By Jonathon Van Maren
On the heels of the recent news that Ontario rented a giant rubber duck for Canada’s 150th Anniversary at the hefty price of $150,000—with no one being able to explain what this duck actually has to do with Canada or anything that has happened in the last 150 years—comes this simultaneously maddening and hilarious story from from CTV:
A Toronto man who spent $550 building a set of stairs in his community park says he has no regrets, despite the city’s insistence that he should have waited for a $65,000 city project to handle the problem. The city is now threatening to tear down the stairs because they were not built to regulation standards.
Retired mechanic Adi Astl says he took it upon himself to build the stairs after several neighbours fell down the steep path to a community garden in Tom Riley Park, in Etobicoke, Ont. Astl says his neighbours chipped in on the project, which only ended up costing $550 – a far cry from the $65,000-$150,000 price tag the city had estimated for the job.
“I thought they were talking about an escalator,” Astl told CTV News Channel on Wednesday. Toronto bylaw officials have taped off these privately-built stairs in Tom Riley Park, in Etobicoke, Ont.
Astl says he hired a homeless person to help him and built the eight steps in a matter of hours. Astl’s wife, Gail Rutherford, says the stairs have already been a big help to people who routinely take that route through the park. “I’ve seen so many people fall over that rocky path that was there to begin with,” she said. “It’s a huge improvement over what was there.”
Astl says members of his gardening group have been thanking him for taking care of the project, especially after one of them broke her wrist falling down the slope last year.
“To me, the safety of people is more important than money,” Astl said. “So if the city is not willing to do it, I have to do it myself.”
City bylaw officers have taped off the stairs while officials make a decision on what to do with it. However, Astl has not been charged with any sort of violation. Mayor John Tory acknowledged that the city estimate sounds “completely out of whack with reality” on Wednesday. However, he says that still doesn’t justify allowing private citizens to bypass city bylaws to build public structures themselves.
“I think everyone will understand that it will be more than $550,” he said on Wednesday. “We just can’t have people decide to go out to Home Depot and build a staircase in a park because that’s what they would like to have.”
This, in one great story, is nearly all of the reasons people hate and mistrust government. First of all, people are sick of waiting months for the government to accomplish something that a handyman—who managed to employ a homeless guy for a bit as a bonus—could finish up in an afternoon, for tens of thousands of dollars less. The folks who provided the original estimate were either thieves, incompetents, or political donors, and likely all three. After the enterprising carpenter put up the staircase for the safety of passersby, the government immediately became concerned with the hazards of this new staircase, one of them being that it highlights the fact that they’re basically just burning stacks of taxpayers’ money to warm themselves at night.
The mayor’s belated admission that the original price tag was “out of whack with reality” didn’t stop the bureaucrats from scurrying over to the new staircase, which was already being used, and roping it off until the same experts who had managed to secure a screaming hot deal of a cool hundred grand to get it built could assess whether or not the guy who could finish it off in an afternoon with five hundred bucks knew what he was doing. These are the people we hand our money off to in order to ensure that things run smoothly. And we wonder why our taxes keep going up?
The whole debacle reminded me of something G.K. Chesterton explained to the Cleveland Press in an interview back in 1921, on why politics should be local:
The men whom the people ought to choose to represent them are too busy to take the jobs. But the politician is waiting for it. He’s the pestilence of modern times. What we should try to do is make politics as local as possible. Keep the politicians near enough to kick them. The villagers who met under the village tree could also hang their politicians to the tree. It’s terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged today.
I’ve often complained about the fact that my tax dollars go into coffers managed by people who shovel it into burning barrels as fast as it comes in instead of to my municipality, where it is far easier to keep people accountable. If you know where your money is going and how much of it, and yet the pothole down the road isn’t fixed six months later while the mayor drives a Cadillac and awards the pothole-filling contract to a safety-conscious slickster from a big firm for a thousand bucks a pothole, that mayor is probably not going to get elected next time around. Or even stroll around outdoors in large crowds, for that matter. And he’s certainly not going to use your money to float a giant inflatable bathtub duck down the river.
But governments are so good at wasting taxpayer’s money that it’s pretty much a punchline at this point. Maclean’s has published reams of articles on the various stupid and cringeworthy ways the government manages to dispose of money you sweated for, including the practice of politicians rummaging around regularly in the public purse. One of Donald Trump’s favorite gimmicks on the campaign trail was simply to read off various ludicrous government expenses, and then look up and snort and roll his eyes while the crowd roared and cheered. Nobody even expects the government to respect the taxpayers anymore.
But hey, maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m just an ungrateful citizen who should be able to see why a tiny staircase that was built because the lack thereof was dangerous is now dangerous and must be roped off by experts who thought a staircase of that size could cost up to a hundred grand in order to be safe, and that the people who provided such an estimate actually knew what they were talking about. But I doubt it.
For anyone interested, my book on The Culture War, which analyzes the journey our culture has taken from the way it was to the way it is and examines the Sexual Revolution, hook-up culture, the rise of the porn plague, abortion, commodity culture, euthanasia, and the gay rights movement, is available for sale here