With the video affair still hanging over him, Mayor Rob Ford has been striving to draw attention to his successes. Chief among them, in his telling, is taming the city's budget.
In speeches and press conferences, he often claims to have saved a billion dollars.
"Everything's going fine," Mr. Ford said recently, when asked if the video affair was hurting the city. "I'm keeping taxes low. I've saved a billion dollars."
True? Let's take a look.
When critics cast doubt on the claim, Mr. Ford provided a tally showing how he had arrived at the figure.
According to him, the savings are as follows:
- $200-million from cancelling the vehicle-registration tax.
- $6.4-million from cutting expense budgets of city councillors and the mayor’s office.
- $78-million from contracting out garbage collection west of Yonge Street.
- $606-million from various “efficiencies” ($57-million in the 2011 budget, $327-million in 2012 and $222-million in 2013).
- $89-million from a streamlined labour contract with city employees.
- $24-million from higher user fees.
Add all that up and it comes to $1,003,400,000, narrowly vindicating his claim. After listing the figures on his radio show last month, he said again: "We've saved a billion dollars."
But scrutinize the numbers a bit and doubt creeps in. The $200-million for the car tax isn't a saving in the usual sense. It saves taxpayers money, but it cuts city revenue, not expenditures. Counting it as a cut is like saying that a household is saving money when one of its income earners takes a pay cut.
The $78-million from contracting out garbage will be realized over the seven-year life of the contract and the mayor argues he is saving $1-billion within his four year-term, so he is stretching things here. The private collection company took over last summer. By the end of Mr. Ford's term, it will have been in charge for 2 1/2 years, so the most he can claim to have saved by then is about $28-million, not $78-million.
Counting a $24-million hike in user fees as a saving is strangest of all. It is one thing to say that a tax cut is a saving because it saves taxpayers' money, quite another to argue that making people pay more to take city-run swimming classes or rent space in a community centre is a saving.
Mr. Ford says that he is shifting costs to those who actually go to the classes or rent the space and "this reduces the burden on the general public." Perhaps, but, sorry, raising fees doesn't amount to an expenditure cut and it certainly doesn't amount to a tax cut, so it can't be called a saving even by the mayor's flexible definition of the term.
Combing through the mayor's sums in this way may seem like quibbling. What is a few million here and there given all the money he is saving, his supporters will ask. Don't all politicians exaggerate their achievements?
But this is the platform he will be presenting when he runs for re-election next year, so voters have a right to expect that the numbers he uses are right. If this were a few years ago, Mr. Ford was still a city councillor and mayor David Miller were claiming a user-fee increase as a budget saving, Mr. Ford would be screaming blue murder.
Mr. Ford doesn't need to fudge the numbers to claim success as a fiscal manager. The labour deal was a substantial achievement. So was contracting our garbage. Most impressive was the decision to stop using leftover money from one year's budget to plug holes in the next.
He is not the first mayor to claim he has saved money. As recently as 2009, Mr. Miller was bringing in a budget that included $102-million in claimed efficiency savings. Mr. Ford and others pored over those numbers with the most skeptical of eyes. Now that Mr. Ford is mayor, he should expect no less.