February 20, 2001
Is there a way out of Toronto’s financial mess? Many city politicians, Mayor Mel Lastman being the most vocal, have suggested that the costs from amalgamation leave them with little choice but to raise taxes, cut services, freeze wages, and throw entire fleets of limousine drivers on to the unemployment rolls.
This has led to angry denunciations from both sides, with accusations of betrayal, lying, and looking like a monkey.
But it doesn’t have to be that way, argues environmentalist and urban activist Lawrence Solomon. Downloading has been a huge financial burden, he agrees, but it also "represents an enormous transfer of wealth to the city — the city has, for example, acquired clear title to Toronto Hydro, which is worth $1-billion, and perhaps as much as $2-billion.
And then the are the additional roads that Toronto now owns. Roads that have to be salted, plowed, patched, and repaved-all of which has to be paid for by the city. But why not transform them into "wealth generators asks Solomon, or collection systems, making drivers pay for their upkeep.
"There are enormous opportunities the city has if it turned its attention to capitalizing on its assets. Instead its focus is on pleading with federal and provincial governments for help, pointing fingers everywhere. Now there’s some validity to that, but it’s just not productive.
Productive, no, but entirely predictable.
Governments, especially city governments, have a lamentable record for protecting the genuine interests of their constituents. Solomon points out that the proposed Spadina Expressway was championed by all seven Metropolitan Toronto governments in the 1970s. It was only the determined opposition of local residents, assisted by the provincial government, finally killed what would have been an urban atrocity.
Even the perennial problem of homelessness, he argues, has been aided and abetted by urban policies. Homelessness is not, as the right would have it, a problem of mental illness. And it is not, as the left would have it, an issue about greedy developers and the failure of the market.
Rather, argues Solomon, "a lot of homelessness was created simply because the stock of low-quality inexpensive housing that used to exist in cities was destroyed. And with the destruction of hundreds of thousands of living units – all at the bottom end – people were simply forced off and into streets.
Government continues to exacerbate the problem. Mississauga outlaws inexpensive basement flats. And poor people are often unable to collect welfare if they try to cut costs by moving in with friends or family members.
There are signs that Toronto’s financial crisis might actually push politicians to champion some of Solomon’s ideas – more out of necessity than conviction. The Toronto Star recently came out in favour of contracting out garbage services. Water utilities are also up for consideration. And even Toronto Hydro might end up privatized.
But Lawrence Solomon isn’t holding his breath. He loves cities. He just hates what politicians do to them.
Part One: TO’s woes