Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Skating rink funding saga reveals Mayor Tory's inexperience — again

By: Metro Published on Wed Feb 25 2015

It bears repeating that the most surprising thing about the first few months of Mayor John Tory’s tenure at city hall is how inexperienced he’s looked in the big chair.

Over the past few days, through the twists and turns of a ridiculous story about the city’s ice rinks, we've seen another example of that.

First came news that, despite a bitterly cold winter that just won’t go away no matter how much we beg, Toronto staff were planning to close many of the city’s outdoor skating rinks in mid-February. The same thing happened last year.

Then came Tory’s response, which was to announce about $200,000 in corporate sponsorships to keep some rinks open through the middle of March. He made a big deal about it, too — staging an announcement with Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong at Nathan Phillips Square. The two of them went skating afterwards.

But then –whoops!– a figurative crack in the ice.

It turns out one of the donors, Green for Life, is actively bidding on city contracts, which means they’re not allowed to give the city money. They’re out.

The other major donor is the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Foundation, whose involvement doesn’t seem to break any rules. It was announced yesterday that Tim Hortons was being slotted in to replace Green for Life as a donor.

First, there’s a serious Groundhog Day vibe to all this — and it's not just the February cold.

We’ve now seen two consecutive cold winters where Toronto politicians were seemingly surprised by the date skating rinks were set to close. Can no one remember to check?

Second, it’s entirely unclear why corporate sponsors are even necessary. These private donors are putting up just $200,000 collectively. The City of Toronto’s annual operating budget is nearly $10 billion. About $437 million of that will be spent on Parks, Forestry and Recreation in 2015.

In the context of that kind of spending, the amount of money we’re talking about for ice rinks is pennies. Fractions of pennies, even. On the average tax bill, $200,000 is the equivalent of a 0.008% per cent residential property tax increase. It's a rounding error.

In a perfect world, this kind of thing wouldn’t even register as a problem. Management would just direct their staff to keep the rinks open using money from the budget, then make adjustments in other program areas over the course of the year.

And then, hey, maybe over the long term the city could start to plan for the possibility that sometimes it will still be cold in mid-February and people will want to skate. Addressing this would be trivial — just put money into a reserve fund every year, and make it available for extending the skating season during cold winters.

But if the city government insists on collecting private donations for a public service, at least develop a process that goes beyond scrambling to find anyone with cash a few days before the rinks are supposed to close. And make sure that process is transparent and weeds out any hint of conflict of interest.

And, seriously, don’t announce you have a sponsor until you’re completely sure the company is actually allowed to donate.

It should be easy.

It’s frustrating that it’s not.

The worst part? This kind of thing only works to confirm the negative opinions people have about government. It makes government look incompetent. It makes government look poor and desperate. It makes government look like it needs to be rescued by valiant private companies.

Tory ran on a platform of improving city hall's reputation. This isn’t a great start. He has an opportunity between now and the next skating season to make sure this kind of thing never happens again — I hope he takes it.

This post was originally published at on 2015-02-25T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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