The City Hall Watcher interview with Mayor John Tory

#50: Marking a milestone by asking the mayor about taxes, budgeting, labour negotiations and pie charts

Welcome to the 50th issue of City Hall Watcher. To mark the occasion, this issue features a special interview with Mayor John Tory. It’s probably the wonkiest, nerdiest, most policy-oriented interview you’ll read with the mayor this year. And I’m proud of that.

As is tradition with milestone issues, this issue is being sent free to all subscribers on the City Hall Watcher list, whether you’ve paid or not. I hope you like the interview enough to consider jumping on board. City Hall Watcher costs just $5 a month or $50 a year. It’s a bargain and a deal.

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To everyone who has supported City Hall Watcher over the first 50 issues: thank you. Indie journalism about municipal government seemed like it could be a tough sell, but you made it work. And I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. Here’s to another 50 issues.

— Matt Elliott / @GraphicMatt / /

Watcher/Talker: Mayor John Tory speaks on property taxes, budgeting, road safety, NIMBYism, labour contracts & more

I interviewed Mayor John Tory in his office on Wednesday, December 18, just a couple of hours after the conclusion of the December Council meeting. We spoke for about 50 minutes.

The transcript below has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Matt Elliott: I wanted to start with the property tax increase. It was two weeks ago you announced it and then yesterday you got the 21 to 3 Council vote, which is a good, healthy margin. When you were up there on the podium two weeks ago, what were you thinking the reaction would be — and was it different than you expected?

John Tory: No. But I distinguish between the media's reaction and what they wrote, because you're all people who are following every word spoken by me or anybody else on these subjects. And the public were not. But I think, as I've said a number of times, after a certain period of time, you either develop that trust with people or you don't. I've been here long enough now that I think they sense — most of them and it wouldn't be unanimous — that I'm unlikely to do something that I don't honestly believe is in the best interest of the city. 

And even if that involves an alteration of an approach, they would say, well, you know, we're going to take it at face value, you're telling us this is necessary for transit and housing or whatever, within reason. 

So the public reaction has been measured by two things. One is how many emails to get in the office. And two is what do you hear from people when you're out there? And I guess a third you would be, well, if the Council had been running for the hills yesterday and finding reasons to be away or something, you'd know they were hearing stuff. 

And I would just say, when you poll — which we've done. I've done it as far back as Mel Lastman, when I was a person helping him get elected. The breakdown of the population with respect to what they would like to see done with taxes has not changed. And so, when I last saw these polls before the last election, it's still divided. The single largest group will say they'll accept inflation. There's a group that says they want a freeze or reduction. And there's another group that say they would accept a bigger increase. But both those are much, much smaller.

But at the same time, when we've tested — again going way back to 2014 — the notion of a special dedicated fund for transit and housing, there's always been reasonable acceptance, not by any means unanimous, but reasonable acceptance of it. 

And I also look at the fact that I ran an election. People are talking sometimes as if this is a brand new concept. It's not. I introduced the concept during the last term and it was clearly something that was above and beyond the rate of inflation increase. But it was for a special purpose — transit and housing — and people accepted it and reelected me. And there was no question raised about it during the election. People just said, okay, we get the fact that it's something that's needed and different.

And I think what we've now done is we've really heightened the perception of the need by having three things happen: the TTC state of good repair report, the transit plan as amended by all the goings on at the province, and the housing plan

ME: You have taken some flak from guys like Marcus Gee and Royson James for not bringing this up during the election. 

JT: Yeah. But look, they're trying to make a point, I guess, about something that was widely discussed. And you'd notice they didn't say as much that the supposed sin was saying something that you then modified your approach on. They said it was that I had derided people who suggested otherwise. And, you know, I don't think any [other mayoral candidates in the 2018 election] came forward and said, well, I'd like to propose an infrastructure fund. Because I would have said, frankly, I already did that. But they were people who who said various things that allowed me to sort of say, well, they're going to take taxes through the roof. 

But look, you know what? I don't pretend to analyze why people write what they write. They're entitled to write what they write. And I'm entitled to do what I do. I'm held to account in two and a half or three years from now — if I run again — for what I've done. And people will judge me at that time. And I'm quite prepared to accept that responsibility. 

ME: I can think of one super annoying columnist who has been urging you to raise property taxes since you got elected —

JT: Urging me to raise to raise them?

ME: Yeah, that's me. 

JT: Oh, I know — I thought you were going to say the one that's been sort of dumping on me... 

ME: Oh, yeah. There are other annoying columnists too. 

JT: [Laughing] I mean, you would be on one end and she would be on the other. 

ME: [Laughing] So, for the property taxes, why now instead of back then? Was it just those three events you mentioned?

JT: No. Probably people, including you — I don't remember when we used to have these sessions over at Metro — remember I kept saying I would have to deal with it. Which was the question of not so much how do you pay for things in the operating budget, but how do you pay for the bigger ticket items, the transit, the housing? And I was asked and I said, before the election, we're going to have to deal with that. 

And of course, I didn't really have an answer and therefore didn't offer one before the election. And then after the election, it was really put into stark relief by the fact we had those three things happen.

For the first time, we had a full no holds barred transit assessment that came out publicly saying there was a $33 billion number.

We had the transit deal, which no one could have predicted would be that transit deal. But even with the old transit deal, with the relief line and whatnot, we would have had to answer the question of where was our share of the money coming from? 

And then there was the third thing that was new, the housing report, which came and until a few weeks ago, I didn't know what the total was for that. But it turned out to be 24 billion, divided by three is eight. And in our case, it was it was $3 billion more we had to find above the $5 billion that's been set aside various places in preparation. 

So I think that just brought it into stark relief. And certainly the one thing that I did say — and my staff will tell you this and the city staff will tell you — I want to deal with it now. Because I believed that it was better to deal with it now, just deal with it. And secondly, that I thought it would really strengthen my position with the other two governments.

You know, we're meeting with [federal Finance Minister] Bill Morneau and [provincial Housing Minister] Steve Clark tomorrow on housing. In my remarks, it says we have just now put in place the mechanism necessary to indicate where our money is going to come from. And we need you to do more than you've done before to help out. And I think that really strengthens my position.

On the operating budget: “I will be as steady as she goes”

ME: This push over the last couple of weeks has been all about the capital needs of the City. But when you do capital work, it ends with an operating need. If you buy 60 streetcars, you need to hire 60 drivers. So where’s the operating funding coming from? 

JT: We're going to have to confront that. I mean, I'll give you an example. We've already started talking extensively about this and we haven't had to make a decision yet, but when the Eglinton Crosstown opens, you know [applauding] good news story, fantastic. People, for a variety of reasons, will be thrilled. Transit will be there. They'll be able stop driving their cars. The construction will be over. The buses will be off Eglinton. There's 99 good reasons to be thrilled about that.

But the estimated bill for us is $50 million dollars to operate. Now you'll get maybe a little uptick in revenue from people who didn't used to use transit, but now can or want to. But you know, that's just one project, in one year — that's a point and two-thirds of property tax by itself. So we'll have to see. And there are other needs to be met. 

We've been pretty good. I mean, you don't hear me apologizing for or being defensive about what we have managed to do with an inflation-only increase in property taxes, because the fact is — and I know some people like to quarrel with this — there is a record amount being invested in the TTC today. There is more being invested in things like student nutrition and childcare. People will say not enough, but there's more being invested than ever before. We provided for solid funding for Toronto Community Housing that was never provided for before. And we put that down on paper and said that's going to be the deal on both capital and operating. And we're doing that within the context of an inflation-only increase for those areas.

And the police are getting a 3.9% increase. Some people would argue against that. But I'm just saying, when they needed it and needed extra officers, and needed to restore the traffic unit, and needed to put in community officers, we're proposing to give it to them. 

So I would just say to you that we've been here before, every year that I've been here and every year going back before I was here: you start off here with some horrific deficit and then you work your way through it. 

ME: So is there going to be some flexibility around operating budget tax increases? 

JT: I'm not suggesting that. In fact, I said yesterday in my speech in the City Council I will be as steady as she goes on the insistence that the tax increase attributable to the operating budget will be at rate of inflation or below, which it will be.

We've been working for months to make sure that's exactly the case. But I can tell you right now, knowing what I know about the budget, there are still substantial additional allocations of money to enhance programs. I mean, again, there'll be those who argue not enough and some of them may even be right. But I'm just saying there will be significant allocations and improvements to different things across the board.

And you've seen some of it. The likelihood of the TTC budget and the police budget being approved, where we have lots of representation on those boards, and then us turning around and going, oh, we're going to take all those down by half is not likely to happen. So you can see that even in those two areas that there's additional resources being provided out of an inflation-only tax increase. 

On housing: “I'm seized with a huge sense of urgency”

ME: I want to switch to housing. Because I was thinking about the differences between your first term and your second term. And one of the biggest differences I see is that, in your second term, there's this real laser focus and extra emphasis on housing. Was there something that you learned along the way?

JT: Yeah, it was called the election. I mean, I don't mean that in the sense that I felt under pressure, but, when you're out asking people, as I was, for the four or five months of that campaign, we heard the message loud and clear from people. And I had heard it before, but there was an intensity of it coming from all corners.

And so I think the thinking of the public has evolved and the thinking of me certainly evolved. The City staff will tell you, if you ask [Director of the Affordable Housing Office] Sean [Gadon] or any those people who come in and see me all the time about this, with [Councillor] Ana [Bailão], they'll tell you the only column I go to in all these spreadsheets they give you is the column headed “completion date.” And that's because I'm seized with a huge sense of urgency that you've got to get on with having the 40,000 units not come at the end of the term, but rather they have to start coming immediately. 

I think the way [the public] sensed it, not knowing the [Premier Doug] Ford intervention was coming on transit, was that we actually had the transit plan in hand, and that we were proceeding ahead. And frankly, in 2020, we would have actually had real construction going on the Relief Line and on SmartTrack and on the Scarborough Subway — all three would have been things getting built that they could see. And I think that's when they believe the transit is coming. And that was a bit of a hiccup there. But I think they thought we had that in hand. So that's why I think they were saying to us, now we want to know you have a similar plan for housing. 

ME: With Housing Now, one of the risks with the way this stuff goes is you come in with a plan for 300 units and have a community meeting and people talk about concerns about traffic and density and suddenly the plans are at risk of getting cut down a little bit — the NIMBYism factor exists. You're the only politician here elected by the entire city. Do you feel that part of your role here is to push back against that? 

JT: Yes. And I will. I mean, I've heard so far that the meetings have been kind of 50/50. You know, where you get 50% of people saying, thank goodness you're doing this, whether it's us or our children or somebody we know or whatever, we should be doing it in principle.

The other 50% —and I don't want to call them names — are expressing concern about this. And the fact is that our own planning guidelines are already affected to the extent of probably being more — I don't want to call it conservative — careful. Call it cautious. And I'll be honest with you: I explored this fall whether or not we could do more on some of those sites, because I was seized with the fact that this is an opportunity. And it's not the only one. As you heard yesterday we're already exploring the next wave of Housing Now sites — and I hope the feds and the province, by the way, will decide they're finally in. The province has done some, as you know, but the feds have done nothing. They've done the inventory of their land and they haven't identified a piece yet that they've said they'll contribute to this cause. 

But what I was told, and this is where you have to do a tradeoff, is that in many cases, if you wanted to do more than what we're proposing on those sites, you had to have a zoning change, which then puts you through a process that takes you quite a long time and creates a potential for much more divisiveness in a community where, right now, it is 50/50. And even those who are opposed are going to say, oh, we're a bit concerned about the traffic and we're a little worried about this, a little worried about that, but they're not in there really fighting a big fight against this. 

And the second thing that I wish I could do more, and I try every chance I get, is to educate people as to what affordable housing is. And the desirability and success of mixed income neighbourhoods that actually are going to be very successful. They're healthy, socially healthy. They are people who are hardworking people. Not that it should matter, but they're hardworking people who just happen to be in jobs that earn a bit less money, and, in today's Toronto, have a hard time living in the city. And so it's something to be embraced, not to be worried about.

On the pace of change: “the capacity to do that work is not unlimited”

ME: You mentioned looking at the completion date column and I do the same thing. I've written a lot over the last few years about the slow pace of things. And some of that is on housing. But some of it would also be on stuff like road safety implementations. I know that sometimes you are frustrated with the pace stuff happens around here. Do you feel like there's been improvement?

JT: I think there's been a lot of improvement, if you look at what's been done. Poor [General Manager of Transportation Services] Barbara Gray, on road safety in particular, for a period of time, for about a year, I had her bringing me every week a list of all the projects that are actually being worked on. Because I want to be able, if Matt Elliott showed up and said, "nothing's been done" I would have said, "come with me and we’ll go out to Dundas and wherever."

But it was also about just making sure that we were sort of picking up the pace as best we could, so there was always a list every week and it wasn't the same five things that were on six or eight or ten weeks ago. And I think with the bigger stuff, it's harder because the capacity to do that work is not unlimited. You can't be doing 50 of those at a time. You know, you can do a certain number at a time.

But I would say if you looked at the capacity that we have demonstrated to actually put in the red light cameras, paint the lines, change the speed limits — where again, we don't get enough recognition of the fact we've changed hundreds of speed limits all over the city — and now we’re deploying the photo radar. Is it is it ever fast enough? No. But I mean, the photo radar was particularly frustrating because it wasn't our slowness and it was elsewhere. But fine. We're just pushing, pushing and pushing to get these things done as quickly as we can.

On the 2020 capital budget: “it's either a budgeting problem or a spending problem or both”

ME: One of the things in the Ernst & Young report that I was interested in was this capacity to spend stuff on the capital side. You budget a certain amount for all these capital lines, but then departments turn around and find they can't actually spend it all in the time period allotted. Is there some strategy around that?

JT: Yes. And you'll see it's going to get quite a bit of attention in the budget. The big problem we identified is at two ends. It's a budgeting problem. If it's historically been the case that for ten years you've dramatically over-budgeted the amount, maybe the problem was you never could responsibly spend it any faster, because there's only so much you can do in a year. Or it’s that you were setting the budget properly, in terms of all the things that had been authorized and that you thought you could do, and then somehow you actually couldn't get the work done.

And so we're going to be addressing it at all ends and looking at this thing and saying the bottom line is that you have to get to the stage where you are spending more than, say, 60%, which is one of the low end kind of departments — at 60% [of capital budget spent in a year].

It's interesting because on the megaprojects that are being done by Toronto Water and so on, they are up around 80% and they're proud of that, as well they should be. But departments are spending a huge amount of time at the request of myself and [Budget Chief] Gary Crawford to look at that, because it is clearly a problem of some kind. And it leads to an inability to really assess how the government's performing because it's either a budgeting problem or a spending problem or both. And it leads you to not really know how you're doing in the context of what is expected that we should get done.

So I think you'll find in the budget there will be quite a lot of attention paid to the issue and some changes that we can make to make sure that the budget number and the spending number come closer together, not because you made up numbers, but because you actually sort of improved your habits at both ends. And we've proven in one very successful, and I think, well-managed department of the government that you can spend at 80% without looking like you're being irresponsible. Some might argue that number should be 95%. That's what they should be trying for. But even at 80%, it's getting up at a range that's more acceptable and that department is considered to be well-run. So therefore, well, okay, why is it possible there when it's not possible here? 

ME: Is it possible some of it's a workforce problem in the city, in terms of not having adequate numbers of people to get the job done?

JT: You might believe that if it weren't for the fact that a huge amount of this work is contracted out. I think a lot of what we've discovered is that it was the contract administration system that was severely flawed. In that what you had, for example, in road paving or road repair, was contracts that were being let in, like, July. And that maybe what you have to do is shift that back so that if, you know that Dixon Road is going to be resurfaced in 2020, you actually have that contract let in December or November. So that then when spring comes, you're darn sure that the whole list of things for the RFP and the procurement is all done.

The argument that's made, of course — and some people would say this is a valid argument, but I would say it's questionable in the great scheme of things — is that how can you possibly have the RFP for the road project in question if you haven't approved the budget yet? And that's a valid point. It's a valid question, because if the $2 million for that road resurfacing is in the 2020 budget, well, the solution to me is if you have — which we do — a ten year capital plan and something is in there, you say that you're going to count that as being in the budget so you can do your RFP in November so that the contract can be [started] the minute spring comes and they can get out to work. And then they won't fall behind and have the sort of mushroom pressuring effect, where by the time you get to this time of year, they're scrambling around. 

On labour negotiations: “We're very anxious and determined to reach a collective agreement with our employees”

ME:  Speaking of the workforce, labour contracts are up December 31 — that's soon. Are you worried about what could result from that? 

JT:  We're very anxious and determined to reach a collective agreement with our employees, and in my time we've been successful. I guess a couple of small exceptions. We had a bit of a problem with the zoo and we had a small, tiny little thing with the library. But when I say small, I mean they didn't last very long. So that's our objective. And we've been working at that.

And as you've seen, the discussion started some time ago. But we also have to make sure that we prepare for the possibility of a labour disruption, because that's the responsible thing for us to do. So those preparations have gone on and they go on because you can't plan on two days notice to have a plan in place in case there's a labor disruption.

And I will just say that the talks are going on and we don't negotiate through the media and that there is a kind of a certain rhythm to these talks that have the universe unfold as it should. And that, I'm sure, will happen in this case.

The head of the Labour Relations Committee, Deputy Mayor [Denzil] Minnan-Wong, has very clear direction from the Labour Relations Committee and from me that we're going to strive hard to get a settlement because, you know what? These people do a good job for us. But they understand that I take exactly the same postures I took the last time, which is the deal that we reach has to be a deal that's fair to the taxpayers and fair to the workers. It's got to be both. And, you know, they also know me, I'm sure now after all this time, they know that I'm not a person that's gonna be trying to prove a point with unions. I respect the unions. And I respect the work they do. They do a good job for us. But the deal has to be fair.

So we're working towards that. I guess we'll see.

On charts: “Pie charts, to me, are not as useful”

ME: The last question is from a reader, and this is a bit ridiculous, but they want to know — you read a lot of reports, there are a lot of charts in them. What's your favourite kind of chart? A pie chart. Bar chart. Line graph. Scatterplot? 

JT:  I'll tell you, pie charts... you know it's an odd question, but it's an interesting question, if you think about it.

Pie charts, to me, are not as useful because they tell you a set of facts about how a dollar is divided up or something, but they don't really tell you a trend line — I mean, it's a pie chart. I mean, if there's two together it can sometimes tell you something. And so I find those sort of, you know, useful, but not as useful as I find a line graph actually — probably the most useful.

You can graph a line, and it tells you a trend. I'm always looking for a trend. A trend that either tells you a problem is getting bigger or it's getting smaller. A trend that tells you the satisfaction of the people you represent is either getting higher or getting lower. That your spending per person is either going up or going down. Whereas a pie chart just doesn't... — It's a static thing. It just says, well, this is the way it was.

So if I had to answer your question, I'd say something that tells you a trend line over a period of years or over a variety of groups. I find those very interesting. When you divide down North York versus Scarborough, or this community versus that, it tells you dramatic differences and you can say, why is that? Why does this exist? Especially if it has to do with how we deliver services. Then you want to say, why is that? 

City Hall Watcher #50

Thanks for reading! And thanks to Mayor John Tory for accommodating my interview request and thinking very seriously about the problems with pie charts. I agree. They suck.

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