Some credit where credit is due: Mayor Rob Ford was elected with a mandate to contract out garbage collection in this city and, as of today, he’s done it. West of Yonge Street, privately-owned garbage trucks are now rumbling down Toronto streets. This mayor can’t lay claim to too many accomplishments, but this is a move that lands squarely in his win column.
Is contracting out garbage collection a good thing? No one can really say. Not yet, anyway. But I expect, as a process, the transition will go pretty smoothly. After some initial hiccups, west-end residents will probably go back to thinking about their garbage pick-up about as often as they did before: pretty much never. Long-term experience with private pick-up in Etobicoke reveal that there’s not much difference in quality-of-service between operators.
Trash goes out, trash gets picked up, and everybody goes on with their mostly garbage-free lives.
The writing was on the wall for this move after the public workers’ strike in 2009. Following an ill-advised 40 day work stoppage, Toronto’s largest unions bled most of their public support and shifted the tenor of politics in Toronto even further away from productive conversations about city building. Instead of an election centred on transit and neighbourhood development, the 2010 race featured candidates who tripped over themselves to be the loudest one to condemn mysterious government waste, supposed lazy employees and the very notion of using taxes to pay for things.
After all that nonsense, even left-leaning councillors couldn’t muster much of an argument against contracting out. Ford didn’t have a mandate to do much, but most had to figure he had a mandate for this. After the work stoppage, contracting out waste collection was an inevitable outcome.
Still, let’s get one thing clear: this move does little to improve the health of the city’s operating budget and won’t have any impact on property tax rates going forward. Despite claims that this move is all part of a new fiscally-responsible era for Toronto, the budgetary impacts are minimal.
Here’s why: as part of a series of reforms enacted by the previous council, garbage collection is now paid for as part of a separate budget funded through user fees. Homeowners pay for those city-issued green, black and blue bins via fees included on their water bills. At best, the new contract means that those fees could stay frozen or go up slower than they would otherwise—the move certainly doesn’t free up any budget room for other programs or services.
If the long-term benefits of contracting out seem nebulous, so too will the potential downsides. Even Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, the standard-bearer for privatization who today helped pick-up trash as part of a weird makeshift celebration, expressed early concerns that the winning bid for the garbage contract was suspiciously low.
And then, at the same time Green for Life was preparing to sign this new contract, the company was also moving to buy-out the long-time contract-holder for waste collection in Etobicoke, meaning that GFL now holds the rights to solid waste collection for half of the city. As a trend, it’s concerning—after Toronto retires its publicly-owned equipment and private operators consolidate their power, it’s unlikely the city will be in a position to negotiate sweetheart deals when it comes time to renew contracts.
But, hey, for now, the public got what it voted for. Mayor Ford got a win. CUPE got roundly punished, for whatever that’s worth. And residents got some more assurances that they won’t again have to deal with work stoppages that see trash piled up in city parks. Beyond that, the real fiscal and service impacts of this move are issues for future councils—and future mayors—to pick up.