I wanted to share some good news about City Council and invite you into a longer term conversation about harm reduction. I think each of these issues raises important questions about the kind of government and City we want.
At Council this week we reversed the imposition of drastic fee increases on City sports fields being used by community run leagues. The fees were slipped into a several hundred page document on user fee policy which was brought in late during budget debate earlier this year. When I and some of my colleagues pressed for a presentation on the impacts of the user fee policy during the budget debate, we were refused. Only when community sports leagues spoke up were progressive Councillors able to make the Mayor and Council agree to reopen the City budget and drop the fees for this year and review the impact for future years.
The issue of user fees raises an important discussion about what the City government is. Are we to “run like a business” and try to recover the cost of public services through fees? Or, do we raise money through taxation and provide services for everyone to enjoy? While there are some services (building permits for example) which make sense as fee-for-service operations, many other public services (say, traffic lights) do not. I support the idea of providing a wide range of recreation and public space services as public goods. I encourage you to give some thought to where you draw the line, as this kind of debate is bound to emerge increasingly in coming years.
Another important issue that came up was the contracting out of cleaning jobs. Again, this issue stems from a decision the Mayor and his Council allies took during the budget. As a cost saving measure they have begun to contract out cleaning jobs in police stations and gave the authority to contract out other cleaning jobs without asking for Council approval. A sustained six month campaign resulted in a strong vote to force any further outsourcing to come before Council. We found that private sector cleaning companies are cheaper principally because they pay very low wages to workers. We also showed that frequently they subcontract to agencies which have been found guilty of illegal employment practices, which result in workers getting less than minimum wage. My sense is that most Torontonians want to treat the people who provide services to the public fairly. Almost no-one wants to save a dollar or two per month on their property taxes by endorsing the illegal treatment of workers.
While Council was debating these issues a study, partly funded by a provincial agency, was released recommending that Toronto should consider three supervised consumption sites for people addicted to injection drugs. While this academic research will not by itself lead to such sites appearing in Toronto, it does serve to open a conversation Torontonians will have to have someday.
Recently, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled 9 – 0 that the federal government could not close the safe injection site in Vancouver. I urge you to take a quick look at their reasons: the Vancouver facility saves lives and does not cause harm to the community at large: therefore it would be a violation of people rights to deny them treatment: Supreme Court Of Canada Canada – (Attorney General) v. PHS Community Services
The new study suggests that three sites operating in Toronto would save lives, reduce health care costs and reduce drug-related harms to communities: TOSCA Report . It also suggests that such facilities should be housed in existing medical facilities. Ultimately, the provincial Ministry of Health and the federal Minister of Health would have to consent. Before achieving such consent any facility would need to have a substantial community consultation. There are no applications pending anywhere in Toronto.
So, three big questions: When should government act like a business, and when should it be a tax supported service provider? Can we accept pushing low wage jobs even lower just to save money? How do we confront growing evidence that safe injection sites work?
Lots to think about.