Starting over… again.

It’s Monday March 4, 2013 and the start of the last few days that I will be living at my parents’ house in London Ontario. I moved back to my hometown in September of 2009, in hopes of restarting my life in London, using the experience I’d gained as a political assistant at the City of Toronto and as a roadie for a start-up firm. I guess I’d hoped that London had grown as much as I had in the intervening years since I’d left in 1998. 11 years seemed like enough time for my own growth, to be able to find a pretty good job. I quickly found out that London had changed less than I had. This is not meant to be an embittered dear john letter to my hometown but more of an explanation of the rationale for me to be taking the enormous risk that I am in again seeking to make a huge life-change.

For many people, London is idyllic and a great place to raise a family, build a career and pursue one’s personal interests. Unfortunately, it is also a City that suffers from an identity crisis and a lack of clear vision from its citizens and leaders. London’s unemployment rate is stagnant – with new job seekers constantly filling the welfare rolls as soon as others move off them. No new job creation of any significance has occurred since the end of the last recession and in fact, more jobs have been lost than created. Those that are being created are largely part-time, without benefits jobs, rather than progressive career positions. London is becoming a service-sector economy while manufacturing jobs continue to be lost. The dearth of good ideas or any bigger vision of what the City can be, needs to be, must be to survive, is represented by the fact that the sole promise the current Mayor made to get elected was to freeze taxes, saving the average homeowner $30 per year (for every one percent that has been forgone.) Because property taxes are compounding, the 4 years of Mayor Fontana will be felt for another 10 years. (see Toronto after Mel Lastman.)

Because there is no differentiation between tax classes in London, or at least none that is acknowledged by local leaders, assessment shrinkage (or growth) is an underlying issue that no one is addressing. Tax shifts from class to class can be far more financially dangerous than a 1 percent annual increase on the residential class. London’s is a very sadly informed discussion and the preoccupation with taxes indicates that people see little or no added value from their municipal government until cuts are threatened to services that they use.

Regardless of the impact of yearly tax increases, the fact that the choice is simply seen as increased taxes versus cut services indicates that London and its leaders have no real vision about the future of this City. Furthermore, current ideas about economic development initiatives demonstrate a clear lack of understanding about the dire situation in which London currently finds itself, or the future that lays before it. News of Detroit’s recent declaration of bankruptcy ought to have Leaders in London holding emergency sessions to build a new vision. Sadly, if guided by the same thinking that got it to this point, London’s solutions (illustrated by the 5 ‘quick start’ EcDev proposals currently on the table) that might likely lead to a quicker death, rather than a rebound.

London’s biggest issue is this: The City’s financial obligations are funded by unsustainable development. Rather than immediately stopping more unsustainable sprawl, London’s current Mayor wants to put his foot on the gas pedal for a quick return. While we have tens of kilometers of underused arterial roads, he wants to expand them further with little economic support to pay for what we already can’t maintain. The Mayor wants to service lands that are currently agricultural, south of the 401 and with little other than speculation that these lands cannot be leased without services (ie, without massive subsidies, businesses will not locate here.) One might think that the closure of the Ford Talbotville Assembly plant and the Caterpillar facility would be an indicator of exactly what happens when businesses can no longer get location incentives, or when another site offers better ones – that the opportunity cost of providing subsidies is growing a strong local business base that will remain regardless of such factors.

The City we continue to build in London is one that sees short-term savings as being just as important as long-term success. The value of residential permits is generally a one-year source of funds, largely paying for the system that processes building permits. Increases in assessment have a one-year benefit, and a revenue neutral impact with respect to other properties – since City Budgets are first built then divided among assessed properties and the Mill Rate being a result of that process. (Don’t be alarmed if you’ve never heard these terms, as London’s discussion of taxes is entirely simplistic.)

Pursuing 1980s Economic Development strategies, rather than looking to the future and using the techniques that have been successfully implemented in other post-industrial, post-manufacturing locations will only lead to more shuttering of factories, more unemployment and a race to the bottom of public service provision. When you are freezing taxes, and that’s your only vision, as a jurisdiction you are effectively in retreat. Instead of focusing on the tax side, London needs to focus on the tax policy, tax class and assessment side of the equation. The previous Mayor got this though unfortunately her personal issues and seemingly poor judgment got in the way of her continued electoral success.

London is currently suffering the hangover of post-war development patterns and rather than seeing Detroit as the emblem of suburban failure that it is, London is fueling white flight to the suburbs in the year 2013. A few of London’s planners seem to understand this but sadly the citizens, politicians and developers either don’t know or don’t care that the City they are leaving is doomed to certain failure. Instead, the current vision is to build splashy circus buildings, sell public land for one-time injections of cash (that will no doubt be used to move the existing public service provider to a new location) and to cut ribbons at massive large new employers who will solve London’s problem in one or two factories. This is a strategy for short-term electoral success but long-term community failure.

I have tried to voice my opinion in London but have been met with little other than the reply “Why are you so negative?” While I’m nowhere near her stature, intelligence, experience or dynamism, I rarely heard Jane Jacobs appear at Toronto City Hall with positive feel-good statements but rather a good deal of doom-and-gloom predictions regarding the outcomes of development. Do people think Jane was being positive when she was fighting the construction of highways through Greenwich Village or through Forest Hill? My goal is ultimately a positive one; to leave a sustainable (economically, environmentally, socially) world behind and to (the highest of my ideal) suggest that repeating the same actions and expecting different results is the definition of insanity.

I love my hometown. I just am not crazy about what its leaders and citizens are doing with it. So now, it is time for me to make a new leap of faith, to trust in the universe and to get back on a path of personal success and fulfillment.

Next post: Why Ottawa.


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