Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Raptors deal reveals Ford's inconsistency on recreation programs for low-income residents

By: Metro Canada Published on Wed Aug 27 2014

Given that Mayor Rob Ford positions himself as a pro-business, sports-loving kind of guy, it may seem kind of weird that this week Ford — along with his brother Doug — found himself on the losing side of a 38-2 council vote to approve a new deal with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to build a Toronto Raptors practice facility at Exhibition Place.

Ford’s issue was his desire to designate part of the designated “community time” at the new facility — time set aside for community use — to youth who live in Toronto Community Housing. After councillors rejected his motion to that effect, Ford claimed his colleagues had “insulted every single child at Toronto Community Housing.”

As per usual with Ford, the truth is far more complicated.

The way the MLSE deal for the practice facility is structured is unique. Aside from being a place where the Raptors practice, it’ll also be open for community use.

For the summer, community use will be governed exclusively by the city’s parks, forestry and recreation department. During the NBA season, 10 per cent of available community time will be handled by the city, with the rest permitted out to other groups by MLSE.

So the city itself will be programming many available hours at the facility. Which brings up a question: Hey, if the city has that kind of control, couldn’t they just set aside some time for low-income youth? In the exact way Ford was talking about?

It’s a good question and one that Ford himself asked staff during the council debate on Monday. “Can I move a motion — part of the agreement — to allocate X amount of money, or X amount of time, that has to be given to youth or young adults at Toronto Community Housing?” the mayor asked.

After a bit of back-and-forth, staff working on the deal confirmed that basically, yeah, that would be possible, though a motion was unnecessary.

“We have secured 10 per cent use to the city of this specific facility,” said Joe Farag, the city’s director of corporate finance. “We already have the right to program that space. What I’m saying, Mr. Mayor, is that through the city’s programming that space could be allocated for specific users.”

So what exactly was Ford’s problem? It seems like what he said he wants — access to the practice facility for youth who live in TCHC — is indeed possible. The next logical step would probably be to bring a motion through the city’s budget process to make sure that happens.

Ford, though, chose another path. A path that involved voting against the deal and accusing his colleagues of insulting people who live in public housing.

Throughout the debate, the mayor was adamant that TCHC hours come via MLSE directly, and not through the city’s recreation programming. “I want MLSE to implement this, not Parks & Rec, because then it would affect everything,” he said.

It was a cryptic comment, but a telling one. A hallmark of Ford’s political style has been his desire to personally effect small-scale change while also attacking efforts at large-scale change as wasteful spending — consider Ford's personal inspections of TCHC buildings while making no move toward hiring inspectors to conduct such work on a city-wide level.

With the basketball facility, Ford seemed to be concerned that providing TCHC residents access through the city’s public recreation programs would lead to low-income people gaining free or discounted access to recreation facilities around the city.

Why that would be a bad thing is anyone’s guess, but it’s worth noting that Ford doesn't have a great track record on city-led efforts to give low-income residents access to city recreation facilities.

In January, as part of his vaunted but mostly discredited claim to have found millions of savings in the city’s operating budget, Ford moved to institute a $14 fee that would apply to low-income individuals who sign up to the Welcome Policy, a city program that provides subsidies to participate in city recreation programs.

That same Welcome Policy came up again during council’s debate on the Raptors facility. Staff confirmed it would apply to the new Raptors facility. Low-income Torontonians, a group that includes more than just those who live in TCHC buildings, will be able to use the policy to access the arena's city-programmed community hours.

Despite his impassioned plea for TCHC youth, Ford is still on course to institute his Welcome Policy fee. In a campaign speech earlier this month, he promised he would reintroduce the budget measures he tabled last January — Welcome Policy fee included –if he’s re-elected in October.

That move fits his strategy to keep property tax revenue increases below the rate of inflation. Just in case you were wondering what the mayor’s priorities really are.

This post was originally published at on 2014-08-27T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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