Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Is city's bag tax a bust? Councillor wants details on 5 cents levy

Four months into the 5 cents plastic bag tax, one city councillor is demanding answers on the bylaw's success.

Michael Walker wants to know how the city is measuring its success, how it's being enforced and if any fines have been issued to businesses for breaking it. His questions are on the agenda for the two-day city council meeting set to start today.

"This thing has been going on a long time and it's now spreading out into the province and I want to know, are we carrying out on the other side?" Walker said.

Estimates are that Torontonians use 460 million plastic bags a year, which cost the city $1 million annually to process even though the bags have been recyclable since December of last year.

Retailers who don't charge for the bags could face a $100 to $300 fine, city officials say.

The program, which is expected to put $10 million annually into retailers' pockets because the city doesn't collect the fee, was to be reviewed after one year.

But Walker worries that, like other environmental bylaws, there's no enforcement.

He likened the bag tax to the city's anti-idling bylaw.

"There's not enforcement, just a twice a year blitz ... that's the height of hypocrisy," he said. "It's not a very enviable record for a politician if they pass all this stuff and then they don't carry through."

Toronto Mayor David Miller used the City of Toronto Act, which allows the municipality to protect the environment, to pass the bylaw.

Savings to be spent: City $33.2M from summer strike

Next year's planned 9% water-rate hike and a 2% increase in garbage bin fees will go ahead even though this summer's 39-day municipal workers strike saved the city $33.2 million.

City officials issued a report recommending Toronto councillors forget about giving rebates to taxpayers to make up for service disruptions arising from this summer's labour dispute. They're urging councillors to use the cash to help ease next year's budget crunch.

"I'm absolutely not in favour of what's being suggested," said Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby, who earlier this week resigned from Toronto Mayor David Miller's executive committee.

Lindsay Luby said the savings could be passed on as a tax credit, which would appear as one line on residents' tax bills.

Using savings to ease next year's budget crunch is worrisome, added Lindsay Luby, who said she fears free-spending councillors will "say 'whoopee' we have" millions of dollars more to use.

But keeping the savings until next year means taxpayers will get a break as a result of the strike, Miller insisted.

"This savings will be put towards keeping taxes down next year," he told reporters yesterday. "I think all we can really say is they (taxes) will be almost 3% less than they otherwise would be because of the savings."

He wouldn't say whether he'll be able to keep the tax hike in line with inflation, as he has pledged to do in his election campaigns.

"Next year's budget is extremely difficult, and we'll have to see the budget as it comes forward," he said.

According to the report, the majority of strike savings are the result of wages and benefits not being paid to the pickets. The garbage bin fee hike will increase annual charges by $4 for a small bin, $5 for a medium bin, $7 for a large bin, and $8 for an extra-arge bin. Revenue is earmarked for new programs needed to divert 70% of Toronto's trash from landfill through such means as recycling programs by next year.

City staff point out the 2% hike, which will generate $4.8 million for City Hall, is less than the 3.5% hike initially forecast last year.

Councillor Mike Del Grande said since garbage was the most aggravating issue in the strike, the savings could be used to offset the trash bin fee increase.

"The average person would ask, 'You inconvenience me for 39 days, you're not giving me a rebate, you said you saved money on the strike ... Why don't you apply the savings to my (garbage bin fee) increase next year?' " he said.

During the strike, City Hall refunded $7.4 million in fees paid for Parks and Recreation programs that were cancelled.



The City of Toronto saved $33.2 million as a result of this summer's 39-day municipal strike. Here are some of the extra costs, savings and lost revenue associated with the strike:

- Solid Waste saved $7.8 million in salaries.

- Solid Waste paid its non-union staff $4.4 million in overtime during the strike.

- Solid Waste paid unionized employees $776,000 in overtime once they returned to work.

- Toronto Water non-unionized staff earned $7.6 million in overtime.

- In total, the city's 4,000 non-union staff collected $25.2 million in overtime.

- The city saved $86.8 million in total by not paying the salaries of wages of striking workers.

- Extra security cost the city $5.1 million.

- Managing the 27 temporary dumps around the city, as well as pest control at those sites, cost $3.1 million.

- The city spent $274,000 on advertising during the strike.

- The city paid Harbour Tours Inc. $204,000 to ferry island residents to and from the mainland.

- Parks, Forestry and Recreation lost $15.8 million in revenue.

- Solid Waste missed out on $2.1 million in revenue.

- Court Services lost $615,000 because of red-light camera charges not processed.

- Marriage licensing and the city's wedding chamber lost $110,000 in revenue.

Lindsay Luby tied to Miller: Holyday

It may be too late for Councillor Gloria Lindsay Luby to distance herself from Mayor David Miller, according to one of her Etobicoke colleagues on city council.

Lindsay Luby, who represents Etobicoke Centre (Ward 4), resigned from Miller's executive committee, saying she was growing "increasingly frustrated" with the city's direction.

But Doug Holyday -- Lindsay Luby's mayor while they were both on Etobicoke council prior the creation of an amalgamated Toronto on Jan. 1, 1998 -- said she may have supported Miller for too long to be able to distance herself from him now.

"She got elected in central Etobicoke as a fiscal conservative, but she went to City Hall and, in effect, crossed the floor," Holyday said.

He called her a "loyal Miller supporter," who was on the mayor's "socialist team."

But Lindsay Luby denied her move had anything to do with the vote, and she said she isn't worried about it, nor her reputation as a conservative.

"That's what I am. I even carry a card," she said. "I have always had a strong plurality ... I think results speak for themselves."

Lindsay Luby said she made the decision to resign from the mayor's hand-picked executive committee, as well as her chairmanship of the city's government management committee, after this summer's 39-day municipal strike and a decision by senior staff to withhold information about a $200-million accounting error regarding the city's sick-bank liability.

"I have always tried to be a team player because of the need for council to work together," she said. "The mayor wanted me on board because I would bring a different point of view, which I tried to do many, many times."

Miller said Lindsay Luby's decision was "regrettable."

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Councillor wants bag tax answers

Four months into the five-cent plastic bag tax, one city councillor is demanding
 answers on the bylaw's success.

Councillor Michael Walker
 said has told city manager Joe Pennachetti he wants to know how the city is measuring the success of the new bylaw, how
 many bags have been charged for under the bylaw, how often businesses will 
report to the city on the nickel-bags they've sold, how licensing is 
enforcing the bylaw and if any fines have been issued to businesses for
 breaking the bylaw.

The inquiry is on the agenda for the two-day city council meeting set to
 start tomorrow.

"This thing has been going on a long time and it's now spreading out into
 the province and I want to know, are we carrying out on the other side," Walker said.

Estimates are that Torontonians use 460 million plastic bags a year, which cost the city $1 million annually to process even though the bags have been recyclable since December of last year.

Retailers who don't charge for the bags could face a $100 to $300 fine, according to city officials.

The program, which is expected to put $10 million annually into retailers pockets because the city doesn't collect the fee, was to be reviewed after one year.

But Walker worries that, with like other of the city's environmental bylaws, there is no enforcement.

He likened the bag tax to the city's anti-idling bylaw.

"There's no enforcement, just a twice-a-year blitz...that's the height of

 hypocrisy," he said. "It's not a very enviable record for a politician if they pass all this stuff and then they don't carry through."

Toronto Mayor David Miller used the City of Toronto Act, which allows the city to protect the environment, to pass the bylaw.

Also coming up at this week's council meeting is a proposal to allow Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to spend $5.5 million to install real grass at BMO field, move the winter bubble to Lamport Stadium, and to install an artificial turf field at Lakeshore Collegiate.

The changes are to help attract top-level international soccer at BMO field, according to city documents.

Also, council will debate creating 20 new downtown on-street parking spots which would all be reserved for car-share companies ZipCar and Auto-Share as part of a one-year pilot project.

The new spots being added to city streets, approved at this month's public works and infrastructure committee, will be located on Ed Mirvish Way, as well as Emily, Jordan, Mutual, and Gould Sts.

ZipCar and Auto-Share are paying $200 for each of their respective new spots to cover the administrative costs of creating and enforcing the parking spaces.

The issue is expected to cause some debate on council, because although the committee approved the pilot project unanimously, some councillors disagree with the idea, or the price.

Councillor Mike Del Grande said there is a "fairness" issue at play because the city is helping two private car-rental companies and leaving others who don't offer rentals by the hour in the cold.

"We are not in the business of helping people own cars. That's not our role,"

Del Grande said recently. "When we go out of our way to help private companies at the expense of other private companies, I think there's a fairness issue."

Car-sharing companies offer their members hourly car rentals, and estimate that for each car they put on the road to be shared, 14.9 cars come off the road. Currently, car-sharing cars are parked in parking lots near public transit routes.

Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, who is concerned the city won't be able to monitor the program properly to measure whether it actually reduces cars on city streets, said recently the two private companies benefitting from the program should be paying more money.

"They should pay the going rate," he said, noting just because council supports what the companies do, they shouldn't "give away" valuable on-street parking spots for less than they are worth.

"We may not be driving the car, but we sure are being taken for a ride," he said.

Don't expect tax refund from strike savings

This summer's 39-day municipal strike saved City Hall $33.2 million — but don't expect a cheque for your troubles.

City officials are instead recommending those savings be used to balance next year's operating budget.

In a report released Tuesday, city officials are recommending the savings be set aside for next year's budget.

In the report, city staff say issuing taxpayers a refund would cost money to implement and note that many tax-funded services — like police, fire, library, and TTC — were not disrupted during the strike.

Non-union staff raked in $25 million working overtime during the strike, and unionized staff made $1.2 million mostly cleaning up the mess afterwards with overtime hours.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Mammo Mia Mayor: Will Giorgio run? Mammoliti first out the gate in race for city's top job

How about Mayor Mammo?

Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti yesterday became the first member of Mayor David Miller's hand-picked executive committee to say he's interested in running for Toronto's top municipal job in the November 2010 election.

"There are people who are asking, and when you get the phone calls and you take a look at the types of people that are asking you to run, you do wonder whether it's time," he said yesterday. "I guess now is the opportunity to think about this."

Mammoliti has been a full-time politician since voters sent him to Queen's Park in 1990 to serve as a member of former NDP premier Bob Rae's government as a representative for Yorkview.

The 48-year-old councillor said if he runs, his platform will focus on getting tough on crime and gangs, helping seniors, and restoring services to the suburbs.

He also said it's "no secret" he would take the city in a different direction than Miller, shifting it to the "right, somewhat."

Though he hasn't talked to the mayor in the past few days, Mammoliti believes Miller would be supportive.

In addition to using city resources to clear seniors' driveways of snow to help keep them in their homes longer, Mammoliti said he'd also review "every single" city program to evaluate its usefulness and cost.

But Mammoliti, who changed his name from George to Giorgio in 2002, is no stranger to controversy.

While at Queen's Park in 1994, he and 11 other NDP MPPs voted against their own government's plan to extend spousal insurance benefits to same-sex couples.

During debate, Mammoliti was heckled in legislature for saying homosexuals made unfit parents, were more susceptible to AIDS, and had bizarre sexual habits, like electric torture, whipping, and urination.

In 2000, Mammoliti began trapping cats which were messing up the gardens of his constituents.

In 1999, he opposed the 1,000-metre nude beach at Hanlan's Point, calling it a "sex fest." He unbuttoned his shirt during a city council meeting in an attempt to prove how inappropriate the idea was.

In 2007, Mammoliti half-heartedly suggested turning the Toronto Islands into a red-light district full of massage parlours and casinos.

Recently, too, he suggested calling in the army to tackle the gang problems in certain Toronto neighbourhoods.


Budget will be big test 'Lame-duck' mayor will oversee tough spending program

The toughest budget the amalgamated city of Toronto has ever seen is now in the hands of a potentially lame-duck mayor who will never face the voters again.

For some city councillors, this is cause for alarm with potential double-digit property tax hikes -- or even new taxes -- on the horizon as Toronto council tries to balance its 2010 budget.

Others, though, even some of Miller's critics, think a tough budget year and a lame-duck mayor could mean good things for the city's coffers.

"He's certainly a lame duck, but he has an opportunity to surprise people in the next year and a half to actually try to find some level of fiscal responsibility in the budget review process," said Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, who noted Miller has never scrimped and saved before.

This year, for example, the $8.7-billion operating budget -- which has grown from $6.7 billion when Miller took office -- relied on more than $100 million from operating reserves -- funds set aside for rainy days -- and more than $300 million in one-time funding from the province.

But now the reserve funds are empty and the province is projecting a $6.4-billion deficit, making a cash infusion from Queen's Park unlikely.

"That might have been another reason why he's packing it in," said Councillor Mike Del Grande. "We don't have a revenue problem. We've got a spending problem."

Councillor Paul Ainslie, a member of the budget committee, said next year's budget could be the toughest in 10 years, but it's not directly because of the recession.

"For the past 10 years, we've raided the reserves, we beg an borrow money from the provincial government, and ... they've always come and saved us in one form or another," he said. "But I don't think we can expect manna from heaven from Queen's Park anymore."

Councillor Peter Milczyn called this year's budget a "disaster," and "an uncontrolled orgy of spending." But, he said, the 2010 budget could be better, if only because Miller's supporters might be less likely to follow the mayor's directions.

"Going into next year, an election year, if common sense doesn't prevail upon some people, then maybe fear of the electorate will," he said.

According to council speaker Councillor Sandra Bussin, the budget will be Miller's "biggest test," with his opponents trying to kill some of his less popular initiatives.

"Both the Land Transfer Tax and the Vehicle Registration Tax aren't required, they're permissive, so there could be motions to rescind those initiatives," she said, which would only cause property tax rates to skyrocket.

Councillor Michael Thompson, who has said he's interested in Miller's job, said the budget is one reason why Miller should have resigned Friday instead of pledging to stay on until a new mayor is elected next fall.


Councillor wants HST on city ballot

If city councillor Michael Walker has his way, Toronto voters won't just be picking a new mayor and council in the 2010 election -- they'll also be weighing in on the province's harmonized sales tax.

Walker and fellow councillor Cliff Jenkins want city council to approve their call for a plebiscite in next November's municipal election that would ask whether Torontonians feel the province should have implemented the HST and if the controversial tax change should be continued. The call is on the agenda for this week's council meeting, which starts Wednesday.

"(The provincial government) may think it's a sleeper and (Premier Dalton) McGuinty may think he got away with it because of the byelection but it's hard for people to put their minds around it this far away from implementation," the St. Paul's councillor told the Sun yesterday.

The Liberals handily won a provincial byelection Sept. 17 in St. Paul's despite the fact both PC candidate and Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy and NDPer Julian Heller tried to make an issue out of the looming HST.

"There are a lot of things that are going to have new taxes on them and people are going to be mad as hell," Walker said. "It's not due to be implemented until next July but you watch what happens once it's implemented."

Although the province is bringing the tax in, Walker stressed it is a municipal issue.

"The City of Toronto is the financial centre of the country, the centre of the province," he said. "It's a huge consumer and producer of goods and services: We have a definite interest."

City council can include any question on its election ballot provided the provincial government approves the wording of the question asked.

And although the election will come after the tax has been implemented, Walker said he's confident a strong plebiscite vote against the HST could change the government's course.


Former Winnipeg mayor eyes Toronto job

Former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray is considering a run to replace David Miller as Toronto mayor.

Shirley Muir, Murray's former spokesman in Winnipeg, confirmed he has been fielding "a lot" of calls asking him to run, and said he is considering it.

"He's obviously pleased with the inquiries, he takes them very seriously," Muir said. "But he's not made any decision yet."

Murray is currently serving as the president and CEO of the Canadian Urban Institute a national non-partisan urban policy institute.

Murray served as Winnipeg's mayor from 1998 to 2004, when he left office mid-term to run as a Liberal in the 2004 federal election. He lost to the Conservative candidate, and shortly thereafter moved to Toronto.

Murray, who was born in Montreal, was the first openly gay mayor of a large North American city and is credited with reducing Winnipeg's property taxes 8.4% while in office. He also halved that city's debt and improved Winnipeg's credit rating three scores.

After losing in the 2004 federal election, then-prime minister Paul Martin appointed Murray as chair of the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy.

He also lectures at the University of Toronto and sits on Premier Dalton McGuinty's climate change advisory panel.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Miller puts family first Tearful mayor announces that he won't run in 2010 municipal election

Mayor David Miller is cashing in his chain for his children.

An emotional Miller announced yesterday he would not run for mayor in the 2010 municipal election -- what would have been his third term in office -- because he wants to spend more time with his wife, Jill Arthur, and their two children, Julia, 14, and Simon, 12.

Miller said he privately made the "difficult" decision shortly after his 2006 mayoral win, because the time demands on him as a councillor, and then moreso as mayor, were keeping him from his family.

"I realized then (in 2006) were I to be re-elected in 2010 and serve until 2014, my daughter would be in university and my son would be about to graduate from high school," he said, adding both his children were born after he was first elected to council in 1994. "This would not allow me ever to have been there for them in the way they deserve."

Miller's announcement yesterday caught many of his colleagues by surprise, but most understand the strain politics puts on families.

Perhaps none better than Councillor Adam Vaughan, whose father was also a city councillor.

"I think David has made the toughest decision, next to running, a politician can make," Vaughan, who has two young children of his own, said. "I can disagree with David whether the Gardiner should be up or down, but I will not disagree with a decision he makes as a parent to spend more time with his family.

"I get that as a kid who never saw his dad in politics, and I get that as a parent who aches every time bedtime passes on your watch and you're at a public meeting."

Councillor Kyle Rae told Miller's wife yesterday, "you've got your husband back.

"And for his kids, they got their dad back," Rae said. "This job is a tough job. It's unrelenting. It's unforgiving, and it does rip apart your family life ... It's not a job forever."

Yesterday, Miller got choked up several times while reading his 20-minute statement. He called his time as mayor, "the greatest honour of my life," and said he had accomplished what he wanted to do as mayor.

Namely, securing billions of dollars for increased public transit, making the city more green, adding 250 police officers since 2006, the city's Streets to Homes program that has found homes for 2,000 once-homeless people, making City Hall and council more accountable, and increasing the ethnic diversity at city agencies, boards, and commissions, among other accomplishments.

Vaughan said Miller's accomplishments would have been "a hell of a platform to run on," and until yesterday, Miller himself had hinted he would seek a third term as mayor, even suggesting earlier this month he looked forward to the campaign as an opportunity to sell his vision and accomplishments.

But, he said yesterday, until he was ready to announce his decision, there was nothing else to tell reporters who kept asking "are you running?"

"Of course, I could only answer yes," he said.

Miller, who has lived in both San Francisco and Britain, was raised by a single mother after his father died while Miller was just a boy.

He was first elected as a city councillor for High Park in 1994, having run and lost as an NDP provincial candidate in 1993, and previously unsuccessfully for council.

In 2003, Miller upset frontrunners Barbara Hall and John Tory and became the second mayor of the newly amalgamated City of Toronto.

In 2006, Miller easily beat councillor Jane Pitfield in the mayoral race, capturing nearly 60% of the votes.


Friday, September 11, 2009

How to Save Newspapers & Journalism

Posted By Barry Ritholtz On September 11, 2009 @ 7:25 am In Financial Press, Web/Tech, Weblogs | 41 Comments

There has been a whole lot of hand-wringing over the pernicious effects of the internet in general, and Craigslist [1], eBay [2], and blogs [3] in particular, on the newspaper business. The subscription erosion, the plummeting of ad revenue, the weakening of dead tree versions have put the newspaper business into serious danger. (We will save the discussion of how the media became neutered corporate toadies, toothless shells of their former selves, for another day).

Articles like this [4] or this [5] and even this [6] today discuss a variety of complex technological driven solutions.

The problem facing journalism and newspapers is not one of technology — it is one of behavior. People are used to free, they don’t think they need to pay for content. A solution that ignores this simple fact is destined to fail, regardless of technology, software or widgets.

This requires a behavioral change, from both the newspapers and its readers. Both the NYT and the WSJ have accidentally stumbled towards the right idea, but neither paper got it right.

Of course, I appreciate the irony of discussing charging for content on a blog that gives content away for free.

Rather than complicate matters, a simple 3 step solution, one requiring a minimum of cooperation, may be able to resolve this. The goal is to change mindsets, alter behavior, and generate revenue in a sustainable way (i.e., make papers structurally profitable).

My suggestion:

1) REGISTRATION: All media sites (WSJ, WaPo, NYT) should to require registration to read ANY article. Start with a Name and Email (perhaps later add address and phone number). Every online paper should have a firewall, and all you can see if you are not registered is the headline and 1st paragraph (ala WSJ). This needs to occur across the media landscape at the same time.

The point of this is to establish a relationship between the reader and the content producer, as opposed to a mere blind consumption.

2) SELECT PAYMENTS: Six months later, introduce micro-payments (pennies) for select content. This would consist of a few pennies an article. Credit Card companies should be able to batch process, or banks can do direct transfers (like paypal). This needs to be a simple and familiar transaction, preferably one that does no require an entire new infrastructure.

I would also look for creative ways to determine what articles are charged for: Front page, most popular, most commented on, most blogged, etc. The goal at this point is not to generate revenue, but to get the media consuming public used to paying for content.

3) FULL SUBSCRIPTION: One year later, ALL NEW articles require micro-payments.

I would also suggest that articles more than 3 or 6 months old be either very inexpensive or advertiser supported.

A few caveats:

We know that the annual subscription model won’t work outside of finance. And that there will be numerous papers that won’t survive, either on or off line. Free content is going to continue to siphon off readers and ad dollars, albeit modestly. “Revenue from newspaper classified ads is off nearly 50 percent in the past decade, a drop that comes to almost $10 billion. Only a fraction of this loss is because of Newmark’s company, but as the largest online classified site, craigslist is easy to blame,” says Wired [7]. Total revenue (from all sources) fall last year was $7.5 billion [8].

And this means that total (free) reader numbers will be going down in the future; Papers need to do the math to ensure the loss of advertising revenue from non-paying readers is offset by subscriber revenue.

Papers need to find ways to generate revenue form this relati0nship beyond mere content.

And, media better not Plaxo the reader or the whole approach fails. Papers then need to be trusted merchants, and be extremely cautions once they have email addresses not to abuse them. I hated all of the social network sites (Plaxo, Linked In) as they became instant address book spam monsters.

That’s the plan. What exists currently isn’t working, the annual model (as shown by Times Select) didn’t work either.

Its better than what they have now, and much simpler than what is being proposed . . .


Media Joins the Blogging Crowd [9] (March 8th, 2006)

WSJ: Free or Paid? (Yes) [10] October 3rd, 2007

Murdoch’s WSJ Changes Creates Opening for NYT, FT [11] (April 24, 2008)

How to Fix Financial Television [12] (June 8th, 2009)