Not finding many things purely fiscal worth reviewing, the Mayor’s Fiscal Review Panel, whose report was released February 21, turned its attention to restructuring City Hall.
Certainly there was encouragement to speed up the tax shift from commercial to residential properties in the panel’s document, Blueprint For Fiscal Stability And Economic Prosperity – A Call To Action. It also advised that capital assets be used for revenue, that non-essential services be eliminated and that City Hall get into the business of real estate. But the crux of the report is its advice to centralize more power in the mayor’s hands.
Panellists gathered Thursday, February 21, at City Hall to discuss their report, an undertaking originally mandated by the mayor as a concession to opponents of the land transfer tax.
What the blueprint means depends on how much is implemented, and how the implementers actually interpret the document. Watching the panelists speak, it was hard not to wince at the jargon being deployed without air quotes, an experience much like watching someone drop their groceries. “Streamlining,” “monetizing,” “de-linking” (also known as “deleting”). And, of course, when it comes to the mayor – “strengthening.”
To their credit, the panellists restricted themselves to high-level issues, refusing to get bogged down in the quick-fix crusade to rescue dozens – possibly hundreds – of dollars from council “perks” like parking passes. “That’s noise,” said panellist Paul Massara, president of Genesis Capital and former head of Direct Energy.
The Toronto they portrayed was not the popular bogeyman of corruption, but a city patiently delivering services while still struggling with amalgamation.
Because of this, they reasoned, any financial hope consists in efficient administration and prudent management of properties. The linchpin: a “strong mayor” system. Wait. Didn’t we just go through this? And what does governance have to do with finances anyway?
“The key recommendation is that the city manager report to the mayor,” Mayor Miller said. “Otherwise, there is no real accountability for the civil service. You can’t be accountable to 45 people. There’s no business in this country that runs that way.”
Neither is there a military, knitting circle or Gypsy caravan that runs that way. But city council is none of the above.
And if it’s not possible to be accountable to 45 people, does that mean councillors – or mayors – can’t be accountable to thousands of constituents?
A recent report passed by the Planning Committee is worth noting. It delineates when an issue is of sufficient citywide concern that authority goes to Planning, and when it should remain at Community Council. Can we expect a similar set of constraints on the mayor’s possible new powers?
If the mayor gets mega-powers to set high-level policy, shouldn’t they be offset by residents’ power over their neighbourhoods? Panellists didn’t think to go there.
“We don’t want to find ourselves back in the same place in another generation,” said panellist Rahul Bhardwaj in favour of a strong mayor. “The ‘city of neighbourhoods,’ while that’s a wonderfully nostalgic notion, I think it’s become clear that we can’t govern this city as a city of neighbourhoods if we’re going to be the hub of the region.”
Ah. Walk tall and carry a big mayor and you’ll make the big money – even if other recommendations are short-term, especially monetizing capital assets like the Parking Authority and Toronto Hydro. The panel was vague on how, leaving interpretation up to the city.
Panellist Jim Stanford, economist for the Canadian Auto Workers, was clear that “monetizing’’ includes a number of options. “It’s not synonymous with selling,’’ he said.
Still, that possibility has some worried, including Pauline Niles of CUPE Local 1, who works for Toronto Hydro Telecom. “The people on the panel... it’s very interesting: one from real estate sells parking; one [formerly] from Direct Energy sold hydro,” she told me. “Is ‘monetizing’ a fancy way of saying ‘privatization’? We’re not sure.”
In The Economy Of Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote that the wealthiest cities are wealthy because of their vibrant small-business base – a perspective missing from the panel’s recommendations, which focus instead on moving money around at high levels. But consider the source: a real estate magnate, a power utility mandarin, former prez of a major university, two heads of equity investment firms, the CEO of a foundation investing and dispersing charitable donations and an economist for one of the country’s largest unions.
Not surprising, then, that they opt for concentration of power. Even-handed though their approach may be, they represent organizations likely to have access to the mayor and to want the mayor to have control of policy changes, business deals, tax relief and zoning variances.
I asked Miller at the meeting if he agrees that strong neighbourhoods and a strong mayor are opposed. “I don’t think those have to be in opposition,” he said, pointing out that the city has just opened its Civic Engagement Office. But “[our] budget is larger than that of most provinces. You can’t govern it like a small municipality any more.”
To hear panellists tell it, a strong mayor system will banish scurrilous “incivility” from council. We heard that a year ago, too, in reference to the “stronger” mayor system, which Miller said would be more than sufficient. Now we’re told stronger isn’t strong enough. When last year’s new system was rolled out, the mud being slung changed only in consistency and colour.
Note that Miller’s opponents are supporting the call for a strong mayor: it would give them a bigger target. A system in which bad ideas can rise or good ones fall on the basis of one personality doesn’t sound democratic.
But it certainly sounds parliamentary.
Key recommendations in the report of the Mayor’s Fiscal Review Panel, Blueprint For Fiscal Stability And Economic Prosperity – A Call To Action.
• Mayor should have the power to direct, appoint and dismiss the city manager.
• Mayor and Executive Committee should have assigned professional staff, and should set and communicate clear and focused priorities.
• City should evaluate options for “maximizing the financial value’’ of the city’s major capital assets like Toronto Hydro, Toronto Parking Authority, Enwave.
• City should “extract best value’’ from its real estate holdings and those of city agencies, boards, commissions and corporations.
• City should review core services to identify areas of duplication and efficiency gains.
• City should increase the budget of the auditor general’s office.
• City should set benchmarks in comparison to other major cities.