Today I participated in one of the first of several budget consultations that the City of Toronto is having this year called Listening to Toronto.
Throughout the session we were seated at round tables of 6-8 people. (There were about 20 tables.) We listened to opening remarks and detailed presentations from the front of the room, and worked with a facilitator in our small groups to create ideas.
We worked through a booklet, on three main areas:
The results of our work were tabulated, summarized and presented in real-time by a very efficient team from the city. Over the seven sessions the complete results will be brought together and presented to the budget committee and council by Mayor Miller.
Both Mayor Miller and budget chief David Soknacki were there, and involved. Although Miller had to leave halfway through for a family event, he gave a couple sets of comments to the group and also visited as many tables as he could.
At the end of the session Soknacki told us that when Miller first suggested these sessions he was rather skeptical. He expected they would just be a forum for special pleading. Instead, he felt he had been proven wrong; he was impressed to see what could be produced by regular citizens working together, and was very optimistic about the results.
I agree strongly about the value of the sessions. They are a great way for the city's government to get a sense of what the community values as council sits down to make trade-offs. It will also likely generate some good ideas about what to do and what can be done.
However, what we didn't do was come up with a miracle cure.
The city faces a budget shortfall of $344 million. A large portion (34%) of the city's spending is on provincially-mandated social services. 15% goes to interest payments for capital financing. Another large portion goes to services that (according to at least part of the population) are underfunded and untouchable, like police and transit. The rest are peanuts.
On the revenue side, the city is also very limited. A provincial law prevents the city from raising property taxes on anything other than residences Miller and Soknacki seem to have agreed that the property taxes on these people will be raised by 3%. (Miller promised rate of inflation during the election.) This will raise all of about $33 million.
There is some hope that efficiencies and savings can be found, but the city has been pumping water from that well for years. The only real answer is a fair deal with the provincial governments and a new deal with the federal government.
[EDIT: Bill 140 prevents the city from raising taxes on multi-residential buildings, too.]
[UPDATE: Royson James' column today had a good discussion of the impossibility of the situation facing the city.]