City wins amid Mel's gaffes
Royson James
Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman shakes hands with Tony Biancafiore, a member of the Hells Angels biker gang, on Jan. 11, 2002.
· Speak Out on Mel's Hells Angel handshake
· Lastman in his own words (Jan. 15)
· James: Face it, Mel is unmanageable (Jan. 16)
· Quebec angered by Angel handshake (Jan. 14)
· Linwood Barclay: Can Angels survive the shame?(Jan. 14)
· Storm brews over handshake (Jan. 13)
· Biker war costs Quebec $100 million (Jan. 13)
· Party to be missed by an Angel (Jan. 10)
· 'Puppet clubs' are Angels' muscle (Jan. 9)
Mayor Mel Lastman has likely blown his chance to secure the legacy he most desires — recognition as the undisputed champion of Toronto and the politician most responsible for getting Toronto out from under the yoke of the provincial and federal governments.

Often a contradictory mix of power and puffery, Lastman has wrung grudging concessions from the senior governments — even as he pilloried them — because he enjoyed unprecedented popularity among voters. Now that the mayor's support appears to be in a free-fall from the unbelievable heights of 15 months ago, critics, pundits and Mel-haters are loath to give him credit for some considerable achievements defending the city.

Lastman's cachet comes from his approval rating among many of the very voters Premier Mike Harris or Prime Minister Jean Chrétien look to for party support. But with a series of stunning gaffes eroding Lastman's support with Toronto voters, it will be easy to discount his successes even as one recounts his failures.

A Toronto Star-EKOS opinion poll, conducted late last week and released in yesterday's Sunday Star, shows that two in three residents don't want to see the mayor resigning because of those gaffes. Similarly, 68 per cent of his constituents feel he is doing a fair-to-good job as mayor. And 64 per cent retain "moderate" to "high" confidence in Mel's ability to secure a new funding deal with Ottawa and Queen's Park. But there is no masking his steep drop in popularity.

Some even suggest the mayor is so weakened he can't govern, certainly not effectively.

In October, 2000, Lastman had an approval rating of 87 per cent. A month later he won re-election with 80 per cent of the popular vote. Granted, the main reason for the huge margin was the lack of any credible, well-known opponent.

Now, the Star-EKOS poll shows that of 404 Toronto residents interviewed last week, only 40 per cent said they would vote for Mel today, 46 per cent said they would not and 13 per cent did not know. Among decided voters, the mayor's numbers were a little better, with 47 per cent saying they would vote for him today and 53 per cent against.

With such numbers, Lastman will have little success negotiating a new deal for new spending powers or new independence from the province or Ottawa, some critics say.

It's a nice theory, except this: You can't get around the mayor of Toronto.

Lastman is Toronto's duly elected representative. He may be a jester, but he is our clown. Toronto may be furious over Mel's buffoonery, but when push comes to shove, they know that his cries and complaints are on Toronto's behalf.

Besides, truth is on Lastman's side in his budget battles with Ontario. The provincial auditor is the latest to confirm this. In a report that was a total victory for Lastman and city officials who have complained about the provincial downloading of services, the auditor confirmed their beefs.

Still, you wouldn't know that from reading media reports, some of which went out of their way to deny Lastman his triumph.

On Jan. 1, 1998, the same day the megacity came into existence with Lastman as mayor, the province officially realigned responsibilities for 16 government programs. Municipalities ended up taking on many more responsibilities than they had before.

The province said the swap was revenue-neutral, because Ontario took on a greater share of education funding. Lastman claims he was told that if it wasn't revenue-neutral the province would fix it. The Premier swore it was. His MPPs consistently argued that not only was it a fair swap, but that Toronto benefitted by hundreds of millions of dollars.

The charge infuriated Lastman. He called the Premier a liar. Constituents, not knowing who to believe, longed for a referee and tuned out.

Turns out, Mel was right. The provincial auditor studied the downloading deal up to March, 2001, essentially to the end of the 2000 fiscal year. He looked at the operating budgets only, not capital costs, which is the largest of Lastman's headaches because that's where the huge TTC costs are. And the auditor concluded that many cities, including Toronto, were scalped, while others gained a windfall.

The formula used to determine the funding swap "impairs the achievement of revenue neutrality," the auditor concludes. It did not take into account changes in local service delivery needs or increases in unavoidable costs such as wages, utilities, population increases, growth in ridership, etc. And it doesn't guard against increases to social service costs if there is an economic downturn.

Besides, some $1.3 billion worth of services were still being administered by the province, but paid for by municipalities. A city couldn't find savings under such a plan.

Worst of all, the province imposed an arbitrary "savings target," a move that denied Toronto $140 million between 1998 and 2000.

For 1999 alone, 72 municipalities across the province were in a position directly opposite to Toronto's. They received a "windfall" from the swap, totalling $134 million.

The provincial auditor didn't even look at capital spending. If he did, he would have discovered the biggest of Lastman's concerns. Starting in 2001, a period not examined by the auditor, Toronto was shortchanged of about $276 million. That's how much the city would have received from the province under the old funding formula for transit. Queen's Park made a lump-sum payment and stopped its contribution to projects effective Dec. 31, 2000.

Several pundits, eager to paint Lastman as a loser, didn't report on the capital costs and gloated that the auditor did not support Lastman's claim for upwards of $300 million a year from the province. In fact, the mayor was proved right. The auditor pinpointed $47 million a year in operating costs. And there is upwards of $275 million a year in missing funds for transit.

That's why the Premier threw in the towel last September, abandoned his ruinous policy of not funding transit, and promised Toronto about $110 million a year for transit capital for 10 years.

Still, it's short. Toronto must beg Ottawa for a matching amount. Combined, the provincial and federal shares would cover 66 per cent of TTC costs — down from the 75 per cent Queen's Park used to pay.

No wonder the mayor screams. Like his methods or not, Lastman has kept the issue alive, taking political hits and criticism, with no defence save the facts. As long as he's on the side of the angels, senior governments still have to listen to him.

Equally certain is this: As long as Mel continues to stumble over his own feet and then put them firmly in his mouth, he won't get the credit for the victories. All that means is that the city stands to win, even as Mel loses.

Royson James' column usually appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

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