Rob Ford has struck a chord with voters with his promise to tackle waste and mismanagement at city hall. Fair enough. With a chronic budget shortfall and $450-million a year debt payments, the city needs to get its financial house in order. But when it comes to identifying the source of the problem, Mr. Ford is way off base.
In 10 years as a city councillor, Mr. Ford has been fixated to the point of obsession with how individual councillors spend public money. He attacks them for what he calls their bloated expense accounts. He lambastes them for using the free transit, zoo and parking passes that come with the job. He even accused city employees of spending like "drunken sailors" with their government-issued credit cards.
"When I am elected mayor," he said after a new Nanos poll for The Globe, CTV and CP24 found him just ahead of former deputy premier George Smitherman, "my colleagues will have to learn that it's time to turn off the lights, because the party with taxpayers' money is over." To hear Mr. Ford, you would think that city hall under Mayor David Miller is like Rome under Nero.
In fact, the supposed extravagance of city councillors is not the cause of the city's budget problems. The councillors' pay of $99,000 is less than many police officers and high school principals earn. Halving the number of city councillors to 22, the most prominent plank in Mr. Ford's platform, would save about $10-million a year, a drop in the bucket in $9-billion of annual spending.
Councillors' office expense budgets of $50,000 each are hardly extravagant, and many (including, famously, Mr. Ford) spend far less than that. If voters want to check up on what they are spending the money on - mostly harmless stuff like constituency newsletters or necessary stuff like computers and fax machines - a line-by-line accounting is available online. City hall may be mismanaged or ineffectual, but it is not a swamp of corruption - a word that Mr. Ford waves around with abandon.
Mr. Ford's backers argue that his focus on the little stuff is justified because if you watch the pennies, the dollars will take care of themselves. In fact, the Etobicoke North councillor has never shown much interest in the big-dollar issues. For a man running on a reputation for fiscal responsibility, he has said very little so far about how he would manage the city's money.
He would cut the Miller-era vehicle registration and land-transfer taxes, promises that would cost the city about $230-million in lost revenue, but doesn't say how he would make up for the shortfall. He complains about property tax increases, but doesn't mention where else he would find the money to run the city.
He loathes Transit City, the plan to lace the city with new light rapid transit lines, and says we need new subway lines instead. But, at $300-million a kilometre, subways cost about three times as much as LRT lines. His plan to pay for subways by selling off the development rights around new stations is impractical. The city doesn't own most of the land around potential stops, so it could hardly profit from selling it.
Mr. Ford talks a lot about eliminating waste - what candidate for mayor doesn't? - but is vague about what he would cut. A big police booster, he would not reduce the $888-million police budget. In fact, he would add to it by putting 100 new officers in the schools at a cost of about $100,000 a cop. His plan to end the threat of transit strikes by lobbying to make the TTC an essential service could end up costing the city even more money. Police and firefighters are essential services, too, and they have won year after year of healthy raises through arbitrated contract settlements.
A program that would see the city spend big money on subways and police and give up big money in tax revenues is not fiscally responsible. It means more debt and deficits. Unless Mr. Ford comes up with a more credible spending program, his pledge to be the guardian of the city's wallet is empty.