With trash talk over, privatization showdown set for city hall this week

A vote on garbage could hand Mayor John Tory his first major council defeat this week, with opponents saying the privatization plan for Scarborough is based on “an alternative truth.”

The vote has the potential to deliver the mayor his first major council defeat and follows weeks of campaigning — and trash-talking battles on Twitter — by pro and anti-privatization forces using robocalls, radio ads and old fashioned door knocking.

The pressure tactics will continue this week. CUPE Local 416, which represents 500 city solid-waste employees, is urging its members and their families to show up to city hall wearing Local 416 hats and “Kicked to the Curb” T-shirts.

Starting Tuesday, council is expected to begin debating whether to initiate a bidding process to determine who can collect the garbage in Scarborough at the best possible price. Right now, city workers handle that dirty business.

The vote’s outcome is not a foregone conclusion.

Last week, councillors across the political spectrum — including some members of the mayor’s executive committee — were either undecided or leaning toward a “no” vote.

“My residents are getting back to me heavily in favour of the status quo,” Councillor Paul Ainslie, a member of the inner circle, said after laying out the pros and cons in an email blast to his Scarborough-East constituents. He also had a town hall on the subject.

“When I first got elected in 2006, my No. 1 complaint from people was garbage collection,” Ainslie said Friday. “The complaints I get about garbage collection are minuscule now,” so why “pick that battle” when residents are happy with the service and the savings aren’t that significant?

“I’ve got more homework to do,” said Etobicoke Councillor John Campbell. The union has made “a compelling argument,” about the concessions they made in the last round of bargaining, he said.

Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong said he doesn’t understand what the fuss is about. He was in charge of contracting out garbage, between the Humber River and Yonge St., under the late Mayor Rob Ford.

“It makes sense to get the best price, and the only way to find out the truth is to go to the market and ask,” says Minnan-Wong, a diehard fiscal hawk.

“If the union believes that they do provide the best deal, they should have nothing to be afraid of because then they’ll win.”

But privatization opponents say this is all an ideologically driven exercise challenged by facts.

“If you look at the numbers, it doesn’t support the case,” says Councillor Joe Mihevc, a member of council’s left-wing flank. “It’s an alternative truth environment.”

The source of concern for Mihevc and some others on the 44-member council is two contradictory reports written by staff of the city’s solid waste division.

A 2015 staff report — peer-reviewed by Ernst & Young consultants — concluded Toronto would not save money by further contracting out the city’s garbage services.

The report included cost comparisons that found in 2014, it was cheaper per stop for city employees to pick up the trash in Scarborough, called District 4, than for private collection in Etobicoke, which is District 1.

Immediately Tory and his allies cast doubt on the report’s conclusion. A new report was ordered.

This one, released last fall, found that contracting out might yield cost savings. Updated cost comparisons are secret so as not to give the private sector an unfair advantage in a future tendering process.

The latest report also showed that when it comes to recycling, in-house was better.

But councillors familiar with the confidential numbers say in-house collection, in 2015, was cheaper in Scarborough than in Etobicoke, when measured by per house pickup, while there were only “slight” savings when based on tonnage.

“If it is made public, he (Tory) will lose,” said Councillor Jim Karygiannis who represents Scarborough-Agincourt.

He blitzed all Scarborough residents with “voicemail drops” last week, “giving them the facts and figures,” and the overwhelming response was to oppose contracting out, he said.

Councillor Paula Fletcher, a left-wing councillor, said she thinks the partial sale of Ontario Hydro and soaring hydro bills have dampened public appetite for privatization.

“They’re not hungry for another experiment, especially when the numbers don’t add up.”

Councillor Josh Matlow said he is still trying to make sense of the facts and wants reassurance from staff that the latest report is based on sound evidence.

“It’s not important to me what the mayor’s office wants me to do or not, nor do I care what the union wants me to do or not,” he said last week.

“I’ll make a decision that I believe is right, and I’ll go to bed that night believing that I based it on evidence.”

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