For those of you who’ve only just joined the discussion, Toronto mayor Rob Ford spent a fair chunk of his mayoralty campaign running against former mayor David Miller (Miller, of course, had decided not to run — unfortunate, in my opinion, since opinion polls at the time suggest that if he had, he would have been re-elected handily). With Ford paired up against a pretty ineffectual competition, he was able to coalesce the frustrated-voter bloc. His narrative was that Toronto was ill, and that David Miller had made it ill. Torontonians were overtaxed, and he could cut taxes, without cutting services, by finding and eliminating inefficiencies in the municipal government. He was going to stop the gravy train. To that end, word has gone out that the city is setting up a voluntary exit plan, offering up to 50,000 workers six months pay in lump sum if they would just walk out the door.
However, this report by KPMG Consulting, which was commissioned by the Ford administration at fair cost, has basically contradicted the narrative. KPMG was asked to search for inefficiencies in Toronto’s services. They found almost none. Indeed, 96% of the services they looked at in public works were deemed to be required.
Cuts are possible, they said, but service cuts, not inefficiency cuts. KPMG pointed to places where Toronto could legally cut without running afoul of provincial law. These included the following:
“we could save money by spending less on cycling infrastructure. We could save money by not fluoridating the water. We could save money by reducing the level of street cleaning or the level of snow removal. All these and more are contained in the report. We could save money by eliminating the green bin program.”
The reporter on The Grid said it best, “These items do not necessarily look like waste. The possibilities discussed have nothing to do with efficiency.”
Indeed, I would go further: these items represent substantial cuts to municipal services that many Torontonians depend on, and there would be consequences if these went through. KPMG itself notes that cutting fluoridation could lead to an epidemic of tooth decay. You’re also looking at roads that don’t get ploughed as quickly after snow storms, and streets which are even dirtier than they are now. And all these cuts identified would barely narrow the $774 million budget gap expected next year.
So, essentially, David Miller was right, and Rob Ford was wrong. Toronto does not have a spending problem. It has a revenue problem. And if that wasn’t enough, current budget chief and Ford ally Mike Del Grande expressly said, “We have the lowest taxes in the GTA, with the greatest services provided.” And, at the end of 2010, Toronto enjoyed a $285 million surplus which Ford used to pay for his tax cuts and cruise through the 2011 budget year.
Sounds like David Miller was doing a darn good job of managing the city after all.
Well, enough of saying ‘I told you so’. What happens next? There’s still that $774 million budget shortfall to close in 2012. How does it get done, and how does Ford keep his promise to cut taxes while making “no major cuts to services”?
I suspect that if Rob Ford ignores or blusters about these recommendations and ploughs on regardless, he’ll seal his fate. Toronto will be put through a wrenching round of cuts in 2012, and individuals who supported Ford in the 2010 campaign will find their neighbourhoods meaner, dirtier, and far less livable than they were when they elected him. I suspect those voters will turn on him, and Ford will suffer the same fate that befell Ottawa’s Larry O’Brien just last year.
But, then again, maybe Ford will surprise me. He has surprised me before. He did, after all, commission this report, and allow it to be released publicly. He also has individuals in his administration — such as Case Ootes and Mike Del Grande — who have candidly addressed the situation before the city without partisan blinders. They know they have a job to do and a crisis to manage come 2012. And if they’re willing to set political dogma aside and tackle the issue using whatever tools at hand (a combination of service cuts and tax increases, as well as campaigning to the province for a real structural fix to the fiscal mess that all cities in Ontario share), then perhaps Ford will listen to them. At the present time, I don’t hold out much hope, but a lot can happen in six months.
If Ford does respond to this crisis by attacking his own sacred cows — if he levels with the people he campaigned to and tells them that what he promised simply isn’t possible — then my respect for the man as a mayor will go up. It takes a big man to admit he was wrong. Mike Harris did it when he went back on his earlier move to take the province out of public transit funding altogether. Does Ford have the same ability to listen and grow?
Whatever he chooses to do in the next six months will cement his legacy as mayor, and will probably determine whether he serves just one term, or more.