Organizations like Clay & Paper Theatre survive because of low rents in city-owned property.
Among the many dangerous consequences of Rob Ford's austerity regime is the way it can penetrate all layers of the civic administration, including those that fly beneath the radar.
While we don't know exactly what prompted city staff to start a process threatening the existence of community groups in the Below-Market-Rent (BMR) program, it's a good bet cost-cutting directives are to blame.
For over 20 years, the city has been leasing temporarily unusable or unsaleable city-owned spaces to non-profits - daycare centres, Clay and Paper Theatre, the South Asian Women's Centre, Boys and Girls Clubs and more - at very low rates.
The groups that qualify for this arrangement meet very stringent criteria: they must be non-profits and provide critical services to city residents. The deal is that they pay a nominal rent of $1 per year and cover operating costs like utilities, security, cleaning and repairs, all billed per square foot of space used.
Last week, Fiona Crean, the city's ombudsman, released a little-noticed report stemming from complaints by six organizations in the BMR program about sudden and unilateral increases in operating charges.
In some cases, groups received increases of 550 per cent - from a reasonable $3.21 per square foot to $17.74. The shocking rise would have cost small groups many thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars to continue delivering community-building services on the cheap.
The ombudsman's investigation found that staff of Real Estate and Facilities (which reports to council's Government Management Committee) had upped the rates in at least four separate incidents and failed to provide promised data justifying these increases. Furthermore, they neglected to apply policies consistently, despite the fact that wording in the leases explains when and how bump-ups should occur.
Were staff merely doing their best to interpret the angry rhetoric of their political masters? Was this precipitousness an attempt to institute policy in compliance with the mayor's poorly planned agenda?
Crean, for her part, wasn't trying to nail city staff. Rather, she was fulfilling the mandate of her office - helping people who fall through the cracks and examining ways to improve the system. A shame the mayor does not fully understand this function, one of the best safeguards of customer service we have. (Instead of trying to limit the powers of this office, he should be arguing to extend them to oversight of city agencies like TCHC and the TTC).
It's also important to note that this BMR revenue grab - which staff have temporarily retreated from - would net only a few hundred thousand dollars, peanuts in the context of a city budget of over $9.5 billion. The sad fact, though, is that the aggregate sum of these thousands is larger than the budgets of some of the groups affected.
To add to the picture, the low rent these orgs pay (for properties constituting 1 per cent of city holdings) is not simply a giveaway. Besides the low-cost services the community acquires, the city benefits from the program by savings from not having to maintain non-utilized properties that either aren't ready to be sold or are being held for future functions.
If the city isn't careful, it might actually reduce a small revenue stream and get nothing to show for it.
The ombudsman made 22 recommendations, most of them around improving processes. She suggested written notice for rent changes, clear notes and records of meetings, consistent information on how costs are calculated and, most importantly, that money incorrectly collected be returned quickly with an apology.
However, as with many lessons, a broader application should be inferred. In this case, beyond the obvious ones about managing leases, the big teaching is all about not letting the political climate undermine good city administration.