May 08, 2015

Who wants to pay more to live in Toronto?

Neil FlaggRebel Blogger

When you turn your kitchen tap on, are you buying the product and service called “fresh water delivery”? Or are you creating an expense for the City of Toronto government?

Same with garbage – when your bins are picked up, are you buying garbage removal service? Or are you adding a burden to the City’s budget?

Traditionally, the City of Toronto has agreed with the former, and presented its budgets to reflect this common-sense philosophy. However, thanks to TorStar writer Matt Elliott, aka “Graphic Matt” on twitter, I’ve stumbled upon a shift in City policy that flips this on its head. It looks like the John Tory administration has begun treating your water and garbage usage as city expenses, bringing an end to transparency in the budgeting process, and exposing Toronto residents to some ugly ramifications.

For the past several years, the city’s operating budget has two separate sections: “Rate-Supported” and “Tax-Supported”. Rate-Supported is the cost of water, garbage, and parking services, which are all supposed to be revenue-neutral, not-for-profit metered services. The cost of these items is supposed to be borne by the specific user – if you don’t turn on your taps, you don’t pay. If you don’t park a car, you don’t pay for parking. This is reasonable and intuitive and was designed to force the city to be transparent to the public in its cost-recovery for these basic necessities of life.

The aforementioned TorStar writer unwittingly brought to my attention the fact that, for John Tory’s first budget passed in May, this policy has been reversed. In his piece written for The Star’s site, Elliott “Fact Checks” my Monday Rebel post, “$7.2 Billion reasons why Toronto should be missing Rob Ford”, which came to his attention Tuesday afternoon after Councillor Ford’s office e-blasted out my piece to his entire distribution list.

In trying to discredit my column, Elliott admits that the city has indeed melted the Rate-Supported budget into the overall budget for 2015. As an explanation, he offers up a lame excuse about it being an election year. This struck me as a smokescreen from a TorStar water-carrier: election year or not, there’s not a single reason in the world why the Rate-Supported budget could not have been separated out as per custom. There has to be a more serious explanation.

So the question must be asked: why would the city budget office and its political masters, immediately after shaking the fiscal hawk Rob Ford out of the Mayor’s chair, want this policy change that, on first-blush, makes it look like city spending is ballooning out of control again?

Were they trying to trick people? Were they trying to make themselves look bad? Obviously not. The only plausible explanation is this: they made this change for ideological reasons, and did it quietly during the Tory honeymoon period in the hope that it would go unnoticed and unreported.

So, while I now must admit that overall city spending may not actually increase $7.2 billion in the next four years (although it would not surprise me if the next three budgets affect that result anyway), I also get to ask the question: Why did the Tory administration choose to reduce budgetary transparency in this way, which Elliott himself admits caused nothing but confusion?

There’s three benefits that I can think of for this change that suit the modern liberal big-government apparatchiks of City Hall. First, it takes away a check on spending with regards to these essential services. When expenses no longer need to be matched to revenues, all kinds of shenanigans can occur. Consultants can be hired, new middle-managers can put on salary, slush-fund spending can be hidden…the sky is the limit.

Second, it allows council to work from a larger baseline when deciding on next year’s spending increase, thus grabbing more money in absolute dollars to spend in the future. For example, if they can sell a 3% spending increase on the public, that 3% is worth more money on the new baseline of $11.5 billion, than it would be on a baseline of $10 billion, which would be the operating budget calculated in the old ex-Rate-Supported way. A nice little gravy bonus of $45 million of our money in the pot, to be exact.

Third, it gives the leftist ideologues of City Hall an excuse to manipulate and control your personal habits in the future, in the name of austerity. After all, when your water usage is considered their expense, who can object when they turn to “time-of-use” surcharges on your taps, or slap additional “green” surcharges on any of your three colours of trash bin?

After a few moments of discomfort yesterday, I think I’m kind of liking this “Fact-Checking” thing. Keep up the good work, Graphic Matt and TorStar! You never know where your work will lead me.


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commented 2015-05-08 21:09:05 -0400
Easy answer: No One.
commented 2015-05-08 18:04:10 -0400
Matt Elliot’s excellent analyses of this city’s budget should all be required reading by journalists of every political stripe, especially when there’s a chance they’ll go off half cocked.

The real issue here, I think, is the fact that, a few days ago, you seriously misread the city budget, multiplied it by four, and attempted to turn that mistake into a 7.2 billion-dollar boondoggle. Now, instead of trying to correct your basic mathematical error in any substantive way, you want your readers to believe that you have again focussed those same analytical skills on the very same documents and somehow discovered something entirely different but equally scandalous, something by the way, that the cabal at City Hall were somehow able to sneak past Rob Ford, the very man you’d like to see back in charge of the cookie jar.

I sat through those Council meetings on the budget earlier this year, and I don’t recall once hearing Councillor Ford speak to any of your structural concerns. His big thing, as usual, was a long laundry list of nickle-and-dime cuts that he tried to throw into the pot at the last moment, knowing full well after all his years on Council, that last-minute, unvetted items seldom get passed.

And his big issue today, at least according to his latest newsletter, is the increased fees for oversized garbage cans.
commented 2015-05-08 14:08:07 -0400
TorStar Matt says it; but it’s not true, and would be irrelevant if it were true. The issue is, they did not report the two as separate items as per custom, and have taken to reporting the RATE + TAX supported budgets as the OPERATING BUDGET, whereas previously only the Tax-Supported portion was referred to colloquially as the Operating Budget. Thanks for reading, Roy.
commented 2015-05-08 13:22:56 -0400
The simple answer is right in Matt Elliot’s article. “In non-election years, the rate-supported budget is passed a couple of months before the operating budget. But in election years they’re passed at the same time, meaning many of the city’s fancy pie charts conflate the two.”

So, I am afraid that you are wrong again.