Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Spend while you can?

I've noticed for the past couple of days that some of the city services that are being cut by Mayor Miller are out in full force. I've seen a city truck with the required 3 people (driver, worker, guy who goes to Tim Horton's) parked beside a stop sign on Mortimer cutting small tufts of grass growing around the base of the sign with a weed whacker.

Next I passed a crew out picking up a few stray pieces of paper at the side of the DVP.

One of the city parking lots on the weekend had five city guys building a flower box off the Danforth.

What gives? Could it be that city departments are doing their best to spend their budgets in a hurry before the cuts come down, defeating any cost saving?

Just wondering.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Let's Go To The Ex

I was at the CNE this weekend. Unfortunately I seemed to be there on Half-Price Hillbilly Saturday.

If you want to spoil a white supremacist's day, just take him to the Ex. You won't find a more disappointing collection of Aryan genetic material anywhere. I felt out of place being the only man without a blue Celtic tattoo on my neck and five children at my ankles, each kid about eight and a half months older than the next.

The least popular food there was corn on the cob, because to eat it everyone would have to line up to share the family tooth.

Somehow, everyone had cell phones and someone to speak to, since a lot of the mothers entertained themselves by staying on the phone while the children tried to climb under the tilt-a-whirl and their husbands / boyfriends checked out the passing trailer park talent in the Paris Hilton Does Walmart clothes.

And there's no better place to have a public fight with your husband than on the Midway, where you have to shout extra loud to be heard over the guy calling "Doggie, doggie" into the microphone.

At least there's one thing you can say about the crowd - it helps the carnies with their self-esteem issues.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

2006 Budget Expenditures

From the City's 2006 Budget document (http://www.toronto.ca/city_budget/)

Circling the Drain

When I started this blog a few weeks ago I thought it was going to be a collection of minor annoyances about Toronto and its loopy governance. Little did I know that I chose Toronto's equivalent of the fall of Rome to begin my smarty pants observations.

The Toronto $575 million budget shortfall (which nobody saw coming apparently because we're now all in shock throwing together a Plan B of hasty program and service cuts like we're throwing together a pot luck dinner for unexpected guests) keeps spinning out of control.

On Friday Mayor Miller announced a round of cuts - $34 million this year, $83 million next year. The announcement wasn't made by our elected Mayor or councillors, nor were the cuts apparently thought through by any of them. That duty fell on Shirley Hoy, Toronto's city manager. There's democratic leadership.

And the cuts? Closing community centres on Mondays, stranding thousands of single moms and low income families and disrupting their work schedules. Closing libraries on Sundays - wouldn't want people getting smarter if you can save a couple of bucks.

We were also warned that city hall will stop answering the phone. You mean they actually have phones? I called three times last week and each time was touch-toned into the dumpster. Not even an answering machine or "please hold". Straight to hang up.

Most of the cancelled programs involved making Toronto clean and livable: garbage collection, litter, trees, parks, grass cutting. All things that will let the voters see the city in decline.

The one that got me to show how petulant and mean-spirited the mayor has become over his tax hike rejection - the City will not be picking up old Christmas trees in December. The Grinch would be so proud.

The 2006 Toronto Budget Document identifies where most of the city's money is spent:

"The 2006 Approved Operating Budget is detailed by major expenditure and revenue category. Salaries and Benefits, which total $3.517 billion or 46 per cent of the gross expenditure, represented the largest expenditure category. Emergency services (Fire, Police and EMS) and TTC alone totalled $1.932 billion which approximated 55 per cent of the total salary and benefit budget."

There you are. It is impossible to make any kind of dent in our budget without seriously looking at salaries. And I'm not someone who begrudges the mayor or city councillors their salaries. There's not enough money there to make any difference so why bother with the symbolic?

What they need is a line by line review of plans, programs and policies and see if we really need them to keep this city clean and functioning - not some clumsy, hatchet-wielding, 11th hour "that'll teach you" slash and burn to make the voters feel the pain.

City council and the Mayor have to sit in open session and put every item on the table and sharpen their pencils. No sacred cows, no vote getters, no ideological hobby horses that cost a bundle and go nowhere - just good fiscal policy. And if they can't do it they shouldn't run next time for a job they can't do.

Oh, and they should stop whining to get someone else to pay. Make your best deal with the province and the feds, and then raise the rest. Pass tax hikes, but just make sure you raise it on the backs of the people who can afford it - like the developers of the booming condo market and land transfer tax.

Jacking up property taxes blindly across the board only feeds the spending beast and doesn't encourage a culture of savings.

Find something to sell - there's a point when you have to realize you can't raise enough to get out of debt, and our city's debt of $507 million now costs about $200 million a year to service - our 2nd biggest expenditure.

(See: http://www.toronto.ca/budget2007/pdf/pres_mar7.pdf)

Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that no one is interested in saving money - not the TTC, not the police, not council nor the mayor. They're only interested in finding more so they can keep spending the same way.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Tasting the Danforth

This is the weekend we mark on the calendar to make sure we leave the city. This is Taste of the Danforth weekend.

The Danforth is at the end of our street, so we get the full frontal assault of people wandering around aimlessly with greasy hunks of fat and gristle on a stick trying to figure out if there is something actually going on.

With a million people from Scarborough standing in the middle of the road trying to choose from 300 booths all selling souvlaki, it doesn't take long to flee to the side streets clogged with cars all sporting handicapped parking stickers.

I can't figure out why people will stand in a line 30 people deep to buy a $3 souvlaki or spinach pie when any other day of the year you can get the same thing on the Danforth without any crowd to speak of, and no one in a booth is trying to sell you cheap long distance or a subscription to the National Post.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Paying Loblaws to Save Money?

I'm sure it makes sense somewhere, but did you know that Loblaws gets paid to save hydro?

Yep, it's true. Those lights that go off and air conditioners turned down at its 110 stores in Ontario result not only in savings to the company, but also a cash payment by the Ontario Power Authority.

As reported in the Toronto Star, something called the IESO (http://www.ieso.ca/) got the grocery giant to sign a "'demand-response' agreement with the province back in 2005 promising, in exchange for payment, to cut its electricity use by 10 megawatts when given three-hours notice by the Ontario Power Authority."

Other companies can sign up too, and the power authority hopes they do. As their spokesman says: "Unlike existing voluntary programs, participants sign a contract obliging them to reduce or shift their electricity use during a power crisis in exchange for payment."

I'm all for managing our power system. I'm without power at home at the moment myself (see below), and no one wants Toronto to get even more like the third world than it already is with regular brownouts, but do we really need to pay companies like Loblaws to save money on power?

Of course, paying people to do what is in their own and everyone else's best interests is typically Canadian, rather than simply having someone at Loblaw's switch threatening to pull it if they don't cut back.

Sitting in the dark

My home is without power at the moment. It went off yesterday afternoon and then again sometime last night.

I first turned on the portable radio to see what was happening. If it was World War III, I have a bottle of booze I've been saving. It seems like it is only a few blocks around us that is affected, so I reluctantly put the bottle away.

These things happen, but it's always kind of nice to know what's going on and if I should be eating all the frozen steaks in the freezer for breakfast before they go bad.

Being a connected kind of guy, I decided to go to Toronto Hydro's website on my handheld for an update. After all, even my Internet provider has a live "system status report" page in case of trouble. Electricity has to be more important than not being able to download the latest movie trailer from iTunes.

Apparently not. On Toronto Hydro's website there is a button for "Wind Turbine Status", but nothing to let customers know about emergencies, work in progress or power outage status.

You can send their customer care centre an email, which they will respond to "within three business days", or call their power outage service number (open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m), which I did and got the general help line that referred me back to the website.

You'd think that if Toronto Hydro wants to seriously get into the WiFi provider business, they might think about becoming their own customer and joining us in the 21st century by providing useful emergency service information in real time on their website.

Monday, August 6, 2007

The TTC - The Better (Paying) Way

The National Post recently published a chart of the average wages of city workers as part of its review of why Toronto is always in debt.

According to the various collective agreements of unionized employees for the city and TTC, garbage collectors make $24.14 an hour; litter pickers make $21.14 an hour, and TTC drivers and ticket takers make $26.58 an hour. This is base salary - overtime is extra.

So the guy in the jumpsuit who picks up trash at the side of the road or in parks (possibly with an MBA), makes about $44,000 a year, without counting overtime or seniority. Being the City, on top of that they also have some of the most extensive health and other benefits available in the civilized world.

And for those of you who have gone without raises recently, its nice to know the City of Toronto's employees have had a 3% or better raise every single year since 2001 (except for 2005 when they only got 2.75% poor darlings).

Bus drivers with the TTC make over $55,000 a year, plus an incredible array of benefits. That number goes up with seniority, of which there is a great deal since no one ever leaves the cozy confines of a TTC seat.

The TTC also just published - as required - its list of employees who made more than $100,000 a year in 2006. It now has 277 employees who make more than a hundred grand. At least 17 of them were bus drivers. Makes you wonder why Ralph Kramden from the Honeymooners lived in such a shabby apartment.

But we are not to take this the wrong way, the TTC says as it contemplates service cuts to save some cash, even though salaries and benefits comprise about 75% of the TTC’s $1.1-billion budget. This is according to TTC spokeswoman Marilyn Bolton, who herself earned $101,444 in 2006.

To help us put this in perspective, Ms. Bolton was reported in the National Post to have said “$100,000 has actually depreciated in buying power”. After all, "$100,000 isn’t the $100,000 of 10 years ago, like a millionaire isn’t a millionaire anymore.”

Now I feel better. At least they have a good grasp on reality.

Aiming for Nonsense - U of T and Guns

It's hard to say I'm impartial on the subject - I was a member of the Hart House Pistol Club at the University of Toronto - but the weaseliness of the decision to close the gun range in the bowels of Hart House still puts my nose out of joint.

When I was there more than 20 years ago it was already known that it was much unloved by the politically correct. It would have been even worse if anyone could find the place. It occupies an area no more than 20 feet wide and as long as a bowling alley somewhere in the sub-basement underneath Hart House, accessible only by narrow halls and stairwells. It was specifically built as a gun range.

They floated the first trial balloon, saying the university needed the space, but then admitting it really wasn't any good for anything else, except storage.

Finally someone had the guts to admit the decision to close it was simply optics and ideology - there was no place for a gun range at a university. Of course the University of Toronto was the recruiting and training ground for thousands of young men who fought in several wars, where shooting a gun often came in handy.

Fortunately, I never had to shoot a gun in anger, or had any desire to point it at any living thing, but it is a lot of fun using one to poke holes in a piece of paper 50 feet away. I even have my name as best shot on one of the club's trophies - the turkey shoot. And for the weak-kneed, let me assure you that no turkeys were hurt in the process. The turkey was the prize. (In all honesty the "best shot" thing is a bit misleading, because half the scoring was random.

The shooters at the club were far from Rambos. In fact, they were a little bit nerdy and treated their target pistols like a concert musician treats a violin.

It's no surprise that the club hasn't had an accident or incident in its 88 years. If it was a safety issue, the University would first have to close down the football team which injures students on a daily basis; rugby, which encourages hurting people on a daily basis; and track and field with all its pulled muscles and heart attacks in waiting. I think the cafeterias hurt more people than the pistol club.

No doubt there will be a call to confiscate the javelins from the track & field shed as the weapons of choice from Spartans and other gang members from 2500 years ago.

No this is politics, where reality is completely unconnected with decision-making. Seems somehow appropriate that this kind of irrational thought takes place at a university.

Remember - when javelins are criminalized, only criminals will have javelins.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Chile 'Fesses Up

So Chile wanted to make a diplomatic incident out of the Toronto police doing riot control during the international soccer championship (see below)?

The news yesterday was that a member of the Chilean soccer team - remember them, the poor innocent victims of a brutal, unprovoked police assault? - admitted he watched a team mate punch a female Toronto police officer in the face.

The police's report out the other day showed that the Chilean team tore the arms off their bus seats to throw at the crowd and the cops, and then punched, kicked and threw things like little girls having a tantrum. The cops were trying to keep them under control while at the same time keep a couple hundred fans on both sides from breaking out in a testosterone-fueled, intelligence-deprived riot.

Somehow I don't think I'll hold my breath waiting for an apology from them.