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Tory starts strong with state of the city speech

As he gets ready to take office next week, we should take a minute to acknowledge mayor-elect John Tory’s state of the city speech from yesterday.

Because it was quite good. Detailed, measured and genuinely mayoral. Easily the best speech we’ve seen from a Toronto mayor in at least four years.

Sure, that’s a low bar, but it’s still worth celebrating. For the next few months at least, Tory will be applauded for doing things that are easy and obvious, like a cat praised for not eating flowers and puking on the carpet.

He’ll get credit for showing up to work on time and releasing his daily schedule. City hall watchers are likely to swoon when he makes it clear he’s read staff reports on key issues before speaking about them. We’ll be tempted to wave giant foam fingers when he engages in respectful debate instead of angry name-calling.

I know that all sounds a bit ridiculous, but such is the weird legacy of Mayor Rob Ford. After the last few years, it’ll just be nice to see a mayor talking about important issues again.

It’ll be nice to see a mayor being a mayor.

Tory’s mayor being a mayor speech touched on many of those important issues already, areas of city government that have been largely neglected or outright ignored in recent years.

He acknowledged that TTC service has been cut and needs to be restored. He talked about the need to find more buses to immediately improve service, sounding a lot like mayoral candidate Olivia Chow. But a good idea is a good idea.

He addressed the deteriorating state of affordable housing. In contrast to Ford, who mostly talked about how often he personally visited public housing buildings, Tory pointed to actual stats showing that the number of uninhabitable TCHC units continues to increase due to disrepair and a lack of funds.

He even cited the city’s high child poverty rate, an issue that has been allowed to stray far from the political radar.

It wasn’t a perfect speech, of course. On traffic issues, Tory seems too eager to promise he’ll fix Toronto’s congestion issues, even though it’s not at all clear they can be fixed. Busy and congested streets that are hard to navigate by car are a hallmark of every urban centre with a functioning economy. Traffic is a problem that can be mitigated — not fixed — by making it easier for people to get places without a car.

By devoting so much attention to fixing the seemingly unfixable, Tory risks spending a lot of time and money on little tangible benefit.

Tory’s other problem area? The budget. It's good to seem him acknowledge that the city has fiscal challenges beyond councillor expense accounts, but it's hard to miss the contradiction of describing the city’s many challenges while also maintaining he can keep property tax increases at or below the rate of inflation. (Whatever that means.)

It's hard to square a belief that the city is underinvesting in several areas while also maintaining that the city doesn’t need to increase property tax revenues enough to even keep pace with inflation. That’s not a recipe for long-term fiscal success.

Tory will likely get through his first budget with some well-timed help from the provincial and federal governments, coupled with huge revenues from the land transfer tax. Whether he’ll be able to find a sustainable way to fund city services over the longer term is a big question.

Despite all the doubts, that's a question I’m glad to be asking. At least it’s a question about the future of the city and not about drugs or whether David Blaine might show up and do card tricks in front of the mayor’s office.

We've yet to see what kind of mayor Tory will be, but it's reasonable to assume he’ll talk more about the city than he does about himself.

Low bar or not, that’s a pretty good start.

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