If you really think about it, it’s unnerving. The dull, permeating roar that serves as the backdrop to city life. It doesn’t matter where you are, a constant drone driving subtly through your head. You can be out for a walk in the park on a sunny afternoon, walking through abandoned school corridors late at night, or even be shut in your room studying, that buzz will be there. At best, you’ll call it white noise, a necessary and expected side effect of urban society. At worst, you’ll call it a symbiotic parasite, slowly nibbling away at your sanity.
If you’ve spent some time living in the city, that noise becomes a part of life. A gentle disturbance in the balance of your daily routine. You won’t even notice it, save for the rare occasion where it’s pointed out or you just suddenly stumble upon the epiphanic notion it’s actually present. The hubbub of traffic, ventilation systems, soaring jet engines, wailing sirens, and general chatter meld together in a perfect murmur. Just loud enough to be there when all is supposedly quiet, but also faint enough that you can carry a conversation without a second thought.
It’s so pervasive that on the rare occasion when you might actually be somewhere totally quiet, the silence is what strikes you as odd. There’s no rumble of the local highway, no screams emanating the playground, no whining of computers in the office. Nothing, except silence. The silence that you’re biologically engineered to fear. Where there is life, there should be sound. There should be birds warbling in the trees, crickets chirping in the bushes, and breezes slipping through leaves. But hey, how often do you hear that in the city anyway?
You’re sitting in a coffee shop, or maybe the bus. There’s a well-dressed man nearby that’s gesturing angrily and spouting expletives into his iPhone. Something or other about a trade gone wrong in the foreign exchange, a bit too loudly for you to really enjoy that book you’re perusing. What do you do? Well you could ask nicely for him to keep it down, but something tells you that in his current mood, he might not take it the right way. So, why not pull out your headphones and enjoy some music? That, is how unwelcome noise is often dealt with in the city. Use more pleasant noise to drown out the undesired noise. Layers upon layers of sound built up, forming a cocoon within which we live out our lives. Rare, is the case where a sound is actually eliminated from the cacophony.
Silence is very much deafening. But, also a welcome reprieve at times. Silence is golden. Goodnight.
“I will assure you that services will not be cut…guaranteed.”
Toronto Star (October 8, 2010)
Today is September 13th, 2011, nearly a year after a grassroots campaign on ending the City of Toronto’s gravy train successfully catapulted Rob Ford in to mayoralty.
Today, Joe Pennachetti, the City Manager, unveiled his list of recommendations to City Council on how to tackle a $774 million shortfall that will exist in the 2012 budget. The report that KPMG, the firm that the City hired to analyze its core services, delivered was less then…well, let’s just say it knocked the socks off of some people what $780 million means. With cuts galore in an attempt to find “efficiencies”, there’s no doubt that services got cut into after all. But wait a second, just because KPMG recommended it, doesn’t mean that the City is adopting it right? Let’s take a look at this report…
So what possesses me to sift my way through a 26 page municipal document full of legal vagueness? Probably that faint hometown spark that still commands loyalty. (Sigh).
Anyway. Blah blah blah, mumble jumble jargon poo, “KPMG … identifies 69 opportunities for Council’s consideration to eliminate, divest, or reduce some services.”, yadda yadda yadda, “Most of the services KPMG put forward for consideration have not been recommended for consideration.”… wonder how much of the suggestions actually originate from the KPMG report? That’d be too much documentation to cover.
Aha! Here’s the juicy stuff:
- Shutting down 311 development once it’s fully implemented in 2013. That I’m largely okay with, though I think the development team needs to be kept in some capacity to improve the system as feedback is gained.
- Reduce new affordable housing development, Housing Loan Program, and Housing Policy and Partnership activities. Hmm. That, I’m actually largely willing to live with…
- Reduce the number of subsidized child care spaces through attrition. Now okay, this isn’t life-threateningly critical, but Toronto’s population growth isn’t just going to stop at over 2.5 million. There will only be more kids later on, so I don’t think this would work at all.
- Reduce cultural services activities by closing museums with the least attendance, and revenues compared to cost. Oy. This makes absolutely no sense. There isn’t enough culture and museums in this city as is. Aside from the ROM and AGO, the others aren’t really promoted at all. Sure they may be costly to run, but hey if you actually look at the phrasing of this point: “…revenues compared to cost”, now that sounds like there’s actually a revenue to be made? How’s this for a suggestion? Spin this off to another independent organization with a grant and I think with good management, the more profitable institutions can balance out the less profitable.
- Eliminate animal pick-up and delivery of owner-surrendered animals to shelters (with exceptions in emergency cases). Right, this can totally be eliminated for small towns, but for a metropolitan area? There are way too many and too broad of a range of animals that can potentially be dumped into communities to fend for themselves. Sure this doesn’t happen a lot relative to the overall number of pet owners, but TO is a huge city. It happens enough to warrant concern.
- Reduce the level for snow clearing in City parks and open spaces from 6 cm to 8 cm, adjusting crew sizes as needed. Okay. Sure. Whatever. Something similar for grass cutting too. This’ll cut costs, but this is like going fishing for guppies instead of (insert name of non-endangered, decently large game fish).
- Lease/sell zoos and farms; if no one wants to, close them. (Sigh) This is a bit of a tough one. A private corporation (yes, someone that makes a profit) just might be able to operate these to better standards than the City and keep them competitive as an attraction for tourist demand. On the other hand, this literally means that something(s) is very likely to actually get shut down. It’s a sad day when the concrete jungle loses yet another location where people can interact with nature…
- Transfer Black Creek to the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority. No complaints there.
- Reduce community and neighbourhood development activities by suspending support staff, work on developing community service hubs, and work on developing social development plans for communities undergoing revitalization. Now this just seems wholly contradictory to the growth and development of the City. So we’re going to enable ourselves to better the City, by getting our finances under control, by stopping plans to better the City. Makes total sense.
- Eliminate 4 free garbage tag program. Ugh. See, this is a sacrifice (note: it is a sacrifice) that I think Torontonians would be wiling to make, if everything else made sense in getting our finances together.
- Eliminate Community Environment Days. The bad part: we’d be losing out on a cleaner neighbourhood and contributing toward the Green movement. The interesting part: I never knew we even had those. Compromise: Maybe not eliminate wholly, but increase the awareness of the occasional event? I doubt these folks are willing to compromise…
- Move building permit and zoning info from phone and written alerts to web and 311 access. I’d be okay with this, but I can definitely see “Oh of course we told you about this demolition. It’s been posted on our site for months. Too bad you didn’t know to check it.” Perhaps another sacrifice…
- Consolidate and reduce environmental services across the board and refocus mandates on services that, in the opinion of the City Manager, are required to meet regulatory environmental reporting (just reporting???) requirements, support City interests (which at the moment seems to be to cut stuff), or have the greatest return on investment (I get the feeling they’re talking monetary, not civically). Now this is primarily direct at Atmospheric Fund and Environment Office, but ignoring the hit to environmental initiatives, whatever happened to decision by democracy (ie. citizens via proxy of the elected representatives, which in itself is in a bit of a sad state, but I digress)? Just the City Manager? Just Pennachetti himself? Oy.
- Eliminate the Christmas Bureau and seek funding for the continuation of the Christmas Bureau. Okay, can we all agree that this sentence is literally contradictory? And please do not get rid of the only municipal agency that sounds fun and nice and all? The Christmas Bureau gives direction to charities and whatnot as to where to deliver presents for the underprivileged. I think that this capability needs to be maintained somehow.
- Eliminate the Hardship Fund, which provides assistance to folks who can’t get Social Assistance. So take out the security blanket for people who needs funds but can’t get them otherwise? Uhh…a better plan would be to better enforce regulations so that people can’t cheat the system and siphon funds like what often happens, but who am I to offer an opinion anyway?
- Eliminate the requirement for a paid police office to be at a construction site. Okay, now this I full-heartedly agree with. The City pays massive amounts of money to paid-duty cops ($65/hour!). In fact, that’s more than what regular on-duty police make (less than $40/hour). See that makes no sense. Find a suitable (ie. cheaper but equally as reasonable in function) alternative please.
- Eliminate Neighbourhood Improvement Program and the Community Partnership & Investment Program . (Sigh) See above point on reducing community and neighbourhood development activities.
- Reduce snow clearance and road cleaning to minimum provincial standards. Now this isn’t as bad as it is ugly. The provincial standards are actually specifically set for the City, so I can live with that sacrifice.
- Consider less proactive and detailed review processes. AHAHAHA this is funny.
- Consider reducing Heritage Grants and Heritage Tax Rebate Program. Bad idea. See a civilization cannot be a civilization without its heritage, its lessons learned, its essence. Cutting into that is cutting into what little identity we have in our globalized word today.
- Consider reducing Business Services, Sectors and Trade Development activities, and staff support to Business Improvement Areas. Okay. Take a break. Look back at the top and read what was said: ”I will assure you that services will not be cut…guaranteed.”. That is all.
- Consider reducing level of proactive licensing and standards investigation and enforcement. Lol, there isn’t enough as is. The funding direction is totally headed the wrong way on this. Maybe taking it out all together won’t even be noticed! Aha…(Sigh)
- Consider eliminating horticultural activities. Uh what? I mean seriously? Of all the randomness to delve into and slash. Horticulture? At least make a semi-effort to keep the place looking nice.
- Consider reducing or eliminating proactive inspection for illegal signs and illegal sign investigations. We do that? Really? I guess that makes sense for light poles and whatnot, but this is really cutting into the small areas now…
- Consider eliminating or reducing the service level of the Public Health Dental Program. No. Simply no. Too many parents can’t afford dental care for their kids. I remember those teeth check ups in elementary school and I think it’s a brilliant program.
- Consider cutting the size of the police force. A whole other can of worms there…
- Consider reducing service hours of libraries and “rationalizing the footprint of libraries to reduce service levels, closing some branches”. Also just a blunt “No” from me. I don’t think I need to go into why. On another note though, the “rationalizing” part sounds a lot like “find an excuse to” no?
- Consider reducing TTC Wheel-Trans, rolling back recent service improvements, cutting/reducing/hiking fares for late night service. Need I remind these people that this is the City of Toronto, the most populous city in Canada? These sort of service cuts are totally the wrong area to be making cuts in. More on this later. Gah!
- Spin off the Exhibition Grounds, Toronto Centre for Arts, Hummingbird Centre, St. Lawrence Centre, Toronto Zoo, the Heritage Toronto Foundation. Okay, I still believe that with proper management, these facilities can definitely be turned into a profit-generating tool for the City (with the exception being the grant-giving Heritage Foundation). I mean, if they sell/lease/contract off these facilities, won’t the private corporations just find a way to make that profit? The City should really just do the same by finding some competent managers so these can actually help contribute to cutting down the deficit.
- Request plans to increase revenue for Exhibition Grounds and get funding from the Province for that and Ontario Place. No complaints straight up.
- Request for the Yonge-Dundas Square Board to be self-reliant. Also no complaints straight up. I’m pretty sure that area is profitable enough to do so.
- Request to review sell/lease TTC and Toronto Parking lots. Refer to above point regarding Exhibition Grounds, Toronto Centre for Arts, etc. Definite income source here.
- And then there’s further review of the KPMG suggestions of cutting funding to Child Care programmes, cutting Child Care QA, spinning Child Care off, spinning Community Housing off, cutting funding to Community Housing, cutting funding to EMS, merging EMS with Fire Services, the list goes on and on…
Alright, alright. Thanks for sticking with me so far. I’ll admit that was dry. Feel free to check out the actual report, I guarantee that it’s drier :P But anywho, all in all, some of the cuts are a good idea, some are absolutely horrible, some are sacrifices that I think Torontonians should be willing to make, but most of it seems to be missing its mark. Finding “efficiencies”, as Ford so easily phrases it, is not nearly as easy as doing a service review and cutting things. What needs to happen is that each city branch, department, agency, etc. should undergo a stringent audit on overall performance and financial efficiency and then internal changes should be strictly enforced. It’s an internal culture issue, not a service issue.
Take the TTC for example. What possesses the transit commission to try and spend $210 000 a year on one art consultant!? At this time!? That makes no sense, financially, logically, howeverally. If we need an art consultant, we do not need a brand name consultant; a competent one will do quite nicely thank you very much. There are people working for this city who are definitely off their rockers. I mean, we need the Province to step in and crack down on this!? And there’s so much more! Just in the TTC, the stories that exist on the inefficiency of how the whole commission is operated. It’s yearly $1.4 billion doesn’t even nearly need to be that much if it streamlined its operations, which I am fairly confident can be done with minimal effect on service.
Overstaffing and inefficient performance are the key underlying problems here. Cuts to service will cut into this $774 million shortfall, but look at how much? $100 million in 2012 and $200 million to $300 million over the next three years. What about the remaining few hundred million dollars eh? Is this not proof enough that cuts aren’t being made in the right places? The next thing you know, our City Council will have sold the city to pay down debt. I mean look at what Pennachetti says, or as always in the nature of political speech, his choice of vocabulary and what he doesn’t say if the Council approves his recommendations, ”That would contribute to assisting and balancing the budget for 2012.” Note, “contribute to” and how it’s not “That would balance the budget for 2012.”
In order to fix Toronto, the City will have to go through a long and arduous process of improving its overall efficiency. Not stumble along and blindly trying to get lucky by “finding efficiencies”. There is no fast way to financial prosperity here; the service cuts will only do so much. It’s like building a hockey team. Maybe, Mr. Ford, you can learn something from Mr. Burke, who’s actually doing a rather excellent job of rebuilding the Toronto Maple Leafs at the moment. A culture change needs to be affected and the “culture of entitlement” needs to be ridden from this city.
“I will assure you that services will not be cut…guaranteed.” Mr. Ford, I think you’ve broken your promise. Services will be cut…guaranteed. Oh yes, a 2% - 2.5% tax hike next year too. At least that’s what he says now. Cheers. Re-election odds at this stage of the game? Slim to none. But for the sake of fairness ladies and gentlemen, please remember that this whole thing is but a report of recommendations from a City Manager to the Executive Committee. That’s all. No need to judge- yet. Let’s wait until our Council actually decides on what we’re going to do. But for the time being, feel free to dust off those pitchforks and torches.
Stay tuned though, because up next in politics, the Ontario Elections. Scale up the scope of the government, scale up the financial problems. No longer are we in the realm of the hundreds of millions, but the hundreds of billions! A $245 billion debt in fact. Mr. McGuinty, it’s time to stop mentioning how you inherited a $5.6 billion debt.
For those who actually read this entire post, in simple, honest admiration and appreciation, thank you. :)