The City Hall Watcher interview with Mayor Olivia Chow
City Hall Watcher #260: In a wide-ranging chat, the mayor answers some questions submitted by readers, talking traffic, finance, housing and roller skates for toddlers
Happy New Year. Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any tears.
To start the year, I’m bringing you a lightly edited transcript of my chat with Mayor Olivia Chow, conducted in her office on Monday, December 18. I asked City Hall Watcher readers for questions, and you delivered — I received so many that I couldn’t possibly get to all of them.
But don’t despair. I’ve stored all of your unused questions in a secure location and plan to use many of them in the future. I’m hoping to have another chat with Chow during the budget process, which launches on January 10. Mark your calendars.
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— Matt Elliott
Watcher/Talker: the City Hall Watcher interview with Mayor Olivia Chow (End of 2023 edition)
This interview was conducted on December 18, 2023. It’s been edited for length and clarity.
Matt Elliott (ME): The Service Excellence Committee is meeting for the first time today, and since City Hall Watcher readers submitted lots of questions about service quality — and really the lack thereof, over the last few years — I thought it would be appropriate to start there.
Reader Sonia asked about the garbage bins on the streets, which I think became kind of emblematic of service quality in the city — you often see them full to the point of overflowing, with the doors broken open and sort of languishing in the breeze. Is there a plan for that?
Mayor Olivia Chow (OC): Terrible design. But we’re locked in on that Astral Media design. Can’t get out of it. However, I’ve been asking staff for a report to brief me on whether they could add in other forms of bins beside those bins. Could that alleviate some of the problems?
And then there’s the pickup. Because it’s not just that there’s a bad design and the doors keep breaking and all that stuff, the pickup [of garbage] could work a lot better.
ME: Some of that has to do with budgeting for more frequent pickup.
OC: And also predicting big events, right? Because, you know, I was down at TIFF on King Street. You know that whole area is going to be flooded with people. With big events, you can think ahead of time to know that you need more pickup, you need more bins in the area. And not just on King Street — also up and down John Street, for example.
ME: Another service-related question came in from reader Cindy Wilkey, who I think you know.
OC: I imagine it will be about Ontario Place!
ME: She did have a question about Ontario Place, but I wanted to ask another one. She actually sent in pictures from when she visited Tokyo.
OC: Oh, it’s a question about washrooms!
ME: No, but there were good questions about those too. Cindy was actually taking pictures of construction sites in Tokyo to show how they manage to confine the work to the actual site and it doesn’t spill over onto the streets.
I've heard from lots of people, including Cindy, wondering if there isn't more Toronto could be doing to stop the sidewalks and the streets from being closed for years on end because of construction.
OC: I’ve asked staff to look at the costs of congestion and actually apply it to street closures. Because if it is cheaper for them to park their cars on the street. and they’re actually using the construction site as a parking spot, it makes no sense. And you can fix that with a certain cost. So that it comes at a premium if you want to do that.
So again, whether it’s one shift, two shifts, or three shifts — not necessarily in residential areas, but in commercial areas, you can have three shifts — we should make sure that the cost is different. It should be different based on what kind of congestion you’re causing. And I’m waiting for some response on congestion charges as it relates to construction.
ME: So congestion charges charged to construction closing streets. Theoretically, that could apply to Metrolinx as well.
OC: It should apply to everyone. [laughing] Metrolinx is a different beast, so to speak.
ME: You mentioned a couple of times in this interview already about asking for reports or briefing notes. And that brings up a question that I asked John Tory a few times when I was in talking to him, about the pace of how things happen at City Hall. You’ve been here for about six months now — how do you feel about the pace of work in this building?
OC: Look at how quickly that housing report — the blueprint — came together. Think about how complex that report is. That report lists all the sites — you only saw the public list, but there’s a confidential list attached to that report as well.
So the whole thing — all the things we need the province to do, the federal government to do, and then a huge list of all the things that we need to do, including speeding up the process of application approval, and consolidating three big bodies — CreateTO, TCHC and the Housing Secretariat — they did it in two months.
So if you set something as a priority, if you drive it, it can be done quickly. And I met with the team almost every second week, sometimes every week, just to say, where’s that at? What can I do to help? Everybody put their everything into it, and it got done.
ME: It seems like there are some divisions that are better at turning around reports more quickly than others. I remember a moment at Council where you sort of took one senior manager to task for how long he said things were going to take. Is some of it just developing that relationship with the senior staff and trying to convince them that doing more is possible?
OC: It’s just having performance standards. It could be that some departments need the actual funding to get things done. Some might have ten years of no growth while you pile on a lot of requests, and no assistance in prioritizing which request is more important.
So having clear priority and the right amount of resources means you get the result. So, I’m very clear about what my priority is. So you will see me driving it. This is my priority, and I want to get it done. And I want to get it done within this amount of time.
ME: Will there be room in the 2024 budget if a division says they need more money?
OC: Yes. Absolutely. If not, then we’re just going in circles. There’s no point. The faster you get it done, the cheaper it is. The longer you let it languish, the more expensive the cost. And if you just ignore the problem, it doesn’t go away — it just festers, and then it becomes so big. And just very costly.
ME: Speaking of the speed at which things get done, I have a reader — and contributor — named Damien Moule who’s maybe a bit obsessed with the reserve funds at the City and how they have been growing even given the budget crisis. Staff say most of the funds are allocated for projects, which is true, but there’s a fundamental issue that the divisions aren’t spending their capital dollars on a year-to-year basis.
OC: I’ve tightened that. You will see in the capital budget coming out that there’s a higher expectation.
I look at the trends. As long as the trend is that we are spending more now, so if we have $100 in a capital budget, but we’re actually spending $65 or $70, I’m looking to see that that number is trending up [year over year].
But partially, sometimes things get delayed, especially in the capital budget, because we don’t really have enough fiscal room. So it’s in there just to say it’s in there, right? It’s not really in there in a way that it needs to be to get it done. I think it needs to be that if we say we need to get this done, unless something really goes south, let’s go do it.
But I went and looked at the reserve funds. They’re actually not as healthy as they used to be. That’s one of the reasons why the City went from an AAA credit rating to AA.
So when the federal government — that has an AAA rating — talks about our reserve fund, I think, “Excuse me, have they looked at the CMHC reserve funds? Hang on a second.” They have an AAA credit rating for good reason. We slipped partially because we have such a capital budget shortfall.
And also, had we not had the reserve funds during the COVID period, when the federal government decided not to give us the bailout, that’s a 6% or 7% increase in property taxes right there.
ME: Aaron Yick had questions about Toronto becoming a public builder. When you talked about the public builder model for housing…
OC: Public developer. We’re not actually building. Ellis Don and other companies will do that.
ME: Right. You’re not actually going to be there with the hammers and the saws. But it seems to me, given this is something as important as housing, you want to be really sure that the government capacity is available to do that. Do you think City Hall is ready to take on that extra responsibility of being a public developer?
OC: We have been doing it. TCHC has been doing it. They’ve done it quite well. They bring in a company, whether it’s Daniels or Tridel or whichever, and it’s more like a turn-key. The difference with public building is who actually owns it at the end. I’m going to keep it as nonprofit ownership.
So I think we have the capacity now. We have CreateTO, TCHC and the Housing Secretariat. I think once we consolidate — to see who does what — you will probably see in the first or second quarter of next year a model for us to go ahead and it will be fast.
ME: Fast is good.
OC: Yes. I’m the most impatient person.
ME: Staying on housing, a reader named Michael Heydon had a simple question. Will all homeless people be able to sleep indoors this winter?
OC: It’s up to the federal government. If the [federal government] comes in with their share of the housing benefit, then most likely.
If you look at Allan Gardens, even though some of the tents are still there, there’s a much, much lower number of people right now, because they’ve been offered a place.
And we’re building new shelters — eight new buildings, we’re literally building new ones. We just approved a capital budget on it.
And with the [Canada-Ontario Housing Benefit], we can help about four of five thousand people.
And with the [Multi-Unit Residential Acquisition (MURA) program], we can immediately buy a bunch of buildings. I’ve now put quite a bit of money into that, with the mansion tax and the vacant home tax.
And if we get the Housing Accelerator fund money, some of that will go to MURA, which means that we can quickly buy some buildings and turn them into nonprofit housing.
So with those immediate moves, we can do a whole lot.
ME: A reader named Daniel Di Camillo wanted me to ask about long-term vision. He pointed to mayors in cities like Montreal and Paris with big, ambitious agendas on things like building transit and climate change. And here, past mayors have had their legacy projects too. David Miller had the waterfront and Regent Park. John Tory, less successfully, had SmartTrack and Rail Deck Park. Do you have a big swing that you want to make as mayor — something that will leave a big legacy?
ME: It always strikes me that with Regent Park, which seemed to be a pretty successful model, they did it, and then they could have done it again. But they didn’t do it again.
OC: Well, Alexandra Park is happening. Lawrence Heights is up next. And then Jane-Finch. So all of that can be done. And it can be done a lot faster.
Building of all forms, whether it’s supportive housing, or MURA buildings, or land trusts, I hope to see a whole lot of them opening. And that could happen next year.
ME: Since we have to wrap up, I’ll throw in a quick question from my dad, who does not live in Toronto, but he loves Toronto Island. And I know you love the Island too. But he finds when he goes over this time of year, in the off-season, there’s just not enough to do. Should there be more stuff going on, considering what a great asset the island is?
OC: There’s already quite a quite a bit of things to do. You can go snowshoeing. When it gets REALLY cold — we might get maybe ten days of freezing weather — you can go skating in the lagoon. You can cross-country ski.
And when the weather is mild like this, you can bike back and forth. On the bike, between Hanlon’s Point and Ward’s Island or Algonquin Island, that’s a very nice bike ride.
And the cafes are open. The Ward’s Island Cafe is open. So there’s already lots to do. I don’t want to disturb the peace. There are lots of other activities not on the Island.
ME: Final question: I have a two-year-old at home. He’s a giant ball of energy. We’re looking for recommendations for things to do in the city on weekend afternoons when we need to kill some time. It’s easy in the summer — we just go to the park. Any ideas for the winter season?
OC: At Union Station, did you know there’s now a roller rink?
ME: I had no idea.
OC: It’s the Roller Express. And they have free rentals. And they have music. They have pizza, popcorn, and a place to rest. It’s a really nice rink. 100% free.
Arianne Robinson, Mayor Olivia Chow’s Press Secretary: He might be a bit young for it. It might be fun to watch, if not to skate.
ME: Well, he’s only going to get older.
More from Matt: on Christmas construction chaos, and Mayor Olivia Chow’s need for speed
📰 For the Toronto Star over the break, I wrote about construction chaos around our city, and the clear opportunity to do better.
📰 And for the New Year, I wrote about something that came up a few times in my interview with Mayor Olivia Chow: the desire for City Hall to work faster. Overall, I think it’s a good thing. But there’s a risk to it too, as I think some recent minor missteps from the mayor demonstrate pretty well.
The week at Toronto City Hall
WEDNESDAY: 🏆 Bid Award Panel contract award of the week: up to $694,126 to maintain the Live Green Perks mobile app.
City Hall Watcher #260
Thanks for reading! Is two years old too young for roller skating? Let’s debate.
I’ll return next week with the last LOBBYIST WATCH of 2023, and a preview of the budget launch.
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