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Konrad Yakabuski (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Konrad Yakabuski

(Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

KONRAD YAKABUSKI

Ending the gravy train: Toronto’s not on track yet Add to ...

Rob Ford just wants to get on with his job. Notwithstanding the journalistic larvae feeding on what is widely believed to be his political corpse, the impudent Toronto mayor still has an agenda to fulfill on behalf of the fed-up taxpayers and working stiffs who put him in office.

“I’ve done about 80 per cent of it,” Mr. Ford insisted on his Sunday radio show. But there’s more to do. He still aims to cut council’s size in half and chop the hated municipal land transfer tax that his peskily progressive predecessor, David Miller, imposed on home buyers.

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But instead of eliminating the land transfer tax altogether, as he promised during the 2010 campaign, Mr. Ford is now seeking just a 10-per-cent reduction. As for the $2-billion in annual cost savings or the privately financed Scarborough subway line (in time for the 2015 Pan American Games), well, Mr. Ford doesn’t say much about those promises any more.

That’s the way it is with populist politicians. They ride anger at the elites to victory only to discover that running a world-class city is not as simple as “ending the gravy train.” Their reform agendas run out of steam because they have no broader governing philosophy to guide them.

Striking garbage workers and road-hogging cyclists are easy targets. It’s harder to take on the police or fire unions. They hold a lot of sway with your base of working-class suburbanites and immigrant shopkeepers, who imagine crime-infested ghettos popping up everywhere. The thing is, hiring more police and firefighters is an expensive way to rescue cats or check up on Granny.

To his credit, Mr. Ford has chopped expense budgets and axed the $60 vehicle registration fee. He got rid of the mayor’s chauffeur, although it’s unclear that taxpayers are better off with the anger-prone Mr. Ford behind the wheel. Wouldn’t his time be better spent working in the back seat?

City council froze residential property taxes in its first budget under Mr. Ford, but raised them about 2 per cent in its 2012 and 2013 budgets. The latter figure is about half the rate at which property taxes rose during Mr. Miller’s seven years in office. Commercial real-estate taxes have also increased more slowly under Mr. Ford than his predecessor.

At $9.4-billion, the city’s program expenditures for 2013 are about $200-million higher than when Mr. Miller left office. That might be seen as proof of tight fiscal management, since spending rose about 30 per cent under Mr. Miller. “The out-of-control spending has slowed right down. We’re bringing accountability to City Hall, first time ever,” Mr. Ford bragged Sunday.

Still, Mr. Ford has failed to attack the root of the city’s budget imbalance. Labour costs still eat up way too much spending, leaving little room to improve existing services, much less address the strains caused by downtown population growth and a slowing real-estate market.

If you’re wondering why there has been so little labour unrest on Mr. Ford’s watch, it’s because he hasn’t asked that much of the unions. His quest to contract out services petered out after he offloaded west-end garbage pickup to the private sector. He is now such a distracted lame duck that he couldn’t get council to pass any reform with his name on it if he tried.

What’s more, Mr. Ford has spent his first term stalling much-needed public transit upgrades in the Toronto region, either because of his baffling attachment to subways or because the dedicated taxes proposed to fund future transit rub his car-loving Ford Nation constituents the wrong way. Yet, if there’s one area where modest taxes make sense, it’s to recapture some of the $6-billion (and rising) in lost productivity that gridlock costs the Toronto region each year.

Roll in Mr. Ford’s disrespect for Toronto’s gay community – unacceptable behaviour from any politician, much less the chief magistrate of Canada’s biggest and most diverse city – and it has become clear that, video or no video, Toronto’s next mayoralty election can’t come fast enough.

Hopefully, a viable opponent will step forward to take on New Democratic MP Olivia Chow or whoever ends up carrying the progressive banner. Someone needs to address the unsustainable labour costs Mr. Ford has ignored, while personifying the image of a global city of Toronto should project – including marching in the Pride parade.

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