It’s hard to focus on the issues that actually matter to Toronto right now because Mayor Rob Ford has, once again, got himself into a pickle. And this time it’s serious: he might actually lose his job.
It’s kind of distracting.
But nonetheless, it’s back-to-school season and so city councillors are set to return to a packed schedule of meetings this month. Ford, for his part, doesn’t seem to have a whole lot to contribute in terms of priorities. When the Toronto Sun’s Don Peat asked about his plans for the fall, the mayor was light on detail: “We’ve got an agenda, obviously, to get through and we’re working closely to get our agenda through and finished off.”
But Ford’s agenda is anything but obvious. He’s given us no real clue or indication that he has any policy ambition left. He’s pushed a pledge to contract out garbage collection in the east-end of the city until after his hypothetical reelection. There are no union contracts left to negotiate. He’s been an utter failure on the transit file. And his budget directions seem limited to a no-hope-in-hell notion that Toronto, the city with the lowest rates in the GTA, should freeze property taxes for a couple of years.
Ford does have a lot of campaign pledges left unfulfilled. But most of them seem to have been forgotten.
So, in the absence of leadership, what should City Council focus their attention on this fall? Here are a few suggestions.
Have a real conversation about housing
After getting push-back on a short-sighted plan to sell a bunch of housing, the Ford team tossed the public housing file to rookie Councillor Ana Bailão, daring her to come up with better ideas. I think she’ll impress.
But there’s still a need to think long-term about the city’s housing strategy. That means thinking even beyond the massive repair backlog and TCHC’s lengthy waiting list. Councillors need to look at alternate delivery models and ways to sustain affordable housing costs in both rapidly-gentrifying neighbourhoods in the downtown core and in service-deprived suburban enclaves. Fixing TCHC is only a part of the solution.
Turn the Downtown Traffic Study into a Mobility Study
Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, Chair of the Public Works & Infrastructure Committee, has indicated that he believes you can fix bad traffic by adding more room for cars. He’s a thousand different kinds of wrong.
Still, Minnan-Wong has commissioned an ominous downtown traffic study that is supposed to look at ways we can make traffic better in the city core. Because they’re more enlightened, Councillors should broaden the scope of his study to include modes of transportation beyond driving.
The Yonge Street Festival showed that there are business and community benefits to improving the pedestrian experience on an urban arterial. On Jarvis, the city saw that a couple of simple painted lanes can substantially increase bike traffic for minimal cost. Yes, the city should take steps where it can to improve the flow of car traffic, but, before anything else, let’s take a holistic approach to getting people around the city. (A first step? Don’t waste money removing functional bike lanes.)
Fix the damned budget
It has to be clear at this point that Toronto has systemic budget problems that go beyond a bunch of gravy-loving leftists and their sinister union pals. Any notion that the problem was overspending and the fix was underspending has been torpedoed.
In fact, the city’s budget problems are simple to understand. Here’s the three-point summary:
- Toronto has the lowest property tax rates in the GTA.
- Despite that, Toronto still relies on the property tax rolls for more than 30% of its total revenue, far more than most other cities its size.
- Compared to other major cities, Toronto receives very little support from its provincial and federal partners—especially when it comes to infrastructure.
Council can’t fix its budgetary problems by reducing the number of wading pools or selling city-owned farm animals. Yeah, it’s important that the city set targets for continuous improvement and keep finding efficiencies, but that kind of work is a side-show compared to the real task at hand: council needs to look at new revenue streams and find ways to build better intergovernmental relationships to more equitably share capital and operating costs.
Do that, and we can really start talking about building this city for future generations. Class is in session.