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Rob Ford sets a new direction – and it's not completely terrible

The mayor's got a new groove.

After spending the last couple of months half-heartedly trying to convince Torontonians that—really—he had accomplished everything he ever wanted to accomplish as mayor, Rob Ford finally laid out something resembling a new political agenda in remarks to the Economic Club of Canada on Tuesday.

It was yet another speech from the mayor that decidedly didn't suck. He's getting better at this public speaking thing.

The five point plan Ford outlined stuck pretty close to some of the suggestions I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, so I can't knock him for the spirit of his remarks. After council kicked sand in his face on votes relating to transit and budget cuts, it makes sense for the mayor's team to refocus on their perceived areas of strength: customer service and business-friendly economic development.

Ford's points, summarized and paraphrased, broke down like this:

  • Improve the development process so it doesn't take so long for developers to plan and build.
  • Improve customer service for business and get better at marketing the city to job creators.
  • Align city services—”everything we do from culture and recreation to community infrastructure and solid waste”—toward making Toronto look “attractive and affordable” to talented people and businesses.
  • Improve transportation across the city.
  • There's some good stuff in there. High commercial tax rates have been an identified issue for several years. Steps have been taken to fix the problem, but there's definitely room for improvement. Similarly, the city's relatively anemic employment growth— in an era where residential towers are popping up like weeds— is cause for concern. We need to ensure that Toronto doesn't one day become a bedroom community to the 905.

    And reducing unemployment? Attracting new business? Improving customer service? Making transportation better? No one's going to argue with those goals.

    But here's the snag: a lot of what Ford outlined yesterday is contradicted by policy he implemented—or tried to implement—in his first year in office.

    The mayor is talking about fixing things that he helped break.

    Take the development process—the mayor's first item. Ford talks about reducing red tape and speeding up the process for planning developments, but it's well-known that the city's planning department has been short-staffed for years. They lost ten approved positions and 10% of their budget in 2012. And this at a time when Toronto is seeing more development than it's seen in decades. All in the name of Fordian efficiency.

    It's the same story with the mayor's talk of reducing commercial property tax rates. Property taxes need to rise every year to at least match inflation. If Ford is serious about lowering commercial rates, he needs to be prepared to offset that lost revenue with higher residential increases. But Ford's residential tax increases have lagged far below inflation. He stuck the city with a 0% rise in 2011 and then just 2.5% in 2012. For 2013, he's now touting a residential increase of only 1.75%.

    The numbers don't work. The city needs to be able to keep up with its own growth and pay for inflationary costs. Keeping residential increases low—maybe non-existent—while simultaneously reducing commercial rates makes for one hell of a math problem.

    Sure, Ford's team will counter by pointing to all the money they'll save through efficiencies and gravy-fighting, but the city manager has said he doesn't think there's much room for efficiencies left in the city's budget. To really reduce the burden on businesses, the mayor either needs to find new revenue streams to offset the existing commercial contribution or look at higher residential increases.

    I don't think he's prepared to do either of those things.

    Ford's got a better chance of success with some of his other points, but a couple of things stand against him. First, the mayor's zeal for reckless department-slashing in 2011 has made for a battered bureaucracy, the full consequences of which are only just starting to emerge. Second, the Ford team's fraught and spiteful relationship with some senior management has fostered an environment where he may find it challenging to win real support for implementation of service reforms.

    The mayor has to be prepared to invest in people.

    As for transportation: good luck. After he started firing managers for spite, Ford lost complete control of the TTC—one of the city's biggest budget line items and undoubtedly the centrepiece of any plan to tackle Toronto's transportation woes. He'll have to work hard to mend fences with the new commission. Meanwhile, his Public Works chair is pushing a plan for separated downtown bike lanes, part of something called the “Mayor's Bike Plan.” But the mayor has already voted against pieces of it. Ford has never been able to put together a sensible plan on transportation.

    Still, the mayor's spiffy new agenda is good news on balance. He's outlined a far more sensible direction, especially compared to last year's doomed and bungled core service review and budget exercise. If Ford had presented these items early in his term, I have no doubt he could have worked with council to successfully enact most of them.

    But that was then. These days, the mayor stands alone with way too many bridges burned. He can't even tackle something a trivial as the plastic bag fee without things blowing up in his face. Being the guy in the mayor's office doesn't mean much when you don't have 22 other council votes on your side.

    Articulating a new agenda is a good first step—the hard part for Rob Ford is selling it.

    This post was originally published at on 2012-06-08T00:00:00.000Z

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    Matt Elliott

    City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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