Sidelined by city council and facing mounting calls to resign, Mayor Rob Ford is trying to shift attention to his record as a fiscal and economic manager. In a speech at Casa Loma on Thursday evening, he said, “I have transformed Toronto into an economic powerhouse,” a statement so boastful that some members of the business crowd burst into laughter.
He also told his audience: “The Ford administration has saved more than one billion dollars.” That claim is dubious at best. The Ford fiscal record is not nearly as good as he says.
To give credit where due, he has had some genuine successes on the fiscal front. His administration stopped the practice of using leftover money from one year’s budget to plug holes in the next. It saved money by contracting out garbage collection in the west side of the city. It negotiated a new deal with city unions that should save more.
But many of Mr. Ford’s other claims are exaggerated or plain wrong.
In interviews this week, he repeated his now-familiar claim to have saved more than $1-billion since taking office in December, 2010. He reaches that figure only by including $200-million from cancelling the vehicle-registration tax, which he did away with in the early days of his mayoralty. Even if taxpayers welcomed the break, that was a cut to the city government’s income, not its expenditures, so it cannot properly be counted as a saving. The same goes for another item he includes in his billion-dollar claim: a $24-million rise in user fees for things such as city-run fitness classes. That may shift costs to the user instead of the general taxpayer, but, again, it does not amount to a spending cut.
Mr. Ford stretches one more figure in tallying up his bogus billion. He says he has saved $78-million by contracting out garbage, but that is over the seven-year life of the contract and he speaks as if he has already saved the $1-billion.
Mr. Ford also claims to be “taking the bull by the horns” and taming the city’s debt. Over the next 10 years, he said in a speech in August, “we are reducing our city debt by over $804-million.” In his Casa Loma speech, he again spoke of his success at delivering “reduced debt.” In fact, at last report the city’s debt was set to rise to $4.2-billion by 2018 from $2.3-billion at the end of 2012, then fall to $3-billion in 2023. That doesn’t include the debt the city will take on to build the proposed Scarborough extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway line. The mayor was talking about a plan to reduce borrowing that, if it works, would add $800-million less to the debt than would otherwise have been the case. As a city budget document puts it, “$800-million represents the amount of new debt that has been avoided through the use of a revised capital-financing strategy.” It is good to avoid borrowing money if you can, no doubt, but slowing the rate of borrowing is not the same as reducing the debt.
Mr. Ford’s boldest claim is on taxes. At Casa Loma he said he was improving services “while keeping taxes lower than any North American city.” He told Fox News days earlier that, under his administration, Toronto has had “the lowest tax increase compared to any North American city. First year it was zero, second two and a half [per cent], third year was two, and this year I’m coming in at one and three quarter per cent including half a per cent for subways.” In fact, Windsor has had a property-tax freeze in place for five straight years and is set to approve a sixth. Winnipeg froze property taxes for 14 years until 2012. Toronto’s rate of tax increase has been moderate under Mr. Ford, but it is not correct to claim it is the lowest. City council’s budget chief, Frank Di Giorgio, says it will be a struggle even to reach Mr. Ford’s goal of a 1.75-per-cent residential tax increase next year.
Mr. Ford takes credit for a growing economy, too. “We’re booming – this city has never been in better shape,” he told Fox. “The city has over 180 cranes in the sky now.”
Toronto’s economy is indeed doing well, but whether it is the mayor’s doing is another question. The boom in condominium construction started before he took office, a phenomenon that has little relation to who is in the mayor’s chair. The city started lowering business taxes to compete with its 905 rivals under previous mayors. Toronto was a “powerhouse” long before he came along.
As for jobs, the mayor held a news conference in September to boast that Toronto’s unemployment rate had dropped to 7.1 per cent from a peak of 11 per cent. “Another promise made, another promise kept,” he said. “This is a major accomplishment.” In reality, Toronto’s job-creation record has more to do with an improving trend in the national economy than any policy by the city government. This autumn the national jobless rate fell below 7 per cent for the first time since the big recession five years ago.
If Mr. Ford wants to argue that voters should look at his fiscal and economic record instead of his behaviour, fair enough. But let him at least be straightforward about what that record is.