A (vague) new plan for Toronto’s future
Ask a panel for unanimity and you get vagueness. The mayor’s fiscal review panel—made up of blue-chip businessmen, academics and labour—released its report at a packed press conference this morning. It’s an 86-page opus full of recommendations, the most concrete—and contentious—of which is a proposal to toll the city’s highways (more on that later.) Contrary to widespread rumour, it does not recommend the privatization of Toronto Hydro, although, to judge from what the panelists had to say this morning, I got the sense that at least some of them wish it did.
Page 16 of the report says that “The City can become the world’s best in certain priority areas and get out of others altogether.” Stark words, those, yet they only state the obvious. Ever since amalgamation the city has been faced with a structural “fiscal shortfall,” which is code for “not enough money to do all the things it currently does.” Despite this year’s balanced budget, the shortfall is still there. By the panel’s count, the city offers over 100 separate services, which is both impressive and foolish. At some point, it behooves the city to cut bait on some things so that it can concentrate better on others. (This argument might sound familiar to readers of this blog.) Yet no one on the panel was willing to say which areas the city should vacate. Jim Stanford of the Canadian Auto Workers—the labour economist mentioned above—said those words on page 16 didn’t necessarily mean “downsizing,” but that’s how they read to most of the media folks in the room.
Perhaps, given the many ideas the panel came up with for raising new revenues, it’s conceivable that the city could somehow grow its way out of the shortfall. One panelist, Larry Tanenbaum of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, pointed out that the Toronto Parking Authority owns surface parking lots on some very valuable property: he suggested putting the lots underground and getting private-sector partners to put commercial developments on top of them, thus diversifying city revenues. Another idea championed by Tanenbaum was to toll the Gardiner and the DVP. Mayor David Miller’s response was his standard line: any tolling must be done on a regional basis across the GTA. But you can add this report to the ever-growing stack of studies recommending road tolls of some kind or other—seems like there’s about one a week these days, which gives it an air of inevitability. And given all his bright ideas, let’s add Tanenbaum to the hypothetical list of potential future mayors.
But I digress. Miller said that the panel’s report puts to rest once and for all the idea that the city is mismanaged. Dunno about that: the report spends four pages commending the city for all the things it does well, singling out the public service for its professionalism and hard work, and noting that the city is, by and large, efficiently run. The remaining 81 pages are devoted to ideas for managing it better, and the true litmus test for good management will lie in how quickly and purposefully the mayor and his administration act upon the panel’s recommendations. The report says the city should set the bar a little higher for itself: instead of comparing its performance to other municipalities in Ontario, compare it to other global cities of similar stature—in other words, stop patting yourself on the back for doing a better job than Nippissing. And it is urging council to conduct a very basic management exercise that is long overdue, but that city hall seems determined to avoid: decide what you should no longer be doing, and stop doing it.