Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

The Fords painted a blurry picture on arts funding votes

At a quick glance, Mayor Rob Ford and his mayoral candidate brother Doug would seem to have a leg to stand on when they talk about their commitment to funding the arts, as Doug did at yesterday’s ArtsVote debate.

The city has, after all, made a real commitment to the arts over the last four years, increasing per-capita arts spending from $18.09 per person in 2010 to $22.25 per person in 2014.

But that leg they’re standing on? It's a wobbly one.

Here’s the problem. A large chunk of the city’s new spending on arts and cultural programs has come through what the city calls its “third party sign tax.” Introduced in 2009, it’s a tax on billboards that brings in about $11 million per year, according to city financial statements, with revenue dedicated to the arts.

But before he started using that revenue to bolster the Ford administration's record on the arts, the mayor was against it and was one of 12 councillors to vote against adopting the tax when in 2009. According to a CBC report filed shortly after the debate, Ford argued billboards help businesses grow and create jobs. He was also curious to know if supporters of arts funding increases actually had jobs.

It took him a while to come around. As part of the 2010 budget process, Ford was still one of 13 councillors to support a Coun. Denzil Minnan-Wong motion to delete a recommendation by Coun. Shelley Carroll requesting a report on dedicating the revenues toward the arts.

So, sure, Rob Ford — and the brother who seems to have adopted the mayor's record as his own — can point to the fact that, once he became mayor, he didn’t try to remove the billboard tax or redirect its revenues as part of the budget process.

However, that wouldn’t change the fact that if Ford had his way with things in 2009, much of the new money for the arts wouldn’t exist at all.

The rest of the Ford voting record on arts funding is similarly muddled, if not downright erratic. Despite generally not being opposed to the idea of budgeting more money for spending on arts and culture, both Mayor Ford and his brother have a history of opposing arts and culture expenditures.

This past July, for example, Rob Ford was the only vote against giving $330,000 to arts organizations like Hot Docs and the Toronto Dance Foundation for state-of-good-repair investment. Doug Ford was absent.

In April, Rob Ford was again the only vote against allocating $115,000 to 16 community festivals and special events, including the Rexdale Food & Green Living Festival and the Rexdale Womens Centre Civic Pride Celebrations. Doug Ford was absent.

In March, Rob Ford and Doug Ford were the only votes against extending liquor license exceptions to a slew of bars and restaurants for the North By Northeast Festival, the Toronto Jazz Festival and Canadian Music Week — I don’t even know where to begin to try to explain this one.

In January, as part of the 2014 budget process, both Fords and Coun. Giorgio Mammoliti were the only votes against allocating $50,000 in Section 37 benefits toward capital improvements to the Factory Theatre.

Also in that budget debate, the same trio were the only votes against putting Section 37 benefits toward public art in the North York Arts Park and the construction of a movie screen in the Toronto Centre for the Arts. Section 37 money, it must be stated, does not come from taxes — it’s a separate levy on developers.

In December 2013, Rob Ford and Doug Ford were the only two votes against allocations for the city’s Cultural Build Investment Program, which saw $200,000 allocated to organizations like Riverdale Immigrant Women Enterprises, the Centre for Indigenous Theatre and the Armenian Community Centre.

And in June 2013, Rob Ford voted against the 2013 major cultural organizations allocation, attempting to deny grants to organizations like Artscape, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Canadian Opera Company, the National Ballet of Canada, the Toronto International Film Festival and Pride Toronto. Doug Ford, for whatever reason, voted in favour.

I could go back further, but you get the gist. There’s no consistency in the voting records. The Fords will seemingly be fine with a package of grants one year and then vote against it the next. There doesn’t seem to be any real rhyme or reason as to why they oppose some allocations. It’s governance by gut feeling.

And that’s a problem. To truly realize the value of arts spending, the city needs to do more than budget for it and maybe vote for some allocations sometimes.

It needs leadership that values and champions the arts. It needs a mayor that really understands the value of providing money to cultural organizations. It needs a mayor that will seek new revenues for the arts through avenues like the billboard tax, instead of just opposing them on tax-hating principle. It needs a mayor that understands not only the cost of investing in arts and culture, but the value of doing so.

Mostly, though, this city needs a mayor that won’t vote against things for no clear reason.

This post was originally published at on 2014-09-30T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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