The chutzpah, the sheer brazenness, of Rob Ford can be breathtaking. On Wednesday, a report came out contradicting just about everything the mayor has ever said about the city’s finances.
For years, he said the city has a spending problem, not a revenue problem – a line he has repeated so often that it became a kind of slogan. A summary of the report from the University of Toronto’s Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance says flatly that “Toronto does not have a ‘spending problem’ – with expenditures roughly the same as they were a decade ago, when inflation and population growth are taken into account.”
For years, he said Torontonians are grossly overtaxed. The summary of the report by Enid Slack and André Côté says “the real property tax burden has been falling – and Toronto residents, on average, pay low property taxes compared with residents of other Ontario cities.”
For years, he said Toronto was drowning in debt. The summary says: “Toronto’s debt is relatively modest and manageable for a growing city.”
But instead of admitting he may have been off base, Mr. Ford issued a typically boastful statement claiming the report only confirmed his matchless performance as mayor. The report, he said, “highlights a number of interesting points.”
Its authors “note that under my watch Toronto’s finances are strong and sound. They found that the City of Toronto is managing its spending levels, we are keeping our debt in check and most importantly, under my administration, the City of Toronto is not overtaxing its residents.”
In other words, if Toronto’s finances are in reasonably good shape, it is all because of wonderful him. Didn’t he, and he alone, save the city from catastrophe? “The reality is, my administration brought the City of Toronto back from the edge of a fiscal cliff.”
Asked about the mayor’s claim, city manager Joe Pennachetti, who has helped oversee the city’s books for years, said: “We have never been on a fiscal cliff.”
The gradual improvement in the city’s finances, he told reporters, went back far before the start of Mr. Ford’s tenure in 2010. In fact, he traced it to a long-term fiscal plan the city put together under Mr. Ford’s predecessor David Miller, who was a favourite punching bag of Mr. Ford in those days.
As for Mr. Ford’s claim that “we have reduced the annual spending growth in our budget by over 98 per cent,” Mr. Pennachetti admitted to being confused. He said, “Quite frankly, I find that statement a very difficult statement to understand and I think it’s a little misleading.”
To be fair to Mr. Ford, he has played some part in the the improvement in the city’s finances. Under him, officials were ordered to cut budgets and find efficiencies. But he cannot claim sole credit for the improvement, and he certainly cannot claim vindication from a report that undermines many of his favourite assertions.
The thrust of the report is that, although the city is in fairly good fiscal health, it will have a hard time in coming years finding the money to pay for repairs and upgrades to its aging infrastructure. “Toronto’s fiscal condition can be likened to the health of an aging Maple Leafs defenceman,” it says. “He may be a solid performer on the ice and well cared for by training staff, but he is increasingly expensive and in need of major knee surgery.” Toronto, it concludes, “needs access to new taxes to grow as a world-class city.”
To put it another way, the authors believe that the city has a revenue problem, not a spending problem. The mayor did not mention that “interesting point” when he used the report to tout his record.