Wednesday, September 14, 2011

There's Jewelery in the City Hall Basement

I was waiting for the Queen streetcar the other day, so of course I had plenty of time to think. Some parts of Toronto have changed drastically in the past year and some haven't changed at all, but what seems to be different no matter where you go in the megacity is the undercurrent that you're in Rob Ford's Toronto - and that is a drastically different city than the one I lived in. I didn't live in a Toronto where news of new proposed service cuts came every day, where the leadership was unresponsive to anything but its pre-plotted ideological course, and there wasn't a drop of gravy to be found.

What really gets me is the way it's been talked about. Rob Ford never talked about service cuts until very recently; it was always about "efficiencies," which is one of those all-too-common euphemisms that really means something along the lines of "we're going to save money by putting a bunch of people out of a job." To be honest, though, Rob Ford is no stranger to euphemisms or idiosyncratic phrasing; I've heard him make paeans to the "taxpayers" of Toronto time and time again, yet I've never come across an instance of him referring instead to the "citizens" or just "people" of the city. Personally, I find it rather offensive. The people of a city have a far more important role in it than simply being sources of tax revenue. I suppose this is one of the natural results of running the city as a business.

If that's what hizzoner is trying to do, though, he's doing an awful job. A business being run the way Toronto is right now would have people jumping ship for its competitors - too bad things don't work the same when it comes to municipal governments; I was able to get to British Columbia before the hammer came down, but plenty of people have no option but the Toronto option. The latest news is that cuts are going to be deep and brutal, and that Ford's support is unsurprisingly nosediving. It seems clear that Rob Ford's likely not going to be mayor four years from now, but it's still going to be a long four years.

Still, he's trying to run it as an efficient business... and so the cost-cutting recommendations include not only slashing necessary services like Blue Night late-night bus service or charging premium fares for them - because when I think premium, I think of the Vomit Comet at 2:30 in the morning - and of selling the Toronto Zoo and the city's performing arts centers. The KPMG consultants also recommended selling the Toronto Parking Authority's garages and parking lots, which bring in around $50 million a year. I don't doubt that in the days to come we'll start seeing recommendations to sell the lots to make up the gap.

That's when it hit me - the realization, not the Queen streetcar. If Ford and his ilk can continually frame the argument with terms like "taxpayers" and "efficiencies," it's not just a one-way road. I realized what he's doing, and what Toronto will likely see much, much more of before 2014.

Rob Ford is pawning off Toronto.

Infrastructure for cash! Your old, broken-down, profit-generating assets for cold hard cash!

It's really not surprising - this is the trajectory conservative governments follow time and again, taking advantage of difficult economic times by selling off publicly-owned assets to private developers, whether it be a favor for an election supporter or just misplaced ideological fervor. Look at Highway 407, Ontario's monument to that kind of thing - for a highway that cost $1.6 billion to build, in addition to $100 billion in land acquisition costs from the 1970s, the Progressive Conservative government of Mike Harris leased for ninety-nine years to a private company, in exchange for a one-time US$3.1 billion windfall and absolutely no say on what sort of tolls the company would charge.

The situation is potentially different with the performing arts centers and the zoo - I'm not sure how much money they bring in for the city. But what's more at issue here is this administration's willingness, almost eagerness, to cannibalize the city in search of short-term solutions. In my mind, selling off city-owned services should be a last resort - hell, it's not something you can rely on, because a service can only be sold once but the bills keep coming. Yet like a junkie pawning their toaster for another fix, the city government isn't really thinking of tomorrow. They'd be better off looking for William Lyon Mackenzie's pirate gold.

I'm damn glad that the election campaigns in Vancouver and New Westminster are, thus far, refreshingly normal - you know, aside from the newspaper commenters trying to crucify Mayor Gregor for installing bike lanes. Must be all that ocean breeze and B.C. bud.

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