Mayor Rob Ford’s billion-dollar budget blunder

Perhaps it's the unreality we live in, but after four years of Fordian BS, the truth in the mayoral race is not yet easily discerned

Mayor Rob Ford’s oft-repeated claim that he’s saved taxpayers a billion smackers in his three-plus years in office bears little resemblance to reality if you parse the numbers.

The natural reaction of sharp-pencilled journos after the March 26 CityNews mayoral candidates’ debate was to question that claim. Ford did little to clear up the bottom line.

Of course, that’s because his boast is a lie.

City Manager Joe Pennachetti clarified that “tax savings,” as Ford put it, is incorrect. There’s an important difference between a “tax savings” and a “budget savings,” a distinction Ford fails to draw whenever he tosses out the billion-dollar BS.

For my money, he’ll have a hard time convincing people they’re better off today than they were four years ago when it comes time to vote October 27. And that’s the crux of the matter in any debate about T.O.’s finances. The rest is just semantics to voters – especially the suburban voters everyone’s after.

But back to the numbers.

Ford can’t argue that the $50 million a year in revenue the city no longer receives because he axed the personal vehicle tax is a saving in the accounting sense. However, he can and does claim that the $60 drivers no longer have to pay is a saving. And it is, at least to them – even though that lost $200 million in revenue since 2010 has clearly played havoc with the city’s books.

Are the cuts and so-called “efficiencies” made in various city departments savings? Here’s where it gets complicated.

Ford argues that they add up to savings, and they do in strict dollar terms. The figures provided by the Finance Department indicate as much. Yet whether those cuts and efficiencies amount to overall savings in the long run is another question altogether.

For example, can cuts to shelter services be called a true economy when they shift the burden to Health and other services, costing the city more in the long run?

Are cuts to Parks and Forestry really saving us money when every time a storm blows by we have to pay private crews $400 an hour to clean up the mess?

Are cuts to Children’s Services a savings if kids are going to school hungry?

Is it right to characterize as savings the $11 million in wages and benefits the city no longer has to pay after contracting out garbage collection? The workers affected are now earning half what they used to. Does that add up to a win for the overall economy? It doesn’t.

And neither does the fact that we’re paying more in user fees – $30 million more since Ford took office. That’s a tax, right?

That’s not the level Ford is operating on. And neither is the public, yet, by and large.

It may seem illogical, but the call-in poll during the debate that gauged the public’s trust in the candidates – Ford was right up there with Olivia Chow, no matter what lies he seemed to be telling – indicates that this mayoral race is making little sense so far.

Perhaps that’s just the unreality we live in. After four years of lies, the truth isn’t easily discerned. That’s especially clear on the transit file, the debate that’s become a metaphor for what ails Toronto.

Ford claimed during the debate not to have cut “one red cent” from the TTC budget. And he seemed to be backed by former TTC chair Karen Stintz, who should know better. Some $75 million has been chopped from the city’s subsidy to the TTC under Ford. Fares have risen, too, as have loading standards on TTC vehicles, leading to more overcrowding.

Rewind to March 20 and Chow’s presser at the corner of Jane and Wilson to announce her “better bus service plan,” a modest $15 million investment aimed at boosting service on the most heavily used routes by 10 per cent.

It would seem a sensible solution to provide relief in the short term, except the scribes in attendance focused instead on why she supports LRT in Scarborough over the subway extension being pushed by Ford et al.

The answer, of course, is that a subway will take 10 years to build, cost $1 billion and necessitate tax increases for the next 30 years. And Chow’s the one being called the tax-and-spender in this race.

Ford’s stubway: his second billion-dollar lie.


Remember Rob Ford’s promise not to cut services? Turns out the bulk of his billion-dollar savings claim are actually cuts. Here’s a line-by-line of the top 10.

$74.2 million Toronto Transit Commission

$32.5 million Toronto Police Service

$18.4 million Shelter, Support and Housing Administration

$15.6 million Transportation Services

$13.7 million Children’s Services

$12.9 million Employment and Social Services

$11.7 million Parks, Forestry and Recreation

$11.2 million Toronto Public Library

$7.9 million Fire Services

$7.2 million Facilities Management and Real Estate

Under the “Other” category

$353.9 million of “reductions,” most of them related to benefits, compensation and service changes at the TTC. And $36 million of “savings” in debt service costs due to lower interest rates.

Collective disagreement

The mayor likes to say that contracts signed with unions on his watch saved taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. But more than half of the $138.2 million in total collective agreement savings is from “productivity efficiencies and productivity gains.” The rest is reductions in benefits.

Savings to taxpayers that the mayor can rightly claim (mostly)

$6.4 million From reduced council and mayor’s office budget

$44.8 million From contracting out garbage

$200 million From doing away with the Personal Vehicle Tax, but lost revenue can’t be counted as a saving.

Meanwhile, user fees have increased by $30 million under Ford. | @enzodimatteo

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