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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

JOHN LORINC: The other election campaign

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On the morning of the now-infamous $100 million press conference, a Metro Morning producer called me at 6:30 am and asked if I wanted to speculate on air about rumours that David Miller was either going to resign or jump in the race.

When Matt Galloway posed the question, I braved all and opined that the mayor was going to run, citing, as evidence, his recent screed in NOW Magazine.

Almost a week on, I am happy to report that I was largely correct.

No, he hasn’t registered, and no, he won’t be on the ballot. But Miller last week unambiguously inserted himself into the 2010 mayoral campaign (not to mention the work of the next council), thereby creating a strange and unseemly dynamic in a race that’s already looking fairly ugly. And he did so by choosing to position this piece of budget-related news in such a conspicuously political way.

Miller, of course, is looking to burnish up his record as the term winds down. And there’s little doubt that by trumpeting this in-year surplus as evidence of sound fiscal management, the mayor was taking yet another crack at pressuring Queen’s Park into a deal to cover half the TTC’s annual operating shortfall, which he’s taken to describing as “the provincial share.”

Yet by laying out part of a spending plan for the next term of council (including the false promise of a TTC fare freeze), Miller was directly challenging George Smitherman and Rocco Rossi, who’ve been outspoken in their critiques of the city’s financial problems and had no choice but to turn up at City Hall on Tuesday to respond with their own spin (“emotional turmoil,” “lamest of lame ducks,” etc.).

Smitherman hedged when I asked him if he felt he’s essentially running against the mayor. Rossi was more direct, noting that while Miller has the right to make budget announcements, he also appears to be trying “to re-define the narrative of the election campaign.”

Is that fair? Just consider some of Miller’s statements last week (from his press conference and then in an interview on Metro Morning on Friday):

“If people want to slash and privatize, it’s for their own ideological reasons. There’s no financial reason to do so. The debate should be about the future of the city we want, not the management of the city government, although that matters…”


“If people want to spread the lie that are our taxes are high, when they’re the lowest in the GTA, that’s a lie, or that spending is out of control…then I think I should speak up. It was important for me to put that lie to rest so the candidates have to debate the future of the city, not this false financial issue…”


“You can’t have a great city for free…” (Has anyone suggested we can?)

These are the words of someone whose head is still very much in the game, and it will be intriguing to see if Miller and his staff pursue this rhetorical strategy in the coming months as the race to succeed him heats up.

For Joe Pantalone, Miller’s move to campaign-esque footing is surely a curse. The deputy mayor’s problem so far is that he has done nothing whatsoever to distinguish himself from the outgoing regime. His default platform is Miller’s record.
Yet with the mayor outspokenly taking on Rossi and Smitherman, Pantalone now has nothing really to add, does he? Miller just sucks up all the oxygen.

Further, and more problematically, Pantalone increasingly comes across as a candidate who depends on a powerful patron or a wing man, which is a dreadful message to send to voters who are contemplating the choice of a leader.
Then there’s this business of “putting that lie to rest.” A line like that is nothing if not excellent fodder for a Rossi or Smitherman advertising campaign.

And it’s not even true, because Miller did not put to rest the question of the structural shortfall. The reality is that the 2011 budget still has a gaping hole in it, unless Queen’s Park hands him a permanent deal to pick up half the TTC’s operating deficit deal, which seems extremely doubtful at this point.

What’s more, he’s just informed the thousands of Torontonians who disagree with his policies, plus many undecided voters, that they’re dupes. Nice work.

So did we have a galvanizing moment last week? Absolutely.

In fact, I can remember another one, circa 2002, when Mel Lastman railed at then councilor Miller: “You say dumb and stupid things, and you’ll never be mayor.”

During the hard-fought 2003 race, Miller squeezed loads of political momentum – and no small amount of campaign donations — out of that putdown.

I have no doubt that whomever emerges as the right-of-centre front-runner will also figure out how to leverage some valuable bounce out of Miller’s uncharacteristically partisan rhetoric.

As this election-year backlash gains traction, the ironies abound.

photo by Matthew Blackett



  1. There’s something still fiscally wrong with the city, but it isn’t all about not having enough money. The city budget is now $3B/year more than it was when Miller first took office. If we held spending increases to inflation, we’d be spending about $700M more (I’m not necessarily saying it should have been). Most of the increases have happened during his second term in office, yet we’re still left begging for money. He’s also become more partisan, which is a shame as his first term he worked relatively well with at least the more moderate righties (read not Ford or Ootes).

    I voted for Miller (twice) because I believed he was right about the city’s finances and the city’s right-wing does a poor job of showing how much they actually like Toronto or cities in general. Pitfield ran on everything she hated about the city whereas Miller ran on everything he liked. The current right-wing candidates still have this problem.

    If you asked Miller four years ago that an extra $2-3B to spend would be enough, he would have lit up and said yes. But we have no new subway construction. We had a large new revenue generator (land transfer tax). Transit city is being mostly bankrolled by the province. Bike lanes (and the streets they’re on) are still far from being implemented are chewed up. He’s had 8 years to paint stripes on streets. We’re continuing generous payouts to city workers who on average make more than the residents they tax. Yet we still don’t have enough money.

    It’s unfortunate that he’s turned me away from him and his allies and many people I know who are young and are otherwise lefties.

  2. @Christopher — bear in mind that not all of that additional top-line revenue comes from city sources. It includes funds from the province for cost-shared programs, as well as the increases generated by the city itself (property tax hikes, user fees, etc.)

  3. @john lorinc Yes, but that should have alleviated the spending that the city was doing itself before, no? Gross spending shouldn’t have skyrocketed (at least not by that much).

  4. I share the sentiment of Christopher. I, too, have voted Miller twice, but would not do it again if he had not dropped out. While I generally agree with Miller’s vision for the city, without a firm grip of city’s finance plus a deep commitment to public section union, he can never execute those visions. City did improve over the last few years, yet with the kind of spending increase, I’d imagine much more should have been accomplished.

  5. “You can’t have a great city for free…” (Has anyone suggested we can?)

    It’s unfortunately not as much of a straw man argument as we’d like to believe it is. There are some (often loud) people who genuinely fail to grasp the connection between taxes and infrastructure/services.

    I’m frequently reminded of this line from one of my favourite Onion articles: “If I want to complain about having to pay taxes while at the same time demanding extra police protection for my neighborhood, that’s my right as an American.”

  6. No, you can’t have a city for free… but neither can you have it by squandering resources. There will always be those who want something for nothing, but what has really turned the tide against Miller and Co. is probably that many of his previous supporters (myself included) are not seeing value for the commitment they have been making to the public realm through their taxes, user fees and what not. One can cite any number of examples of things that have turned people’s stomach’s… from the fiasco of the St. Clair project to the $10m and climbing in capital funds being spent to create 40 (that’s right, a grand total of 40) beds for homeless people in the entertainment district.

    As for the author’s comment about Miller’s “Miller’s uncharacteristically partisan rhetoric”, that has to be right up there his comment a few months back about Miller’s “letter-perfect” handling of the civic workers strike. Can’t imagine that anyone can write such things with a straight face.

  7. Jonathan,

    One of the problems about the current fiscal situations is that there is a micro dynamic working inside the macro one. Outside of gross expenditures and revenue are the sources themselves. Yes Toronto’s residential taxes are lower than everywhere else’s (on aver 1k per year lass than Vaughan). The city also spends more per household and per person than any other municipality in Ontario. What is going to have to change is the relative burden between sources of revenue.

    The populace has already shown a great resistance for the current level of taxation, yet it is inevitable that the rate will have to climb faster than the rate of inflation and budgetary increases.

    Residents have become accustomed to the current situation because the city has been concealing the true cost of services from them. By means of emptying the reserve funds, the 500 % increase in provincial transfers and the stupidly high commercial tax rates, residents are only paying a fraction of costs.

    Now that this is imbalance cannot persists any longer, Miller exits and looks golden. His predecessor will have to clean up the mess and take the heat for doing so.

  8. @Jonathan Yes, but there’s a question about value and efficiency. For example, if we got the same service outsourcing garbage collection and it cost 30% less, wouldn’t we all better off (well not CUPE)?

  9. I read a lot that Miller’s spending is out of control, but I never read any specifics on how so. What outrageous, useless programs has he instituted? Yes, City spending has gone up above inflation since the Lastman/Harris days, but that was a low point for the city, and a lot of what we’ve spent has been catching up for the cutbacks in the 90’s. I feel like a lot of city hall journalists aren’t interested in educating us (*cough* Royson James *cough*) so much as appealing to the guy sitting at the back of a Coffee Time grumbling into his paper about socialists and taxes.

  10. That quote from Lastman makes me laugh — what a buffoon! Let’s hope our next mayor won’t be making any comments like “Who is WHO?” Remember that gem from SARS?

    I agree with Christopher — I always liked Miller because he showed a general love for our city and some vision how to make it better. The same can’t be said for the front-running candidates now. The only thing they’ve got is that they don’t like the current administration.

    And what is with the hundreds of people who comment on any of the Toronto newspapers websites? It’s as if Miller murdered their children. Has Miller’s taxes really cost you that much? The vehicle tax is like one tank of gas. Paying more if you’ve got more garbage? I don’t see anything wrong with that.

    So which is it? Did Miller inherit a city that was so hurt from cuts that he had to heal it or is Miller just real bad with money and his spending is out of control? Perhaps a bit of both. I’m just hoping that the next Mayor can have a vision for Toronto even if they do have to be more fiscally responsible.

    I would rather spend a more and get a more beautiful and culture filled city than spend nothing and get nothing in return. Maybe the people who don’t like to give their money to the city like to save up and go to some other great city, instead of taking a walk to the local park.

  11. @Jonathan. My favourite Onion quote is “New Envelope Pushes Envelope Envelope” 🙂

  12. @Jason The question we’re all posing is are we getting more with the increased spending, especially at the levels they’re going up?

    Also, governments have been historically bad at promoting and encouraging culture in general. It’s been the private organizations from the independent galleries, pubs, theaters, and concert venues all the way up to the mostly private collections on permanent loan to the AGO that give Toronto it’s culture. But if the city’s reaction to the fire on Queen west is any indication, most of these survive despite the city. They’re trying to fight the city from quadrupling their taxes if they rebuild.

  13. @Patrick,
    Sounds like you’re “not hearing” what spending is out of control because you don’t want to. $10m capital for the 40 beds for homeless sounds like out of control to me. Doubling of costs for St. Clair project (and conclusion that there was no clear managing of the project by either the City or its subsidiary the TTC) sounds like out of control to me. Police budget looks like it’s out of control. Recycling, garbage/recycling bins program anyone? Or how about the City’s unwillingness to jack up its ridiculously low development fees to reflect the cost of adding infrastructure to service new units? etc. A good chunk of the increase in the City’s budget can be attributed to social spending the Province should be picking up the tab for — but a good chunk are discretionary items the City has chosen to forge ahead with and which many people aren’t seeing as “value”. Yeah, some of the commentators above seem to see value in what Miller has done — but this level of support doesn’t win anyone any elections. I don’t believe in contracting out or privatizing public assets to make a quick buck as some of the mayoral candidates are proposing. But the more the electorate fails to see value for the taxes they are paying, the greater the appeal of these strategies. Miller’s legacy seems to be that he created a climate where contracting out and privatization are increasingly appealing to the electorate. Some legacy.

  14. I think the Miller government has actually done a pretty good job in promoting culture. Nuit Blanche (love it or hate it) was brought on by the Miller government and brings lots of tourists and their money out albeit only for one night. There also seems to be a jump in public sculpture — I’m thinking about Water Table done on the underside of the Gardiner.

    People complain about a waste of taxpayers money etc. but these things wouldn’t happen unless government gets involved. Many people will disagree but I’d rather look at a nice work of art than the underside of a highway.

    Let’s think back to Lastman, what was his brilliant idea for public art? — oh yeah Moose around the city. So thought provoking.

    @Christopher – I don’t get your reference to Queen West – I don’t think that there were any galleries involved in the fire…

  15. @melissa Not to offend, but a link to a special interest group that represents people/entities who benefit from government cultural funding (that’s actually light on any detail) isn’t going to convince me.

    And by ‘historically bad’ I don’t mean all bad, just mostly. (I would talk differently if CBC produced TV half as good as the BBC, but alas).

  16. Interesting set of points. I’ll leave the mayoralty posturing to the candidates and the pundits, save for one comment; I too wish that the candidates started to descibe a city that they love and talk about the possibilities that lie ahead. Endless rants about the past, and vile critiques of percieved failures combined with glib dismissals of entire communities of interest are tedious.

    On the budget front I agree that Miller inserted himself into the election debate with his announcement last week. It’s not the first time an out-going mayor has done it, nor will it be the last.
    If it was my record being bounced about I might speak up too.

    Millers actions are lot more reasonable than say Rocco Rossi’s demand that city hall put down it’s tools until he is elected and has time to review our work plan… what if it takes him two elections to be elected to council?… What if he never gets elected?… Why should entering the mayor’s race allow you to shut down council at all? That is arrogance.

    The budget is an election issue and understanding it and the future challenges facing this city should be as important to candidates as it is to voters (not to mention the media).

    When it comes to the budget numbers, a lot of figures are flying around and there are many ways to break it down. We need to be very careful to avoid making up amounts though. An earlier post claims that privatizing garbage costs “30%” less. What is the source for this figure? The city already contracts out about half the waste pick-up in the city. Does a study actually show that we could cut 30% of our solid waste costs by contracting out the other half? This suggests that there is a 60% savings to be found in half our garbage collection budget. Not true.

    That being said we do need to manage more creatively. I share the same concerns raised in the same post about the cost of the Housing and Referal Centre in my ward. But again, get the numbers right. The building cost $5m, it’s the renovation component of the project that has doubled in cost. The big problem is that due diligence was not done on the state of the structure when it was purchased. In mid renovation a total re-build was required. More troubling is that the low bid to get the construction contract had massive penalty clauses built into it for any changes to the construction plans. The deficiencies triggered these penalities and bingo costs soared. The project costs did not double, a component of it did and these costs were covered by a contingency fund that had been set aside. Additionally the project is funded by the federal government and while more expensive than estimated is still then the funding that was set aside for it.

    Still , we can’t afford to do business this way. It robs Shelter Services of the resources it needs to house people and drives dollars towards temporary fixes instead of long term solutions. It also erodes confidence in our ability to deliver projects for senior levels of government and damages our credibility on budget issues.

    As for spending, a significant amount of the increases to the global budget are provincial dollars that flow through our budget to finance programmes we manage (like welfare, and shelter services) but they are not costs borne by local property tax payers. Our actual spending for services we control and deliver and the ones supported by city revenues have only grown by 4% since 1998 (by comparison Ottawa’s spending has gone up by 6.4% and QP’s by 6.7%… no wonder they are running deficits).

    The real issue we need to debate is value for money. Do residents feel like the city we are all building and managing is delivering the expected return on the dollars they send to city hall? On this front we have work to do.

    This is why the new candidates (for mayor or council) need to bring ideas about how to do things differently. It’s why the politicians who are seeking re-election need to explain what they have done to try and change things at city hall and why they need another term to finish their reforms.

    If all the candidates do is angrily promise to say no to new ideas, and then without even reading the budget, pledge to cut without studying the consequences, how is anyone going to cast a ballot on anything other than personaility fuelled by anger and resentment?

    Isn’t this how we ended up with Mike Harris… and isn’t this how Toronto ended up with this amalgamated mess of downloading and social service chaos?

    I said I wasn’t going to talk about the past… sorry!

    Let’s get back to city building, let’s make Toronto more beautiful and lets make it happen sooner… but let’s do it smarter. Let’s have an election about this.


  17. @Adam My ‘saving 30%’ was meant to be an example on if it were true, wouldn’t it be worth it and was not an actual figure at all. Sorry for not being clear.

  18. @Jason Nuit Blanche (love it) was almost completely organized, financed and run by Scotiabank and other sponsors (at least the first 2 years were). As somebody who participated in past Nuite Blanche work, the city had little to do with it other than issuing permits and providing police resources (that was woefully inadequate in its first year). I can say for a fact that the Blinkenlights window light show 2 years back was completely banked (pun not intended) by scotia, and it cost almost half a million dollars.

    Duke’s cycle or the other stores have nothing to do with Toronto’s culture? If there was a gallery there (or if the fire happened someplace else) they’d be losing the same grandfathering of low taxes. The grandfathering shouldn’t exist at all, there should be one clear tax rate and it should only change if they rebuilt it in a capacity that was different than what was there before. Otherwise you just have wealthy chain stores that roll in and can afford the tax increase (read H&M, american apparel, etc).

  19. ‘Patrick,

    The simple facts are that Miller is a fiscal waste machine. If you want a clear and clean Miller policy that wastes $100’s of Million a year you need only look at the Miller imposed policy to tender City Construction projects with Building Trade union only Labour Restrictions and hide from the public the independently estimated 30% additional costs of this practice. It is no Coincidence that the Trades have been a core supporter of the Miller administration and he is largely responsible for their monopoly. The City in violation of its own Fair Wage Policy will tender over $1.2 Billion a year for the next 5 years in union only contracts to the Mayor’s friends and he claims there is no additional cost and thinks that’s great. Other of the Mayor’s statements on fiscal issues are similarly tainted by the Mayor’s ideology and the costs will come to light only once he is gone. You can’t make claims that no one suggests how savings can be made when the Mayor has essentially run an administration saying that there are no savings and putting down as liars anyone who makes a suggestion. The man is simply a fiscal con man and a bag man for his union allies whether you like it or not. Vision and good ideas are worth nothing if there is no competence in implementation and Miller has proven it and betrayed his previous supporters with incompetence and blinkered arrogance and ideology just as the comments above note.’

    for DM

  20. Adam Vaughan’s comment…”But again, get the numbers right. The building cost $5m, it’s the renovation component of the project that has doubled in cost. The big problem is that due diligence was not done on the state of the structure when it was purchased. In mid renovation a total re-build was required…”

    Not sure how the numbers previously mentioned were wrong, but whatever the excuse, the bottom line is that citizens are forking out about $10m capital for about 40 beds…not to mention what we’ve been told will be about $3m a year in operating once the facility is actually up and running. Yes, the issue is value for money — but the issue is also that, increasingly, the electorate isn’t seeing value for money. That is likely due to a failure to communicate in a credible way and/or failure to exercize appropriate oversight. I’d contend that the failure has been on both fronts — hence the allure of those looking to privatize and contract out.

  21. There is also the issue of the inflated price the city paid of the building in the first place. There should be an investigation into that. Someone benefited.

  22. @Adam

    I agree with you that the problem is with “value for money”, and it seems to me that the main reason that we are not getting good value for our money is the lack of competition in the delivery of city services. Monopoly drives up cost, stifles innovation, and undercuts accountability. Right now the problem here is mostly an issue of public sector union monopoly, but I’d expect similar problem if one big private provider gains the same level of monoploy.

  23. The land values are not inconsistent with other properties transacted in the area at the time. The one piece of good news is that values continue to climb in this area and if the city ever wanted to sell the property we would mack back the total cost of the project.

    The cost of operating the facility is tied to more than just the 40 beds mentioned. operating costs also include all of the outreach and administrative costs connected to street outreach and housing referal services, as well as the cost of operating the temporary shelter and the associated services on site.

    The oversite issues I share.


  24. Adam, the city paid $360 per sq. ft. when, at the time, the going rate was far less….

    “Michael Emory, president of Allied Properties REIT — owner of 1.5 million of the 8-million-square foot office space in the King St.-Spadina Ave. area — said he was aware of three properties that can be acquired for between $120 to $140 a square foot.”

    “Property owners in the area think the price tag is out of proportion.

    James Somerville owns the building next door and paid $2.8 million for the property. That worked out to about 213 dollar per square foot just one year ago, compared to the city’s offer of $360.”

  25. “Still, we can’t afford to do business this way.”

    This is from the very same councilor who supported the sale of prime, city-owned real estate on Bloor Street for millions less than the market would command simply because the proponent development might be 20 metres shorter.

    “On a pure real estate transaction, yeah, the money on the table probably isn’t what the land is actually worth,” he (Vaughan) said.”

    He has absolutely no credibility when it comes to the efficient operation of this city, not to mention providing and, in this case, receiving fair value for its citizens.

  26. A couple of final comments on the land values being talked about here.

    -Bloor Street; The property in question is the land underneath the McDonalds across from the ROM. The transaction was for the land alone. I did not include the cost of the building , nor the cost of thbuying the restaurant out from it’s 99 year lease. Additionally the property has a subway running underneath it, and as such had no re-development value unless you assembled the adjoining properties. Therefore I did say:

    “On a pure real estate transaction, yeah, the money on the table probably isn’t what the land is actually worth,” he (Vaughan) said.”

    Clearly this property was not a simple transaction. However, because I was worried that the city was not getting market value for the property I asked for the transaction to be postponed while more investigation of value was done, and further study of adjacent property transactions could be better understood.

    Through this process the encumbered value became better understood, a plan by McDonald’s to flip the property was understood. Conditions were placed on the sale that allows the city to reap additional revenue if and when the property is flipped. Added to that was an extra layer of protection. The city held on to the air rights above 100m. (The land is only zoned for 23m) The heights of buildings in the area approved before I was elected are higher. If the developer wants a building taller than that, the city will have to recieve more compensation. The height was set consistent with the Bloor Street Visioning study and local residents were part of the process.

    In conclusion, we got market value (encumbered as it was), we have protection if market conditions change. Local planning principles were respected and a new development is proceeding which will bring additional dollars to the city and improvements to local civic infrastructure at no cost to the taxpayer.

    As for the shelter its a different story. I brought Mike Emory and two other property ownrs in the area to the table as the proposal to buy Peter Street started to come forward. These property owners approached my office with concerns about the purchase cost. Once again I supported a motion to review the proposal before completing the transaction. My office enlisted the help of local private sector real estate and land developers to review all the properties listed and available in a downtown zone identified by Shelter Services to sure the city wasn’t over-paying for the site. This group brought forh a list of cheaper properties for consideration.

    Shelter Services had several specifications it wanted met before considering a property. The site needed to be wheelchair accessible from the outside, the building needed a commercial kitchen and staff wanted to house the facility in a stand alone building free of tenants. The were other considerations as well, one of which was that the building should have re-sale value down the road in case the city needed to relocate or re-scope the project.

    The land values quoted by the private sector were for buildings that had depressed values due to their zoning conditions and relatively small lot size or existing leases on site. Small buildings and houses in the entertainment district have, until recently, transacted for lower values. Large lots (development sites) go for a lot more. For better or worse the city decided on acquiring a development site when it purchased a building for the housing referal centre. The money used for buying the property came from federal housing funds, the asset is now owned totally by the city.

    As posted earlier the good news, is that if the city were to ever sell the property we would make back the purchase price and the renovation costs, in fact the value of the property today would be a break even proposition (even before the operation opens). This information mitigates the long term risk but still creates short term concerns. I remain unhappy about how the project has been managed.

    I treat all valuations done by the city with skepticism. This is why I often bring in area experts to verify transaction proposals in the ward before signing off on them or voting for them at council. Confidentiall rules of council limit the extentto which staff numbers can tested but my office does what it can.

    Sorry for the long posts but I though that the debate needed more context.