Toronto: Whose Fault is it?

I had a couple of people express disbelief over this post when I said that David Miller was doing the best job he could as mayor of Toronto, and possibly giving Torontonians the best job possible. And it’s not hard to see why some people would be disbelieving. Despite the fact that Miller hasn’t called in the army to clear up this winter’s snow, sometimes it seems like this is the only thing he has to hold over the tenure of his predecessor, Mel Lastman.

Toronto is a challenged city. It has been living hand to mouth for almost two decades, now. It has faced chronic funding shortfalls, and an appearance of urban decay in its inner suburbs (though not in its downtown core). For all that the good the city has accomplished, from its vibrant downtown core to the revival of the TTC, it has still encountered serious pitfalls. This past summer, the city was looking at a $500 million shortfall for 2008, and went from cautious optimism to fiscal panic when city council failed to implement the land transfer and vehicle registration taxes that McGuinty made available.

The reaction this past July may have been an equivalent to Mel Lastman’s “I’m terrified!” spiel to the Storm of ‘99, and the buck for the challenges facing Toronto does technically stop at the top. However, Toronto faces structural problems which have afflicted the city for almost twenty years, if not longer. I can understand the desire to look for someone to blame, but that blame might be spread among several individuals.

In this series, I hope to profile some of the people who have influenced Toronto over the past twenty years, and assess whether they should or should not share the blame.


Part I: It’s All David MIller’s Fault

As I said: no, it’s not all his fault. But the buck stops with him, and he has a limited amount of time to make substantial improvements before we decide that another person should fill the mayor’s chair.

There are plenty of things about Toronto’s city management that could still be improved. Steve Munro runs down the problems at the TTC that demand a shake-up, but I would say that Miller and TTC Chairman Giambrone have helped bring these problems to a wider audience and are heading towards a shakeup. In most other things, I cannot see how Miller could have reacted differently.

When you consider that over half of the City of Toronto’s operating budget is consumed by social services, and that the overwhelming majority of those social services are mandated by the province, you begin to see the problem here. By provincial edict, the city (like all Ontario cities) can’t run a deficit, and they can’t cut these services. This has been a problem from the moment Premier Harris mounted these services on the backs of municipalities in the first place. Before, even.

Indeed, when MIke Harris instituted the substantial cuts to welfare payouts soon after he entered office, he actually did his provincial coffers no favours. Most of that money was being paid for out of municipal property taxes. In fact, he gave most municipalities in Ontario a significant financial windfall, so much so that his ministers had to warn municipalities not to go spend crazy and advised them on how best to use their unexpected riches. This was the case for all the cities in Ontario except four. Care to guess who was among the four?

Those four municipalities, which included Toronto, had a higher than average welfare case load — largely due to the fact that other municipalities were exporting their welfare cases to the big cities where, supposedly, the jobs, employment services and (for some welfare cases) the mental health services were. In recognition of that, the previous provincial governments had given these centres a top-up. Harris eliminated this top-up. So, while other municipalities reaped the benefit of Ontario’s welfare cuts, Torontonian taxpayers ended up paying $11 million more.

So, a third to a half of the city’s budget is controlled by the province. Other Ontario cities face similar problems, but they have the ability to tap development charges on newly developed land to cover fiscal shortfalls, Toronto doesn’t. And this is why Toronto’s fiscal problems are more pressing, and why demands for alternative revenue streams are growing. But without these revenues, where do the cuts come? Garbage? We’re already down to one pick-up a week, and our desperate prudence is forcing us to continue to send our trash to a hole somewhere near St. Thomas rather than burning it for fuel. Sewer and water? The infrastructure is already in dire need of improvement. Libraries and community centres? Such cuts would be exceedingly unpopular, especially given that you’d probably have to eliminate libraries and community centres entirely in order to make the dent in the deficit that we want. Public transit? Most people acknowledge the TTC is desperately underfunded. Fire? Police? Would you cut these items if you were mayor?

You can complain about David Miller’s supposed coddling of the unions (especially with a TTC strike that appears imminent), but believe it or not union wages in Toronto are not substantially higher than their private counterparts. Privatization of services in Toronto and elsewhere have not yielded the sort of savings required to balance the books, and they’ve had plenty of drawbacks. The Toronto Transit Commission is having difficulty keeping bus and streetcar drivers in the commission, as these unionized workers are finding that jobs in the private charter industry pay just as well and are far less stressful. A number even take the TTC’s six week training course to obtain their bus driving license and then leave the commission for greener pastures.

For a mayor who started out as just one vote on council, whose fiscal hands are tied at every quarter, David Miller has made remarkable progress as mayor of the city. The TTC has finally rolled out substantial service improvements that go some distance to erase the drastic cuts made twelve years ago. There are plans for LRT corridors across the city. He has successfully lobbied the provincial government for increased powers for his position and for the city, and he has helped bring the cause of our chronic underfunding of municipal infrastructure to national attention.

Miller was elected with considerable promise — so much so that he could not help but disappoint during his first term. But I still think he has been a good mayor because he understands better than any other candidate so far what it takes to make Toronto good again. He has a long way to go, and plenty of work ahead of him to ensure that this tenuous passing grade doesn’t sour, but for me he remains the best mayor the city has for its times.

So, Whose Fault is it?

Further Reading

This article from Macleans does show one thing that Torontonians can brag about. Despite our reputation, and the constant bad news that seems to stream out from the local media, Toronto is far from the most dangerous city in Canada. This report from Statistics Canada compares centres across Canada for their per-capita crime rates. Regina placed up top. Toronto placed 26th, below even Montreal.

And that’s within the borders of the city of Toronto itself — no diluting the results with the statistics from safer suburbs. The safest municipality in Canada is none other than Caledon, Ontario, the rural municipality immediately north of Brampton. Halton Region and York Region were also among the safest.

This may come as a surprise to all the people out there who know that big city Toronto is big and scary and crime ridden, and one only needs to open the pages of a newspaper to see no shortage of stories to reinforce that reputation, but this is per-capita. In a city as populous as Toronto, there’s going to be a lot happening. There are two million stories in this city, after all, and these are just some of them.

Hat tip to Torontoist.

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