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Rob Ford’s $1-billion claim is a simplistic exaggeration

Mayor Rob Ford speaks during a Toronto Mayoral election debate in Toronto, March 26, 2014. REUTERS/Mark Blinch (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)

MARK BLINCH/REUTERS

I've saved a billion dollars. Expect to hear that line again and again from Rob Ford over the next seven months. He said it at the first big debate among leading candidates for mayor. He said it again on CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Friday. It is at the core of his pitch to be returned to office. He hopes to persuade voters that he has worked such wonders with the city's finances that they should ignore the crack scandal and re-elect him on Oct. 27.

Now two of the city's top officials are backing him up – sort of. City manager Joe Pennachetti and chief financial officer Roberto Rossini presented a briefing note on Thursday that said the city has seen budget savings of $972.4-million from 2011 to 2014, pretty close to the mayor's billion. Mr. Ford wasted no time for claiming vindication for his claim, dismissed as untrue by his rivals for mayor.

But before giving the mayor a high five, take a closer look at the numbers. When he first started making the billion-dollar claim last year, he got to that figure by throwing in $200-million from cancelling the vehicle-registration tax. Killing a tax that cost motorists $60 a year was one of his first victories at city council after becoming mayor.

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That indeed saved taxpayers $200-million over four years, but it was misleading to combine it with budget cuts like reducing city councillors' expense allowances. A tax cut isn't the same as a budget cut. One results in smaller city revenues, another smaller city expenditures. Mr. Pennachetti acknowledges that and the briefing note doesn't include the $200-million when it tots up "operating-budget savings" in the Ford years.

It makes another correction, too. Mr. Ford originally counted $78-million from contracting out garbage collection west of Yonge Street as part of his billion. But that was the saving through the whole seven-year life of contract with the new private garbage company. Mr. Ford is adding up savings only over his four-year term, so the note concedes him just $44.8-million.

Oddly, though, it counts a $30-million increase in user fees. That may fatten the city treasury, but it is no help to those who must pay more money to hire a school auditorium or take swimming lessons at a community centre. It is strange for a self-described champion of the taxpayer like Mr. Ford to be claiming credit for a fee hike, much less to be calling it a saving.

All this may seem like quibbling, given that officials have come up with a total – $972-million – so close to Mr. Ford's $1-billion. But, again, a closer look raises doubts. The figure includes as savings such items as a drop in debt-service costs due to lower interest rates, which saved the city $36-million. That is like saying a homeowner is frugal because the interest rate on his mortgage has fallen.

Mr. Ford comes near to his billion only because a budget year has passed since he started making his claim. The city is now counting $147-million in "efficiency savings and base-budget reductions" for 2014. It only goes to show that if you say something for long enough it will turn out to be true – or closer to true, at least.

To give the mayor credit, not all of his claims are bogus. Under Mr. Ford, the city conducted a "core service review" to find savings. In 2013 and 2014, it ordered city divisions not to increase spending at all. Contracting out garbage collection is clearly saving money. So is a tough new contract with city unions. Perhaps most important, the city has ended the bad habit of using surpluses from one year's budget to plug holes in the next.

But for Mr. Ford to claim he has saved taxpayers a billion dollars is a simplistic exaggeration.

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