The stammering. The odd pauses. The awkward monotone which somehow still manages to sound plaintive. To call Rob Ford’s YouTube video a spectacularly disastrous bit of politicking is frankly redundant, because everybody else has already done that, and it’s not like Rob Ford is new to the creation of bad YouTube videos.
But it shouldn’t be about Ford sitting at his desk, flashing back to the D-minus he presumably got in public speaking when he was in grade school. If we’re going to talk about anything, we should talk about his ideas. For all that he spent much of the speech dithering in his usual brand of nonspecific I Can’t Believe That’s Not A Specific Promise promises, Ford actually outlined something resembling an actual economic plan for the city in this video. Not quite a proper one, but if we make some assumptions from key sentences and do his math for him, we can get an idea of what Rob Ford wants to do for Toronto. That’s important—much more important than his diction.
Ford’s speech boils down to four basic promises.
Promise one: reducing the size of city council.
Ford stopped mentioning this idea for a while; we all figured he’d gotten tired of having it pointed out that the idea was stupid, but no, apparently he was just giving it a bit of a breather so he could bring it back, much like Torontoist plans to bring back the Dream Warriors so they can tour again. (Younger readers: ask your parents.)
Let’s be blunt: Ford’s “chop city council in half” plan will never, ever happen. It will not happen because the City of Toronto Act gives decision-making power to city council, and one of the decisions city council gets to make is—big shock—how big city council will be. (Within limits: it can’t be smaller than five people.) In order for Ford to fulfill this campaign promise, he essentially has to get half of city council to voluntarily quit their jobs. You know, the jobs about which he’s been complaining are too cushy for the past decade. Ford doesn’t have the votes to reform city council and he never will, thanks to a decade of systematically alienating just about everyone on it: even those councillors who might be ideologically inclined to vote for a smaller council would probably get scared off by the fact that it would inevitably come across as a naked power grab (hint: Ford’s allies on city council probably won’t be the ones losing their jobs).
Furthermore, Ford glosses over the fact that the City of Toronto Act also states that any change to the composition of council enacted by Council doesn’t take place until after the next election, so really, none of these glorious savings show up until 2015. (He cleverly plays off this by saying that in 2015, Toronto will have the chance to elect an “all-star team.” Nothing like waiting for four years.)
By the way, since this is mentioned in the context of Ford’s plan to cut spending, each city councillor gets a salary of $99,619, a staff budget of $207,584 and an office budget of $50,445. That’s a total of $357,648 per councillor, and at twenty-two councillors cut, that makes a total of a little under $7.9 million in savings, or against the current $8.7 billion budget, 0.09%. His first plank in his “savings” platform isn’t even a single penny on the city dollar.
Promise two: reducing the city workforce through attrition.
Ford’s been pushing this at recent debates, mostly because unlike many of his promises, this one sounds vaguely plausible. Granted, he misunderstands the concept of a hiring freeze (it’s typically not “don’t replace people who leave,” but rather “don’t create new positions”), but possibly they didn’t cover that at the five hours a week he works at his family’s company which gave him all his private sector experience.
Anyway, Ford promises to lower salary costs by 3% per year, by hiring only half the people he needs to staff city positions. (Again, this is not exactly square with the idea of “excellent customer service,” but we are strictly talking money right now.) That portion of Toronto’s salaries budget for 2009 is 3% of approximately four billion dollars, or about $120 million. The year after that, cutting another 3%, Ford’s plan cuts another $116 million. The next year, $113 million. And in year four, $109 million. That totals up to $458 million over four years.
Of course, nobody can keep up the “only hire half the staff you need” plan forever because eventually you hit the point where that simply isn’t feasible. But let’s assume that there is enough bloat in the city’s staffing to accommodate his plan. $458 million over four years isn’t nothing, so let’s pin it up on the wall next to that $7.9 from city council chopping.
Promise three: spending cuts.
Shockingly, Ford complains about the city spending too much and then, in his detailed plan that he has been promising for months would answer all questions, says absolutely nothing specific.
Well, almost nothing specific. Ford does say that he would implement the recommendations made by the Board of Trade and David Miller’s own blue-ribbon panel, which issued an extensive report on the city’s troubled finances in 2007 [PDF].
Of course, what Ford doesn’t mention is what’s actually in those documents. The Board of Trade’s recommendations, issued in its “Bridging The Chasm” report [PDF], total $265 million over two years through the 3% attrition plan (we’ve got it at more like $230 million, as you can see above), but we’re already counting that so Ford doesn’t get to count it twice. The Board says it can save $104 million over four years on garbage service reform (not the “fifty million dollars a year” Ford claims); let’s count that, even though the Board doesn’t actually say how we’re supposed to, like, do that or anything. (This is pretty standard for a lot of the Board’s savings ideas, really, but we’re trying to be nice.)
The Board says it can save $270 million by keeping Police Services costs from rising as fast as they currently do, but whoops, Ford’s said repeatedly he wants to hire a lot of new police so it doesn’t seem likely he’ll lower police cost increases by the 3% he needs to get the Board-asserted savings, not even if he goes and scrubs those dirty cells himself. So let’s not count those savings. It seems fair.
TTC salary reforms, $250 million. Competitive bidding, $46 million. Debt reduction, $55 million. Procurement reform, $100 million. “Catch The Little Things” (i.e., get everybody to look really, really hard for waste, like under the sofa or the like): $17 million. All told, once you get rid of the police services savings Ford’s made clear you’re not going to get, that’s $572 million over four years.
As for David Miller’s blue-ribbon panel recommendations, the city has already implemented just about everything from that report that it already can (the rest is stuff like “partner with the province” and other generalities that don’t offer specific savings but sound good and aren’t bad ideas if you can manage them). Ford saying he’ll do that too isn’t particularly revolutionary or noteworthy.
So, $572 million over four years. Not bad. But Ford claims that it will save two billion dollars over the same timeframe. There is only one problem with this: Rob Ford is promising four times as much savings as the Board of Trade thinks he can deliver with these measures. (And let’s be honest: the Board of Trade isn’t a neutral party without an agenda, and even if they’re right, we’re using idealized projections right now, not the hard numbers we’ll actually get once we put these ideas into motion.)
Promise four: a “saving the city program.”
This is basically that “Catch the Little Things” program we mentioned above, so Ford is just repeating himself at this point. This is a trend, because he’s been repeating himself all campaign, so much so that it seems banal to mention it, but…hey, let’s mention it again.
So, let’s do the math. $572 million from all Board of Trade–identified potential savings. $458 million from attrition savings. $7.9 million from city council cutting. That’s a total of $1.038 billion in savings! And hey, Ford’s promised a billion dollars in tax cuts! It all works! Hooray for Rob Ford!
…if Rob Ford phases his revenue cuts over four years, at the same rate he gets the savings. Except, of course, that he’s already promised—repeatedly—that all his revenue cuts will get passed his first year in office. So that probably doesn’t work. But if he suddenly has an attack of good sense, it can still work…
…if city revenues remain stable. If he can get City Council to actually pass any of this. If he gets every single dollar of these hypothetical savings and nobody fights him on any of it. (The TTC union will no doubt be pleased as punch to discover that Ford plans to cut their salaries by attrition to the tune of $250 million over four years.) If the Board of Trade hasn’t drastically overstated the savings that can be gained from procurement reform and competitive bidding, as other candidates have asserted. If there aren’t any unforeseen expenses, like, for example, a sudden rash of devastating five-alarm fires in the heart of downtown. If the province doesn’t react to Ford’s attrition cuts in the services it assists in funding by lowering its monetary transfers to the city in response. if…well, you can play the “all of the problems that might happen” game all night long and never run out of possibilities.
And, of course, we’re assuming that Ford wants to do absolutely everything that the Board of Trade demands, which, of course, he doesn’t; his transit plan alone has the potential to completely break the bank, even before we realize that he doesn’t appear to be on board with the Board (ahem) on certain types of spending cuts, because like most fiscal conservatives, Ford doesn’t have a problem with spending the city’s money on things of which he personally approves, like more cops or subways or high school football.
In short, Rob Ford’s entire plan comes down to how competent he personally can be at the job of mayoring. His savings plan essentially demands that he be absolutely perfect at it, because his revenue cuts have left him precisely zero room for error or possibly even less, no matter how many times he insists he’s found $2.8 billion in spending cuts (not even close). Now take a look at that YouTube video again. Remember that a major part of mayoring is public speaking. How confident are you in Rob Ford’s ability to be mayor right now?
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As pointed out by a reader, we made a calculation error: $7.9 million savings in a $8.7 billion budget is 0.09% and not, as we originally stated, 0.009%.