poverty capital of Canada — don’t any of you people care?”
“Don’t you care that there are seniors living in soiled diapers? Don’t you care about that? I’m asking you, ‘What do you care about?’ That’s what I know people care about. These are real issues.”
The Liberals may laugh; the media may tut-tut, but Hampton’s frustration is widely shared by many thoughtful individuals, including Conservatives. The faith based education program was a small facet of the Tories’ platform and it barely affected more than 50,000 Ontarians. There were numerous other issues out there that had more immediate and personal impact on the voters, and in the Liberal game of Find the Maiden, we just didn’t have the debate we desired.
This is especially frustrating to me because, as the summer progressed, it looked like the election would finally be about the health of our cities. Mayor Miller and the rest of Toronto City Council were finally forced to admit that the fiscal nightmare they’d been postponing by dipping into their reserves since Mel Lastman was mayor was now upon them. The cities around Toronto were finally forced to admit that they were deep in the hole of automobile dependency, that their streets were choked and that they needed to spend millions to make their neighbourhoods walkable and jobs accessible by public transit. And all the cities across Ontario knew, as many had known for years, that there was a fundamental discontinuity between the powers they had to raise revenues, and the responsibilities they were expected to pay for.
Uninformed people find it easy to point the blame solely at mayors like Miller and say that cities like Toronto needed to get their fiscal house in order, but the reality is that provincially mandated services, downloaded onto the municipalities not just by Mike Harris but by provincial governments of all stripes, now amount to anywhere from a third to half of a city’s budgetary expenses. This applies to almost every city in this province, but Toronto has it worst of all. These provincially mandated services cannot be cut, so it’s rather of hard to get your fiscal house in order when somebody else has control over a third to half of your house.
Over and above those provincially mandated and controlled expenditures come the nitty-gritty of municipal duties: the police services, the fire services, the road work, the public transportation. These have been on austerity programs for years, and most commentators now agree that there is no excess fat to cut; that indeed these services have been cut to the point where they no longer adequately serve the community. The community has been adamant that they want community centres to stay open, libraries to serve the public, enough police officers to do their jobs, and transit service that is frequent, reliable and clean. None of this can be achieved without somebody picking up the tab.
The Toronto Transit Commission became the poster child of this quarter-century of provincial neglect. Politicians at Queen’s Park have hemmed and hawed about what to do about little TTC, but the solution is not rocket science, it’s a matter of political will. In 1988, the TTC carried 463 million passengers, and required $250 million in annual subsidies to do it (split evenly between city and province). By the mid 1990s, that subsidy had been cut to $150 million (at this point paid solely by the City of Toronto), and the TTC’s ridership had dropped to nearly 360 million. Passengers were asked to pay more for services that came less frequently, that came in vehicles that were dirtier and more crowded. Of course they left. Now, as population and its associated congestion has increased, ridership is back at 1988 levels, as is its subsidy — unless you take twenty years of inflation into account. And not coincidentally riders are finding the system dirty, crowded, slow and infrequent. Those words didn’t apply in 1988.
Don’t blame the unions. The TTC and GO Transit are finding it difficult to keep drivers, even at the wages they pay. Indeed, many take the TTC’s six week training program, obtain their license, and then high-tail it to private charter companies, where the work is less stressful (and non-unionized) and the pay comes with tips. Don’t blame management: for the past two decades they have run a system that has done more with less than any other network in North America. If you feel that the buses, streetcars and subways are dirty, or if you feel that they aren’t at your stop frequently enough, or there is no room to get on when they arrive, there is no other answer: you have to pay up. These are the services you want, and these are the taxes you pay. One goes up if the other goes up. That’s a fundamental truth.
And when the province controls a third to a half of what our cities pay, the ability of our cities to fund the remainder of their services to the level their citizens would like is compromised.
From Toronto to Thunder Bay, from Ottawa to Windsor, cities everywhere know the foolishness of using municipal property taxes to pay for provincially mandated and controlled services. Why should municipalities pay for the costs of sending police officers to court to defend the tickets they issue when the fines they collect go into provincial general revenues? Why should Windsor be on the hook for maintaining the social services of dozens of admittedly needy refugee claimants from Mexico when it is provincial and federal regulations that keep them there? Too long have municipalities been used by the provincial government to offload costs from provincial income taxes without incurring the political cost of actually cutting those services. And as municipalities run those government services that affect everybody’s lives on a daily basis — garbage collection, public transportation, roadwork, police services, fire services — the impacts of this foolhardy approach are being felt by everyone.
And Howard Hampton gets that.
Now that the deficit has been brought under control, Howard Hampton would focus his energies on the hidden deficit of municipal-provincial relations. He would reverse the downloading of social services that have taken place up to now. Under a Hampton government, the province would pay the full costs of the Ontario Disability Support and the Ontario Drug Benefit programs by 2011. By 2015, he would have the province assume the full cost of social housing, welfare payments, public health, ambulance and child care.
Hampton matches or exceeds similar promises Dalton McGuinty has made to save our cities (and who has, for the past four years, failed to implement) on all fronts. Only on public transportation capital spending has McGuinty got the jump on him; on the release of McGuinty’s bold Move Ontario 2020, Hampton was very quick to just say “me too”, but Hampton goes farther on the issue of public transportation operating costs, offering to cover half of all cities’ public transportation operating budgets, as the province had done up to 1996. In total, Hampton would spend an additional $3.6 billion over eight years; Toronto would get $900 million of that.
Of course, cue the naysayers. Hampton’s plan is fiscal suicide! Except that the province is now in surplus thanks to $3 billion found in the folds of McGuinty’s couch. The spending will destroy the economy! Except that everybody agrees that congestion is robbing billions from the economy each year. Hampton’s plan will reduce Ontario’s competitiveness in the world market! Except that American companies are coming to Ontario because the burden of not having a government health care system is driving them out of business in the States. Hampton’s plan goes too far! Except that on Dental Care, the $10 minimum wage, municipal downloading and a whole host of other issues, McGuinty intends to take us there. Just… not right now when so many of us could use the help.
We know that Hampton is right because all three party leaders admit there is a problem. However, only Hampton has a concrete plan to do something about the problem now, rather than years from now. It is only under Hampton’s plan that the plight of our property taxpayers start to ease.
Ontario’s cities in general and Toronto in particular have suffered from a structural problem. They don’t exist constitutionally, and their powers and responsibilities have, since 1849, been controlled by provincial fiat. The only government that has ever had the ability to solve our cities’ problems immediately has, for the past four years, been led by McGuinty, and he hasn’t done enough. A government by Hampton might finally have the courage to fix this relationship, and pull these costs off our property taxes and onto our income taxes where there is more flexibility to pay.
Under Hampton, our cities might finally begin to work.
Next: The Case for Someone Else