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Matt Elliott: Four years later, the most enduring Ford legacy is as a cautionary tale

Then Mayor Rob Ford, left, listens to his brother and campaign manager Doug Ford during a commercial break as Rob takes part in a live TV debate leading up to the 2014 Toronto municipal election.
Then Mayor Rob Ford, left, listens to his brother and campaign manager Doug Ford during a commercial break as Rob takes part in a live TV debate leading up to the 2014 Toronto municipal election.

When former mayor David Miller left the job in 2010, he practically gift-wrapped Toronto City Hall for his successor.

There was an operating budget surplus of about $350 million. Hard-won new taxes, including a tax on real-estate transfers, had stabilized the city’s revenue. TTC ridership was breaking records. The provincial government, amazingly, had committed to funding $8 billion in transit projects.

The city still faced challenges, but there was an obvious path forward — a path to fiscal sustainability and a path to city building.

Then the Fords happened.

Miller’s successor was, of course, the late Rob Ford. His brother Doug Ford — recently picked as leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party — came with him, elected as councillor for Etobicoke North. They were a package deal.

They used the big operating budget surplus to offer voters a hasty one-time property-tax freeze. They also eliminated one of Miller’s new taxes — a fee attached to vehicle registration — with no plan to replace the revenue.

Suddenly the city’s stabilizing fiscal situation became very unstable.

Meanwhile, TTC service was slashed, despite all the ridership growth gained through investment in service during Miller’s tenure. And yet still transit riders were asked to pay more; fares rose in three of the four Ford years.

But the worst bit was probably their deal-making on transit. A belief by the Fords that Miller’s transit plans were part of a nefarious “war on the car” led to chaotic renegotiations.

As a result, virtually every transit project was delayed. An attempt to prove the private sector would pay for a suburban subway extension ended with a report concluding that the private sector would not pay for a suburban subway extension.

Worried that the Fords were putting the future of Toronto transit at risk, the TTC board revolted, voting to essentially revert to Miller’s transit plan.

The only major change – beyond delays, cost increases and an $85-million penalty paid to the provincial government – was the Scarborough Subway, which the supposedly anti-tax Fords voted to fund with a 30-year property-tax levy.

The cost-cutting efforts didn’t go much better. The first attempt came through hiring consulting firm KPMG to conduct a review of city services and find savings. They found little waste and recommended closing some libraries. The public hated it.

With that effort failed, the Fords next simply demanded that departments cut their budgets by 10 per cent. There was no nuance or strategy to it. They just cut.

The decision to constrain spending and limit revenue growth is still being felt, as Toronto slides toward billion-dollar budget gaps and struggles to deal with demand for homeless shelters and recreation programs.

Note here what I haven’t mentioned: the drugs. With Doug Ford back in the spotlight at the provincial level, there’s some revisionist history going around suggesting that the Fords were capable conservative leaders marred by the personal struggles of a mayor battling addiction.

It’s not true. The Ford story is not a story of personal scandal. It’s a story of bad governance. Four years later, the most enduring legacy of the Fords at city hall is not a policy or a project — it’s a cautionary tale. It’s a warning sign, urging us not to go down this road again.

This post was originally published at on 2018-03-19T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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