Toronto stinks

The festering trash is just another sign that the city’s high hopes are being held ransom by out-of-control costs

Toronto stinksThe apocalypse, as advertised on morning radio, hadn’t come to pass. Traffic moved well along Toronto’s Lakeshore Boulevard last weekend as pickets allowed people to drop off their garbage at three giant parking lots fenced off for the purpose. Union leaders had warned that striking municipal workers would be delaying residents up to an hour at these specially designated dump sites before letting them off-load—a gambit that would have transformed the area into a knot of snarled traffic and snarling drivers. But instead of chaos, motorists were greeted on Saturday by two men wearing strike placards and morose expressions. One held back drivers for all of two minutes, before letting them roll ahead to the drop zone. Most drivers passed through without hearing a gripe.

Maybe the workers figured Toronto’s municipal employees strike was nearing its bitter end. But if they thought they were getting the upper hand they were wrong. For more than three weeks, mounds of plastic bags had been stretching toward the far reaches of the lakeshore lots, as 24,000 inside and outside workers represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees walked the picket lines, and residents grimly took up the task of transporting their own trash for disposal. The resulting spectacle is at once impressive and revolting: in a few short days, the piles at the lakeshore—one of 21 such sites through the city—rose and spread to cover several acres behind translucent snow fences, attracting squadrons of seagulls and emitting an odour whose foul complexity was hard to describe (rotting food and soiled diapers were just the beginning). On Sunday, city managers had obtained their second court injunction allowing pest control workers to spray the burgeoning piles, while the zones themselves were nearing capacity. Yet somehow Torontonians were struggling through.

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It’s true. The city that once called in the army for a snowstorm is sucking it up. And while one hesitates to use mountains of reeking trash as metaphors for anything, these ones have come to symbolize a new-found sense of resolve. For years, councillors and citizens alike have put off this sort of reckoning with the unions; the city piled generous contract upon generous contract, seeking to buy labour peace amid the myriad challenges of running a mega-metropolis. The cumulative cost of those agreements has been taking its toll: in the past five years, the city’s annual operating expenditures have ballooned from $6.6 billion to $8.7 billion, easily outpacing inflation and sending council into a yearly crisis as it attempts to balance its budget. Something had to give.

For the city’s left-leaning mayor, David Miller, it was more than an arithmetical problem. Since he came to office at the end of 2003, the 50-year-old former New Democrat has talked up the importance of cities as social and political units, borrowing heavily from the teachings of urban renewal gurus like Richard Florida. In the future, he said, Canadians will live and work in urban centres where clusters of creative activity would increasingly drive the economy. To improve the quality of those peoples’ lives and to make those communities operate more smoothly, he said, we needed to spend money on them. “If Canada’s going to succeed as a country,” he has said, “we must invest in cities.”

But if the four-week-old strike illustrates anything, it’s the disconnect between this promise and what taxpayers can see before their eyes. Yes, bohemian enclaves and twee shopping strips have popped up throughout the city. But so too have taxes, making the city an increasingly difficult place to call home: the average household’s property tax bill has gone up 12 per cent since 2005 to $3,314 with no discernible enhancement in services. Some of that increase stems from the rise in market value of homes throughout the city, notes Enid Slack, an expert in municipal finance at the University of Toronto. But that’s small comfort to anyone who isn’t planning to sell his home. Meanwhile, almost all of the windfall has vanished into the maw of rising labour costs: between 2003 and 2008, salaries and benefits to city employees have climbed some 32 per cent; this year they’re expected to top $4 billion. That Miller’s solution to these pressures has been still more taxes—a 1.5-percent land transfer levy, and a $60 annual fee for car owners—hasn’t helped. At what point, residents have asked, will the mayor get his hand out of their pockets?

Business people are similarly exasperated. Many small companies that were supposed to be part of Miller’s live-and-work urban vision have fled the city and its tax-and-spend ways, says Judith Andrew, president of legislative affairs for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, turning Toronto into “a bedroom community for the 905 region.” In 2005, the city released a report acknowledging that some 100,000 jobs had disappeared from Toronto since 1989, while the surrounding region gained 700,000. The exodus continues apace, says Andrew, because Miller and his supporters ignore the very basic demands of business owners. “They don’t want to deal with water and roads and sewers and all those mundane things,” says Andrew. “They want to do exciting things like eliminate plastic shopping bags, and [mandate] rooftop gardens. Their level of intervention in these areas keeps growing and it all costs money.”

To many residents, the city’s 1,100 trash collectors personify the city’s current state of dysfunction. The workers’ $25-an-hour average wage and six weeks’ vacation for senior employees stood out enough during a declining economy; more glaring still was a provision in their collective agreement allowing them to bank up to 18 sick days a year, and to cash in up to six months’ worth upon retirement. The result has been a liability on the city books that already stands between $140 million and $160 million, depending on who’s doing the counting. Worried that the benefit will hobble its finances in the future, the city has insisted that it come to an end.

These so-called “featherbed” provisions might be easier for ratepayers to take were the cost of garbage removal not already going up. In its survey of Canadian cities (featured on pages 14-20 of this week’s issue), the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies pegged the price in Toronto at $317 per dwelling between 2005 and 2007, fully 65 per cent higher than the average of 30 other cities monitored during the same period. Much of that cost, says Bobby O’Keefe, the institute’s research director, was due to the rollout of an elaborate program aimed at diverting compostable and recyclable materials from its landfills. But that program has merely added to the sense that the garbagemen now do less for more. Not only must residents sort the garbage into three separate waste streams—recyclables, garbage and compost—they are required to place the material in unwieldy, wheeled bins that the city supplied at homeowners’ expense.

All this was done to ease the burden on trash collectors. Worried by escalating compensation and disability claims, the city has invested in a fleet of trucks equipped with hydraulic arms which literally do the heavy lifting for the collectors. On some streets, employees wheel the bins to the back of the truck, where they place them on mechanical lift; on others, the truck simply drives alongside, reaching out for the bins with a hydraulic arm equipped with a grapple. The driver rarely has to get out of the cab.

If the mayor is taking decisive action, it may well be because a sharp shift in attitudes toward the unions has given him little choice. Carlos Lay, a resident who has been hauling his trash to a dump site east of the downtown core, typified the prevailing mood when he spoke to Maclean’s earlier this week. “They’re lucky to have their jobs,” he said. “Hundreds of people would kill for those jobs.”

To Alan Levy, a labour relations expert at Brandon University, that viewpoint stands in sharp contrast to what prevailed during a similar strike in 2002, when more people seemed angry at the city than at the union. Back then, garbage bags piled up at illegal dump sites as temperatures soared (at one point, 30 tonnes of illegally dumped waste were removed from Trinity Bellwoods Park, a bucolic space located near some of the city’s trendiest café strips). Then-mayor Mel Lastman, meanwhile, stoked outrage with hyperbole, going so far as to call the union’s actions “evil.” Levy believes Miller, by contrast, has played it cool. “He’s more sophisticated. He understands the experts at the table have to do the work.”

Canada's best-run citiesThat strike didn’t last nearly as long as the current stoppage—just 16 days—and its brevity arguably set the stage for the trench warfare occurring now. Mindful of an impending visit to Toronto by Pope John Paul II, Conservative premier Ernie Eves legislated an abrupt end to the labour action before the international media got a look at the trash piling up in the streets. The result was an arbitrated deal giving the workers three per cent wage hikes in all three years of the contract. More raises followed in 2005, when the two sides settled without a strike, while the sick-day bank remained untouched. Small wonder, then, that Liberal Premier Dalton McGuinty has been inclined to let the two sides sort this one out, aware perhaps that leaving the matter unresolved could cost the city dearly in the future.

And this time the city was much better prepared, having learned the lessons of 2002. Although services like daycare and ferries would be affected by the strike, officials knew that garbage would be the focal point for residents because it’s “in your face,” says Anne Marie Aikins, a spokesperson for Toronto Public Health. So managing waste became a priority. The city upped its number of temporary drop-off sites from 12 to 21, which has helped prevent the unsightly piles caused by illegal dumping. “Sites are being managed with pesticides and odour [control] much more effectively this time,” notes Aikins. Public Health, meanwhile, has been monitoring dump sites for maggots, rodent droppings, or other signs of infestation. Cooler temperatures have helped, making life more bearable for the management teams assigned to man the dump sites.

Certainly, council’s new-found resolve has found a receptive audience. One newspaper poll taken last week found that fully three quarters of respondents supported the city, saying striking staff should accept what they’ve been offered and go back to work. The slumping economy is clearly influencing people’s opinions. “[The strike] is a stupid idea,” says Alphonse Malley, a Toronto student walking past a dump site located in Moss Park, just east of the downtown core. “You’ve got hundreds of people, unemployed, who would do this job for half the price and not complain at all.” For others, the inconvenience and the stench are signs that the city is tackling a fiscal mess that long predates the recession; if wading through a bit of garbage will set the city on a path toward financial health, they appear willing to do so.

The question is whether Miller—who is clearly conflicted about making war with organized labour—will ensure that all the short-term pain produces long-term gain. Not only have 500,000 homeowners and 20,000 businesses been forced to move their own garbage, city-run daycares have closed, pools are shut down and permits for all manner of business and recreation are impossible to get because managers are quite literally taking out the trash. Yet after all the hassle and harsh rhetoric, last week the mayor publicly offered the employees a 7.2 per cent raise over four years, along with a short-term disability program to replace the sick-day bank. It was hardly Pinkerton-style union-busting, especially considering that workers who had already banked days would still be able to cash them in under the offer. Miller was soon hearing as much from Lastman, the mayor in office when the 2002 contract was signed. “Nobody’s standing up to [the unions]. It’s absolutely nuts,” he told Maclean’s. “The mayor doesn’t know whose side to be on. There should be no question; he was elected by the taxpayers of Toronto. But he’s not representing the taxpayers of Toronto. He’s trying to represent the unions.”

If that’s true, Miller has been an abject failure. CUPE leaders were outraged at the mayor for end-running the negotiations, refusing to put the offer to a vote. Their recalcitrance has, in turn, lent fodder to advocates of harsh measures, such as legislation declaring the employees an essential service and eliminating their right to strike. Some groups, like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, want the city to privatize all or part of its burgeoning waste management regime, pointing to innumerable municipalities in Canada who have contracted out garbage collection to large—often unionized—companies.

Slack, the U of T professor, agrees there is precedent for such a move, including in Miller’s backyard. Etobicoke had its private garbage collection contract “grandfathered” into place when the former city was absorbed by Toronto in 1998. “The argument is for competition,” she says. “When you have competition, you bring the costs down.” Winnipeg, for one, saved an estimated $5.7 million annually after making the move in 2006; Gatineau, Que., and Barrie, Ont., count among the cities that, like Toronto, do composting and recycling yet spend far less per dwelling on waste removal because they outsource some of the collection.

Whether such agreements would work on a megacity scale is an entirely different question, Slack says; after amalgamation, Toronto actually brought some garbage contracts in-house to ensure better control. Besides which, a social democrat like Miller is unlikely to lead such a frontal attack on organized labour—no matter how loudly the voters cheer. A better bet is that he will set his sights next on the sick-day banks enjoyed by police, firefighters and management-level staff, whose stored time represents a further $100-million liability. That could be a much bloodier battle: Miller won office in part because he has made peace with the city’s notoriously aggressive police association, which has campaigned in the past against candidates it didn’t like. But if his visions of a thriving “city-state” have any chance of coming to pass, the money will have to come from somewhere, and he appears to have stretched taxpayers as far as they can go. Without a long-term commitment to some form of spending sanity, Toronto seems a lot less likely to become a city-state than just a city in a state.

With Julien Russell Brunet and Tom Henheffer

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