At this point, it’s easy enough to chronicle Mayor Rob Ford’s propensity to say and do the wrong thing as it pertains to his astonishing personal misconduct. So perhaps it’s natural that observers have turned their sights towards his economic claims to uncover a similar web of misadventure. Everywhere you look—in the Star, in the Globe, on Newstalk 1010—someone is nitpicking the mayor’s claims about his own record. Even the city manager, Joe Pennachetti, got into the act last month, calling B.S. on the mayor’s oft-repeated boast to have “saved” $1 billion. Pennachetti says actual efficiency savings are more like $400 million—a little less than what David Miller saved during his second four-year-term.
But this is where the critique stops short. Because even as former Ford supporters have been eager to say they were wrong about the mayor as a man, they still remain loyal to the Ford Agenda. That is, they still believe in “fiscal responsibility.”
In a column last weekend, the Sun’s Lorrie Goldstein dusted off an old critique of the Miller administration, detailing how Ford slowed the growth of government spending, even if he didn’t deliver the savings he boasted about. Goldstein and others say that during seven years of Miller, the city budget grew 44 per cent—a wasteful beast that galloped unrestrained, trampling taxpayers.
The problem is that number is evidence of precisely nothing. Spending doesn’t necessarily equal waste, which is obvious when you consider an average family. My own family budget has gone up by roughly 100 per cent since I had kids and bought a house, but this isn’t evidence of waste. In fact, these days, we throw away far less money on bar tabs, late-night cabs, and decadent brunches than we did before. We’ve spent more, and more sustainably, on the short- and long-term needs of our growing family. Not a bad thing to do, for a family or a city.
But that 44-per-cent-growth-under-Miller story proves even less, actually. The increase was in the gross budget, which includes services the province forces the city to deliver, even the ones the province pays for. If the province says the city needs to deliver a billion dollars worth of services, and then sends the city a cheque to cover the cost, that counts as growth in the city’s gross budget, even though property taxpayers aren’t dinged for it.
The net budget—which is what the city government pays for out of its own property-tax revenues—grew, but at a slower rate of just over 20 per cent. As Matt Elliott of Metro has shown, during Miller’s term, ridership on the TTC grew by almost 25 per cent as service was improved. Consequently, more than 2,000 staff were hired to drive all those extra buses. The police department hired new officers, too, and the fire department and EMS expanded. If you subtract the growth in TTC, police, fire, and ambulance services, the city’s net budget barely grew at all—it actually shrunk, if you account for inflation.
I’m not rehashing these stats to defend Miller, but to point out that not only is the big claim about increased spending misleading, a more fine-grained complaint about budget growth would also be misguided. In a growing, thriving city, investing in necessary services is not fiscally irresponsible. In fact, it’s the opposite: Investing in the things that preserve prosperity and facilitate growth is fiscally prudent—and in a city where gridlock is the most pressing issue, expanding transit is necessary.
In the name of being “fiscally conservative,” Ford has done the opposite—he’s decreased the TTC’s subsidy, causing service levels to be rolled back to 2004 levels. He does this as he throws away more than a billion dollars to build an unnecessary and inferior Scarborough subway extension. That kind of budget decision—and the thinking that leads to it—is reckless. It’s a recipe for decline.
It’s been reassuring to see those who were fooled by Ford’s bumbling charm recognize that his dishonest and disturbing personal conduct makes him unfit for office. But many continue to pledge allegiance to the Ford agenda, buying his simple-minded lies about how the city’s budget works. They’ve abandoned the incompetent man, but still subscribe to his incompetent ideas. The realization that Ford’s platform was as toxic as his habits lies ahead; it cannot come soon enough.