Mayor Ford, year one

If there is one lesson to be learned from Rob Ford’s first year as mayor of Canada’s largest city, it is that the message of a political campaign can sometimes be little more than a masquerade rolled out for the purpose of winning votes.

Building on public disgust at the spending indiscretions of city councillors, Ford, formerly the outlier councillor from Etobicoke North (Ward 2), declared Toronto “didn’t have a revenue problem; it had a spending problem”. So he promised to find $2-billion in wasteful spending by those running the city without cuts to services Torontonians either rely on or take for granted.

Ford has long had a reputation as a penny pincher. Where other councillors used their $53,000 annual expense allowance intended for sending out letters, renting constituency offices and running those offices among other things, he has been known for having spent absolutely none of that allowance, opting instead – against council’s code of conduct – to pay from his own pocket. He did so unapologetically and has carried that mindset into his new role as mayor.

Ford’s first significant act upon taking office was to cancel the vehicle registration tax, which cut some $60 million from city revenue. His promise to get rid of the land transfer tax, which brings in another $250 million a year, is still on hold. He also promised not to increase property taxes this year even though residential property taxes in Toronto are lower than most municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area. And he did all this before a proper assessment was done on how much so-called ‘gravy’ there actually was.

Interestingly, private-sector consultants KPMG – hired at a cost of $3-million to find the ‘gravy’- reported that there was little to none and, instead, recommended a list of city services that could be cut to bring the budget in line with Ford’s goal of cutting $774-million in spending.

The mayor has managed to frame the priorities of this city strictly in monetary terms and in doing so has stirred up public outcry in reaction to proposed cuts aimed at balancing the 2012 budget. One result of those proposed cuts is that activism among Torontonians has reached levels not seen since public reaction to the cuts that came with the Mike Harris “Common Sense Revolution”.

Citizens waited in line all night to protest Ford’s proposed cuts to libraries and daycare.

Ford received fairly strong support early on, especially from newly elected councillors, but that support is waning, and traditional allies are making their own decisions about which way to vote on some cost cutting measures. His call for a 10 per cent across-the-board cut in spending by municipal departments has also met with resistance from the Toronto Police Service, which now has two years to make the cuts. Expect other departments to seek similar accommodation.

Where Ford has had public support is in putting an end to the right of transit workers to strike by identifying public transit as a vital service. After the frustration Torontonians endured during the 2009 summer strike by public workers – including sanitation workers – the decision to privatize garbage collection also has strong public support.

Even so, as mayor, Ford has not impressed Torontonians enough for most of them to give him a passing grade, according to two recent polls. One reason is his decision to take Transit City off the table in favour of chasing a pipe dream of building a $4-billion subway system when this city is choking in traffic congestion to the tune of $3.3-billion in lost productivity annually. He considers light-rail lines running down the middle of our roads a nuisance to motorists.

Ford has also raised eyebrows for his (and his brother, councillor Doug Ford’s) unpopular plans for the waterfront and off-the-cuff comments.

Our mayor has not had a great first year. Not too bad, but not great. But, it can always get better. As always, the system has proven to be the master over the politician, a lesson Ford is no doubt learning.

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