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Park levies story

29-May-2010 [59]

• The park levies story. By Jutta Mason, 2009

Part of Capital Budget

There was a woman who used to drive her electric wheelchair into the park and park it right in the middle, beside some big trees. Her name was Yvonne, and she lived halfway up Gladstone Avenue just north of the park. She was in the wheelchair because of an auto-immune disease that made it hard to move very much. She was often in pain and the many bumps on the park’s dirt-rut centre path made the ride feel worse. But she wanted to be in the park, to read or just sit in the sun and watch people. The path is made of “hazmac,” tiny bits of gravel sometimes mixed with sand and even clay. When it rains, it turns into a muck that catches cyclists’ wheels, and strollers too. So in wet weather, people struggle through the park – but they still go there, lots of them. Then the path is full of footprints, which harden when the path dries and make more bumps.

The fact is, the park needs an asphalt path. I asked the park maintenance supervisor, “who does one talk to, to get a path paved?” He said they’re a separate group called “Policy and Development,” with a subgroup called “capital projects.” He said he didn’t know much about what they do because they rarely consult with the park staff. By the time the park staff hear about a new project, it’s a done deal. But he said there’s a development fee called a “park levy,” which comes to a park when multiple new housing units are added at once in a neighborhood. The idea is that a whole group of new people moving into a neighbourhood will crowd the local parks, and the levies will allow the city to buy more parkland or improve existing parks.

So I thought – if there’s been any new building around here recently I should find out how much park levy money the city got, and where it went, and whether some of it’s left over to pave the road so that Yvonne won’t be hurting.

I knew there was a whole row of houses that had been put in where the old Lithuanian Church stood, a block to the south of the park. When I cycled around the neighborhood, I found three other clusters of new units, within a block of each other, some new, some infil apartments around a warehouse. Bonanza.

I copied down the addresses and sent them to our city councillor’s office. After a month there was still no answer. It turned out that the councillor’s assistant wasn’t sure who to ask – all roads led to a dead end.

That seemed strange, so I urged the assistant to try some more. Eventually he called me back and said there seemed to be no building permits for any of these new buildings, so no trace of the park levy money either. By then it had been several months since my bike trip around the neighbourhood, so I printed off a “freedom of information” form and filled it out and mailed it to the city’s Corporate Access and Information Office. I asked them how much park levy money was collected for those new housing developments, and where it went.

That produced an answer a month later. One of the buildings was subsidized housing, the letter said, so no levy was charged. Another was detached housing, classified as low density, so no levy was charged. A third was not listed as an address at all, so they could find no building permit. Only one of the four addresses had a levy amount: $60,582. But there was no way to trace what it had been used for. It had gone into a “reserve account” where it was pooled for “park repairs and upgrades” – but for where? The categories were vague. The money was divided into four parts: 25 per cent went to local park acquisition; 25 per cent to city wide acquisition; 25 per cent to local park development, 25 per cent to city wide development.

Then as I read on, it turned out that the 50 per cent going to “local” meant the money went into whichever of the four districts where the new development was located. So the $60,000 paid to the city a block from our park was pooled in a “South” district fund. South district was the entire former city of Toronto. That’s what the city meant by “local”!

Not a very impressive result for my sleuthing, and no money for paving the path. The maintenance supervisor said with some heat, “we never know where any of the money goes. All we know is that we don’t see any of it around here. You won’t get your path paved.”

A puzzle: where does the park levies money go? I poked around, and asked, and asked, until a different supervisor finally took me for a tour of his area. He did get money for improvements because his area was right downtown and “high visibility.” He proudly showed me his new plantings along a wide boulevard bordered by some of the country’s biggest hospitals and insurance companies. At the north end of his region, there was a new park, commemorating a poet. It had several sculptures of giant polished granite dominoes, as well as gardens, and stone tablets with poems on them. The supervisor was proud of this park but, he said, the original plan was far better, until the money ran out. The Policy and Development division had taken a bigger percentage of the budget than expected for their salaries, and that meant cutting back on the plantings.

Salaries? Moneys for new parks come out of the capital budget, whereas staff salaries come out of the operating budget. The Municipal Act says that while a city can borrow from the bank for its capital budget, they can’t borrow to pay staff. I knew that only a part of the capital budget comes from the mysterious park levies – the majority comes from borrowing. While the supervisor was talking about the annoyance of the policy and development percentage, skimming ten percent off the money approved for a new project, I turned this puzzle over in my mind. Was the city breaking the law? Why would they be using capital fund to pay staff salaries?

The supervisor said they were having to pad their project costs so that the Policy and Development percentage wouldn’t leave them short. “But what do they actually do for that money? Most of the time, not much,” he grumbled. He drove me around some more to show me the Music Garden and other glories of his region, but I was distracted by this puzzle.

After a couple of weeks I decided I’d better try to find the answer. I had learned that there was no such thing as asking Policy and Development staff a direct question. Circling around the subject seemed to be the next possibility, just trying to grasp how the city used this money. I sent in another freedom of information request. Paving our path would have been a “local park development” expense. I asked, how much “local development” money did the city take in every year, and how much “citywide development” money?

It was easy to pick a time frame for these questions: everything was “since amalgamation.” Before amalgamation was already a dark misty time that no one could remember very well, like “before the second World War.” The answers came back incomplete for 1999 (too close to the mists) and for 2004 (too recent), but complete for 2000 to 2003. Since then, the city had banked equal amounts of money to their local and to citywide development reserve funds: $4.5 million to each fund in 2000, $6.7 million in 2001, $5 million in 2003, $5.3 million in 2003. The numbers for 2004 were not complete.

Somewhere in there must have been the $60,000 for the new development a block from our park. I sent in another question: what projects did this money buy? After a month’s delay, the city replied that they couldn’t specify what those particular moneys went for, but they could say what was spent on parks development in any given year. The amounts spent wouldn’t match up with park levies taken in, in any given year, because the money was pooled and used in whatever year it was needed.

I got a big, detailed list, from 2000 to 2004. Although we might not be able to get a path for our park, at least some other parks did get one. Others got a new retaining wall; a lot had their tennis courts rebuilt. Some got new swimming pool filtration, or a skateboard park, or waterplay areas, or sewage lines, or road signs, or ski tows, or playgrounds. Some of the items on the list were just mysteriously called “projects,” and some were fees to professionals, presumably for consulting about plans, or “legal fees, motel strip” ($500,000 plus $56,000 plus $71,861).

One odd thing was that certain parks moved back and forth between being considered “local” and “citywide” projects. For example, $365,000 of the Storybook Garden on Centre Island counted as being park levies for local Toronto, while $214,273 was counted as being citywide. The Wychwood Streetcar Barns had a similar split identity. Here and there a little neighborhood parkette suddenly vaulted into citywide status. I guessed that this was an attempt to conform, on the spreadsheet at least, to the 50/50 local/citywide formula explained to me before. But I didn’t know for sure.

The division between parkland acquisition and park development, which was also supposed to be 50/50, was not close to being even. The project list, spread out over a period of five years, showed $22.1 million for park development and only $8.4 million for parkland acquisition. So I thought….although 50/50 was the guideline, a growing city like Toronto just might not have that much new parkland available to buy. So the Policy and Development staff would have had no choice but to spend more on making the existing parks better.

But then came a new puzzle. I wanted to complete my park levy charts so I filed a request for the parkland acquisition reserve funds (I had the numbers for parkland development reserve funds already). I had put the question in a sloppy way, so what I got back instead was the summary of the actual project spending, in other words, a summary of the detailed project list I had got before. Therefore the totals spent were the same but the grouping into categories was not. The summary reported that the city had spent $12.6 million on park development from 2000 to 2004, and $18.2 million on parkland acquisition.

What was that about? The city’s detailed park levy chart that I had examined before made it pretty obvious that almost $10 million more had been spent on development than the city’s summary park levy chart said. And according to the detailed chart, the city had spent just under half ($8.4 million) of what the summary chart had claimed, for acquiring new parkland. Millions of dollars, not lost, but misreported – why?

A couple of days later it got even stranger. I had asked corporate access to let me see a record of which parkland was acquired in a sample year, showing the details of price, location, and lot size. I chose 2001. The record arrived, and showed a total of $2.7 million spent for new parkland in 2001. This seemed to be a third, entirely new number, since the detailed chart had reported $4.8 million for new parkland for that year and the summary had reported $5.5 million, again for that year.

As the freedom of information responses piled up on my desk, I began to avoid them. Math was never my favourite subject, and math with numbers that jumped around like this made me feel like I was back in trigonometry class, unable to grasp the calculations. But this wasn’t trigonometry, it was plain arithmetic, “add the columns,” and I have a calculator that never lies. There were big disagreements among the city documents, and I had no idea what the reason might be. I didn’t like the feeling.

Circling around again After some months of procrastination, I pulled myself together and asked the corporate access office about Parks and Recreation capital project debt. The motive for asking came from another puzzle, but the capital project figures, when they arrived, included both debt and a category called “other.” This “other” was reported to include cash-in-lieu funds, which seem to be the same as park levies. Perhaps this would be the number that would help me understand the others. So I sent off another request, for a breakdown of the “other” category.

No such luck. When the “other” breakdown came, I was looking at yet another set of numbers that didn’t match any of the others. The total of the “other” detail chart in 2000 was $25.3 million; in the summary chart it was $8.1 million. In 2001, the detail chart had $18 million, the summary chart had $7.6 million. In 2002, the detail chart had $30.1 million, the summary had $18.4 million. In 2003, the detail chart had 37.5 million, the summary chart had $19.5 million. Only in 2004 was the amount almost the same: $47.85 million in the detail chart and $47.60 million in the summary. Only a $250,000 discrepancy! Compared to the $10 million dollar spread (or more) for the other years, the 2004 difference seemed like pocket change.

So I called the office of the general manager of Parks and Recreation, asking for help. Was there someone who could clear up the confusion? They said, no problem, you’ve come to the right place. Just list all your questions and send them to Intiaz Ruffudeen, the general manager’s information and privacy liaison staff person.

I sent the letter (below) on November 22, 2005. As of October 2009, it has not been answered. About two months after I sent the letter, I met Mr.Ruffuddeen in the hallway at city hall. I said, will I be getting an answer to my letter? He said, yes, it’s almost ready. That’s the last I heard.

However, whenever there was an occasion since then, I’ve asked people at city hall about the conflict of interest arising from city staff’s role in approving projects that will contribute to their own payroll. I also asked about the Municipal Act prohibition against using capital moneys to fund operating costs. Most recently, I brought it up in a deputation to the budget committee. City Councillors Joe Mihevc and Gord Perks told me: everybody does it, it’s standard municipal practice. Don’t worry.

The letter:

Park levies questions

November 22, 2005

To: Intiaz Ruffudeen, Information and Privacy liaison staff in the Office of the General Manager, Parks, Forestry and Recreation

1. Distribution of park levy/cash-in-lieu funds:

Access Request 04-2616 reported: “The City’s current policy for distribution of cash-in-lieu payments is as follows: 25% goes to local parkland acquisition 25% goes to local park development 25% goes to citywide parkland acquisition 25% goes to citywide development”

A. Local versus citywide use of park levies funds:

In Access Request 05-0531, certain parks move back and forth between being considered “local” and “citywide” projects. For example,

  • 1.In 2004 $365,000 went to Franklin the Turtle Storybook Garden on Centre Island in the category of local Toronto, while $214,273 went there in the category of citywide in 2002.
  • 2.The Wychwood Streetcar Barns listed $28,550 as local Toronto in 2002, $102,146 as local Toronto in 2003, and $20,033 as citywide in 2004.

Why the inconsistencies?

B. Parkland acquisition versus parkland development use of park levies funds:

In Access Request 05-0531, the project list, spread out over a period of five years from 2000 to 2004, showed $22.1 million for park development and only $8.4 million for parkland acquisition.

In Access Request 05-1904, the total spent for all projects was about the same but the allocation to the categories was not. According to this response, the city had spent $12.6 million on park development from 2000 to 2004, and $18.2 million on parkland acquisition.

In Access Request 05-1903, I asked for a breakdown of the parkland acquisition for 2001, as a sample year. The record showed a total of $2.7 million spent for new parkland in 2001. But compare: Access Request 05-0531 showed $4.8 million for new parkland for that year. And compare again: Access Request 05-1904 showed $5.5 million spent for new parkland in 2001.

Why are all the numbers different? Which are the right ones?

2. Total deposits in park levies accounts:

In Access Request 04-3224, I asked how much went into the local and city wide park development reserve funds from 1998 to 2004. The numbers for 1998 were unavailable. The numbers for 1999 were incomplete, as were the numbers for 2004.

Please tell me the final numbers for 2004 and also the amounts of park levies that went into local and citywide park acquisition reserves from 2000 to 2004.

3. Parks and Recreation capital project non-debt financing.

In Access Request 05-1902 I asked for a breakdown of debt incurred for Parks and Recreation capital projects from 2000 to 2004. The records I received showed debt and “other,” i.e. funds used to pay for capital projects that were not debt, for those years. The chart defined “other” as “Development Charges and Cash-in-Lieu…, Section 37 and 45 contributions when known, donations and fund-raising initiatives by the City or Public.”

In Access Request 05-2667, I asked for a breakdown of the “other” category for 2000 to 2004.

For 2000, the first chart (05-1902) listed the total “other” funds as $8.1 million. The second chart (05-2667) listed the total “other” funds as $25.3 million.

For 2001, the first chart listed “other” as $7.6 million. The second chart listed “other” as $18 million.

For 2002, the first chart listed “other” as $18.4 million. The second chart listed “other” as $30.1 million.

For 2003, the first chart listed “other” as $19.5 million. The second chart listed “other” as $37.5 million.

For 2004 was the first chart listed “other” as $47.60 million. The second chart listed “other” as $47.85 million.

So the total 2000 to 2004 non-debt financing for Parks and Recreation capital projects was listed as $101.4 million in the first chart (of total financing of $216 million for approved projects, versus total actual spending of $205.8 million) and $158.8 million in the second chart.

Why are the numbers so different? Which are the right ones?
The second chart divides “other” three main categories: development charges, “other,” and “reserve funds.” What does the “other” subcategory of “other” consist of? What makes up the “reserve funds”?

If development charges are the same as park levies, that would mean that only $36.3 million of about $105 million (est. from Access Request 04-3224) was used for capital projects. Is that true?

4. Planned versus actual capital expenditures for Parks and Recreation.

In Access Request 05-1902, the first chart gives approved capital budget totals for each year from 2000 to 2004. The second chart compares planned capital spending totals (rates??) versus actuals. Comparing the first and the second chart: 2000: Approved: $50.5 million. Planned: $43.3 million. Actual: $42.6 million.
2001: Approved: $34.4 million. Planned: $63.8 million. Actual: $39.7 million.
2002: Approved: $29.2 million. Planned: $64.3 million. Actual: $31.8 million.
2003: Approved: $40.7 million. Planned: $72.9 million. Actual: $44.6 million.
2004: Approved: $64.9 million. Planned: $77.5 million. Actual: $47.1 million.

The second chart gives favourable percentages of “actual” versus “planned.” But when the “approved” is compared to the “actual” it appears that Parks and Recreation overspent its approved capital budget by $5.3 million in 2001, $2.6 million in 2002, and $3.9 million in 2003. Then in 2004, the “approved” amount goes up astronomically.

Was this a transposition error, since the “actual” for 2004 is (uncharacteristically) much lower than the “approved”?

5. Debt charges In Access Request 05-1902, the debt charges go from a low of $1.8 million in 2000 to a high of $11.1 million in 2004.

  • 1.Does this mean that Parks and Recreation capital projects carried no or very low debt charges coming into amalgamation?
  • 2.Why did the debt charges almost double from 2002 to 2003, with only a small increase in the interest rate?

6. Policy and development capital projects section salaries

Four access requests explained that Toronto city council, around the time of amalgamation, voted to cover the Policy and Development capital projects section salaries with a percentage of capital projects costs. The percentages seem to vary from 2% to 10% with an average of 7%. Calculating 7% of the yearly “actuals,” this would suggest that capital projects section salaries (2000 to 2004) were about: 2000: $2,983,190; 2001: $2,782,430; 2002: $2,229,710; 2003: $3,126,130; 2004: $3,301,200.

  • 1.Is that approximately correct?
  • 2.How many capital projects staff does that pay for?
  • 3.Since the municipal act prohibits using debt to cover operating funds (e.g. staff salaries), will this situation be remedied? If so, when?

From Access Request 05-3085: The maximum salary total for Policy and Development staff in 2004 would be $1,628,241 (if all 22 staff were paid at the top of their range). Compare with guess of percentage held back for salaries from all capital projects: $3,301,200.

Was there a slush fund of $1,672,959?

This letter was never answered, despite several assurances that the answer was on its way. Mr.Ruffudeen is now a policy/program advisor to Deputy City Manager Richard Butts.

From the City of Toronto website:

The role of the Deputy City Managers is to assist the City Manager in administrative governance and oversight activities, and to ensure that programs and services are working together to deliver excellent services to citizens and achieve Council’s priorities.