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Margaret Wente

The alarming truth about waste at City Hall Add to ...

Please shed a tear for your friends in Toronto. Our city has fallen on hard times, and no one knows where it’ll end. If the barbarians at City Hall have their way, there’ll be no more petting zoo, no more flowers in the parks and no fluoridation in the water. Our children’s teeth will rot and fall out of their little heads.

That, at any rate, is the dire picture painted by opponents of our portly mayor, Rob (Stop the Gravy Train) Ford, who assured us he would cut the waste and fat at City Hall, no problem. Except there is a problem. According to a detailed KPMG report commissioned by the city, waste and fat are very hard to find. Serious cost-cutting will require a sacrifice of bone and muscle.

So, who’s right? The truth is, there really is a lot of waste and fat. But getting rid of it is really hard.

Come with me on a brief tour of our lovely city. It may not be so different from your lovely city. Up the street from us lives a little old lady who has chest pains every month or so. Someone calls 911, and a million-dollar fire truck screams up, manned by four beefy guys with axes. They hold her hand until the ambulance arrives. The firefighters and the EMS workers really ought to merge, but that’s impossible, because they hate each other. The politicians don’t want to touch the redundancy in the system, because somebody might die.

Although the number of fires in Toronto has gone way down, the number of firefighters has gone way up. In fact, just 7 per cent of fire department responses are to actual fires. Around half are to medical events that EMS workers can handle better. Firefighters do okay. They make around $79,000 a year, plus “recognition pay” just for staying on the job. They work four-day round-the-clock shifts, meaning they get lots of time off to build your deck.

Our police officers are often busy writing traffic tickets, although why someone else can’t do this I don’t know. You also see them at construction sites, because the city has a rule that any construction site within 30 metres of a traffic light must have a cop on duty to make sure nothing goes wrong. And, by gosh, it seldom does!

Cops also earn a lot of overtime at public events. In fact, it’s easy for them to parlay their incomes into six figures. Yet, they spend very little time arresting bad guys. Toronto is a low-crime city, and the average number of arrests per officer is seven or eight a year, according to John Sewell, a leftish former mayor. He argues that over-manning is rife. The reason you see so many cops hanging around Tim Hortons is they don’t have a lot to do. Yet, policing costs about 50 per cent more, proportionately, than it does in Ottawa.

Across town, a friend of mine runs a restaurant where the city’s parks and recreation workers like to hang out. They spend a lot of time having breakfast there – during work hours. And who can blame them? They don’t have any competition, so they’re in no rush. Meantime, back at City Hall, people are always coming up with more things the city absolutely has to do – from waging war on bedbugs to building bike lanes and running daycare centres (at far greater cost than the private sector does).

All this stuff is highly inefficient, but also hard to fix. Just try cutting cops or firefighters. These folks are popular! Besides, people don’t want their house to burn down or their grandma to get mugged. Here’s how Ed Kennedy, president of the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters’ Association, responded to a request for cuts: “It’s going to be devastating. They’re playing Russian roulette with people’s lives.”

No wonder it’s so hard to stop the gravy train, or even slow it down. You’ve got to battle intransigent unions, fear-mongering, featherbedding, mission creep, a culture of entitlement, sacred cows, turf wars, lack of accountability and competition, and the weight of history. In general – as cities, states and countries around the world are finding out – the only thing that really stops the gravy train is a train wreck.

 

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