The political genius of Rob Ford’s ‘billion-dollar’ savings claim

The political genius of Rob Ford’s ‘billion-dollar’ savings claim

By most accounts, Mayor Rob Ford was the hands-down winner of Wednesday's televised Toronto mayoral debate, based on his ability to stay on message and the almost dispiriting inability of other candidates to pin him down on his record, either personal or political.

The debate was a messy affair, with CityNews intentionally slotting in three segments of unregulated "discussion," which descended so quickly into a pointless shouting match that moderator Gord Martineau at one point threw his hands up in despair.

The chaos was music to the mayor’s ears. You could see Ford smiling as the mousey voices of his four competitors fought to reach a pitch his own reaches naturally.

The chaotic tone to the first televised debate of the 2014 Toronto mayoral election – still seven month from voting day – was the perfect environment for Ford to excel. And he did, by relying on blunt talking points and misinformation, to which his opponents had little opportunity to respond.

The key point trumpeted by Ford was an oft-dismissed claim that he has saved Toronto $1 billion since he was elected in 2010. He has said it before, and the claim has been discounted. Yet he returned to the claim on Wednesday, hiding under it like a shield as competitors tossed harmless grenades his direction.

"Mr. Ford just because you're saying it, doesn't mean it's true," Olivia Chow said at one point, also saying the city was tired of his "crazy lying."

David Soknacki bluntly stated, "That billion dollars is only in your imagination"

“People know my track record. They know they can go to sleep at night knowing their tax dollars are being watched," Ford said at one point.

He added in another instance, "These are the numbers from the (chief financial officer). These are not my numbers. I have saved the taxpayers a billion dollars, just like I said I was going to do."

[ Related: Toronto mayoral debate: Who won, who lost? ]

Here is how Ford outlined his $1 billion in savings on Wednesday:

  • Eliminating the Vehicle Registration Tax: $260 million

  • Reducing office budgets of the mayor and city councillors: $6.4 million

  • Contracting out garbage in the city's west end: $80 million

  • General efficiencies: $800 million over four years

  • Savings from a union deal: $90 million

The total is more than $1.2 billion in stuff, sure, but they are not all savings, and it is not clear who the savings are supposed to be for. Reducing office budgets may have saved the city money, but killing the vehicle registration tax actually took money from its coffers, and saved some "taxpayers" absolutely nothing in the process.

“Efficiencies” is also sort of a catch-all term that can mean anything from service reductions to a variety of financial shifts and adjustments.

The claim has been dismissed on several occasions. Here, the Toronto Star analyzes the numbers with the help of Toronto's City Manager Joe Pennachetti, who said about half of Ford's "efficiencies" were actual savings. Here, Metro News' chartmeister Matt Elliott takes a line-by-line look himself.

Ford's $1 billion savings claim also doesn't account for the money Ford has cost taxpayers. Most notably, increases to the land transfer tax he once vowed to eliminate, and a tax implemented to help pay for Ford's Scarborough subway, which will cost Toronto taxpayers $745 million over the next 30 years.

That number, plus a $165-million increase to development charges, has been referred to by a couple of rival candidates as Ford's "billion-dollar tax increase," proving again that you should never take at face value anything someone claims is one billion.

But the political genius behind Ford's $1 billion savings claim is probably worth that much on the campaign trail.

[ Related: Toronto mayoral debate: Rob Ford says crack scandal is ‘rewind, rewind, rewind’ ]

An instant online poll conducted by CityNews during Wednesday's debate found that 37 per cent of listeners trusted Ford when it came to finances. Chow placed second, with 32 per cent.

While there is nothing scientific about the poll, it seems to suggest supporters still believe Ford swings straight when it comes to finances. And that could be all he need for re-election.

No opponent had the chance to attack Ford's claim during the debate. But the real genius is, even if they were able to prove Ford's claim a farce, they would have to do so by publicly admitting that, yes, Ford has saved some money.

And he has, but he is not doing as well as his "$1 billion" sound bite would suggest. And he is not doing as well as he could have been.

David Soknacki made what was perhaps the most prescient point of the night when, in a direct question to Ford, he raised Ford's history of failing to show up for important votes that would save residents money.

"All too often you refused to produce your ideas to save money in the budget until it was too late for serious consideration. You talked tough about the land transfer tax but have allowed it to increase year after year," Soknacki said.

"When it comes to real savings, when it comes to walking the talk of a fiscal conservative, when it comes to being present and accounted for you skip practice and sometimes don't even show up for the game."

Ford's response was to celebrate his attendance record, which is actually rather spotty and not something worth celebrating.

Ford made several other untruthful claims during the debate. He said there hadn't been a union strike under his watch, but the library workers shut down branches for 10 days in 2012.

He claimed he had a proven track record of building subways, when in fact he has only secured a plan to build one short subway line, which won't break ground for several more years. And he had to fight tooth-and-nail to get even that much.

He claimed he hadn't made any cuts to the Toronto Transit Commission, even though more than 35 bus and streetcar routes saw service reductions in 2012.

But the beauty of Ford's talking points is that in the chaos of a live debate, they remained unchallenged. And an unchallenged claim can become fact very easily.

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