Despite refusing to acknowledge the crack scandal that won’t go away and overshadows everything he does, the mayor has been out campaigning for re-election, and it looks like the central plank in his 2014 platform will be a line of billion-dollar BS. That is, Mayor Rob Ford and his brother Doug have been proudly, repeatedly claiming that he’s “saved” taxpayers in Toronto $1 billion since he got elected. It’s a lie. A bald-faced, outright lie that he seems to think he can get away with by simply repeating it again and again. Here’s the truth: Torontonians are paying more today in taxes and fees than they were on the day Ford was elected. And the city is now spending more on programs and services than it was under David Miller. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of that, except that Ford is claiming the opposite.
So what about that billion-dollar boast? For weeks now, people have been scratching their heads trying to figure out how he came up with the number. Finally, this past weekend, he offered some math on his radio show—and relayed it on Twitter via his communications assistant Amin Massoudi—but his numbers do nothing to help make the case. Ford counts user-fee decreases as a savings, and then counts user-fee increases as a savings, too. He selectively tallies some labour deals for $89 million in savings, but doesn’t mention the $27-million-per-year cost of his banner raise to police officers nor the tens of million more that TTC workers will get as a direct result of his plan to make the TTC an essential service. He counts savings from office-expense budgets but doesn’t mention increased costs in other areas. In essence, he’s just pulled a bunch of unrelated and sometimes contrasting numbers from the budget and added them together to make $1 billion.
But the line items he cites and the ones he doesn’t cite are just noise. If we’re talking about cutting spending, the total budget is what matters, and that’s gone up. In 2010, when Ford was elected, the city’s gross operating budget was $9.214 billion. In 2013, it was $9.433 billion. The budget—the amount of taxpayer dollars being spent—has increased by $219 million.*
If, instead, we wanted to talk about saving taxpayers money, we could look at tax and fee rates. The only number on Ford’s list that would actually be useful in a claim he’s “saved” taxpayers money is the $200 million over four years from ending the vehicle registration tax—that’s the only money that people could notice by looking at their bank account. Ford cut that fee, but since then he’s upped all kinds of others to more than make up the revenue: City finance staff estimated in 2012 that new and increased user fees implemented in Ford’s budgets would cost taxpayers more than $20 million a year. TTC fare hikes of five and 10 cents over two years cost taxpayers who take transit an additional $45 million dollars per year combined. So Rob Ford cut the fee for driving a car by about $50 million per year, then raised fees for parents using parks facilities and people riding subways, among other things, by $65 million a year. Total net cost to “the taxpayer”—since Ford insists there is only one—is $15 million per year. He also raised property taxes, which are about $179 million more in 2013 than they were in 2010.
I’ve already heard and read plenty of people parroting Rob Ford’s entirely fictional claim—just as they repeated his imaginary claims about a gravy train wasting billions of dollars last time around. It was hard to counter the waste rhetoric because it was so unspecific, but because he’s shown his math this time, we can see he’s failing at basic arithmetic.
To recap: The city’s surplus this year is smaller than Miller’s was in 2010. City spending has gone up about $200 million per year under Ford, and he’s increased the taxes and fees Torontonians pay to the city by about $200 million per year as well. We can debate whether taxes and spending could have or should have gone up more, and we can debate whether this is the best way to measure the city’s health. But there’s really no debate about one thing: Ford’s billion-dollar boast is a flat-out lie.
BUDGET SURPLUSES, BY YEAR
2006: $93.6 million
2007: $95 million
2008: $88 million
2009: $354.8 million
2010: $367 million
2011: $292 million
2012: $248 million
CORRECTION, JUNE 14, 2013: An earlier version of this article stated the 2013 gross operating budget was $9.405 billion, an increase of $191 million since 2010. This was actually the budget from 2012. The correct rounded budget number for 2013 has been inserted, and the subsequent math corrected. We regret the error.