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Parks and Recreation Capital Budget stories

September 2007 07-Oct-2011 [685]

By: Jutta Mason

Learning about the park budget is like looking through a keyhole. If you stay at the keyhole for a long time, you can see a lot, but there will always be some things happening just out of range – you might hear some suggestive things, but you can’t be sure. And if you ask anybody that comes out of that room to tell you more, they’ll ask you what business is it of yours? This account is written with the idea that how Toronto is run is the business of everyone who lives there.

Municipal debt

When David Miller became mayor of Toronto at the end of 2003, Toronto’s net financial liabilities stood at $1.59 billion of debt. For comparison: that year Calgary had $382 million assets, Edmonton had $2.16 billion assets, Vancouver had $42 million debt, and Montreal’s debt stood at four times that of Toronto: $6.26 billion debt. [Auditor’s report, Toronto 2005]

By the end of David Miller’s first term three years later, Toronto’s debt had gone up by more than three-quarters of a billion, to $2.388 billion. In contrast, the other four cities had all improved their standing somewhat: Calgary was up to $561 million assets, Edmonton was at $2.531 billion assets, Vancouver had reduced it debt to $7 million, and even Montreal was inching back down, having reduced its liabilities by $211 million to $6.049 billion debt. [2006 City of Toronto Audited Financial Statements]

I said this to our ward’s city councillor, a young man who became head of the TTC committee before he hit 30. The mayor counts on our councillor’s loyalty, and so far it’s been 100%. So when our councillor told me that Toronto’s debt is not much, relative to the provincial or the federal governments, I assume that he was echoing the mayor’s position. In the big picture, for the largest city in Canada, what’s two billion dollars of debt?

In 2006, interest payments on Toronto’s municipal debt were $203 million.

All this money had to come out of the city’s operating funds, which were already overspent by $300 million before the interest payments were calculated in. That made it seem sensible to close down all the outdoor rinks for the month of December.

The mayor and the councillor can have some signs made: “don’t worry, the city’s municipal debt is not all that big, if you take the bigger picture into account.” Then they could have those signs posted in the locked doors of each ice rink. That should help.

Building on credit

For quite a few years now, Toronto City Council has called for a lid on new capital spending, hoping to keep from going deeper into the hole. So Council has ordered that whatever the city owns that’s dangerous, or broken, or that falls under provincial or federal legislation requiring cities to make changes, gets the first run at the capital funds, so it can be fixed. Once those obligations have been met, Council will consider whether the city can afford to borrow more money for luxuries like new community centres or skateboard parks.

So in 2007, City staff’s capital budget recommendations asserted that 75% of the $1.432 billion to be spent that year belongs to one of these three must-have categories. According to City staff, over $1 billion of new capital spending proposed for 2007 was absolutely unavoidable.

That meant another $507 million of new debt. But year after year the City’s budget summaries contain cautions about increasing debt: "....If a municipality’s current debt levels and future trends appear to be high, this will have a negative impact on its credit rating.” A negative credit rating means the city will be charged higher interest when it borrows, and the interest payments coming out of the operating budget will increase even faster. [2005 Operating & Capital Budget Summary, p.73]

Fixing what’s broken

So Toronto has both a high current debt level and a disturbing “trend” – an increase of over three-quarters of a billion dollars in net liabilities in four years. To see if there’s any way out of this, it seems like a good idea to look at the three must-have categories in some more detail. Parks capital spending is our example.

The category that’s most often used to justify new capital spending is called “state of good repair,” fixing what’s broken or might break soon. There are several different ways to evaluate what needs repairing.

One approach is, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” For parks, rinks and recreation centres, that could mean that the Parks capital staff would wait until the Facilities office got a call from a particular location: “the roof is leaking,” “the hot water won’t work,” or “the washroom door came off its hinges.” Then after the plumber had a look, s/he might say: “this water line is part of an old plumbing job that needs to be replaced – all the pipes are starting to spring leaks.” And so s/he would take measurements, order supplies, and come back fairly soon to rework the plumbing. And maybe the trades foreman, coming by to check on the plumbing work, would take a walk around the place with the on-site recreation staff, and they would discuss other work that needed doing: painting the benches in the park outside, installing more bike rings, getting in a heating contractor to figure out the temperature fluctuations in the gym. They would then check with the “state of good repair” planners and see if the funds were there. This is the local approach.

A different way to approach “state-of-good-repair” is to make an inventory of ALL the repairs that need to be done to ALL Parks properties. Such inventories usually try to include not only what needs to be repaired now but also what will maybe go wrong in future, and when it might go wrong. When such an inventory is supposed to cover all the parks, rinks and recreation centres across the whole city, it’s an overwhelming job. But that’s the route Toronto City staff took. They got help: in 2001, they hired the firm of WGA Wong Gregerson Architects to tell the city what needs to be fixed in “recreational and cultural facilities.” That report cost $392,448. Inspectors went from place to place checking roofs and walls and wiring and water lines, etc., and writing down what shape everything was in. They wrote down what needs repair now and what may need repair or replacement later, up to a period of 25 years, making a separate, detailed report for every facility owned by Parks and Recreation. In 2004, CELOS researchers examined a sample item of this state-of-good-repair inventory: the Dufferin Outdoor Rink report, which runs to ten pages. We found that three years after the audit (1) none of the audit's recommendations for that rink had been carried out and (2) not one of the things that did in fact go wrong with Dufferin Rink in the course of those three years was predicted by this audit.

It may be that there were similar problems with the audit in other parts of the city. The response of the City Policy and Development Division was to ask City Council for another $803,000 to do a repeat state-of-good repair audit of exactly the same facilities. They said that they need more details. Our researchers looked over the proposed new audit contract. The new details that the planning staff wanted this time were remarkable similar to the old details. So in July 2004, a group of us tried to interest city council in stopping the second audit and reallocating the $803,000 to be put into the actual Parks repair budget.

No luck at all. The $803,000 expenditure for a consulting company called Accent Building Sciences passed through council in an eyeblink.

Once the City hires such a consultant, the machine grinds on as before while the consultant’s staff make their visits. At Dufferin Rink, a consulting engineer with a badge and a clipboard passed by one day to check for asbestos. After he had gone over the plant, he asked the rink staff when the rink was built. When he heard that it was in 1993, he sighed. The information he got from city planning staff said 1961, which is why he had come to do the asbestos check. No asbestos had been added to any city buildings since 1973, so he had wasted his time.

The engineer gave the rink staff a short unhappy litany, about the troubles connected with this inventory – missing or wrong information on his facilities sheets, building visits where the doors were locked when he arrived to do his checks, unhelpfulness from staff when they did show up. Dufferin Rink staff gave him a cup of coffee and a rink snack bar cookie, and then he left.

Other inventory engineers must have come and gone without making themselves know to the rink staff. The only other direct encounter with the consultants was one chilly day at the Dufferin Grove wading pool. I saw a man with a clipboard, struggling to open the lock on the central water outlet of the pool – his key didn’t work. It turned out that he was doing the wading pool audit, so I opened the hatch for him. I showed him the big side pit too, with rusting pipes. The wading pool was all fine except for those pipes. Wading pool staff had been trying to get them fixed for five years or more. The response had always been: no money. The engineer seemed puzzled by the wading pool, and said that he didn’t know much about such pools, since his company usually did much bigger projects. But he went all around with his clipboard, writing things down. Then he left, and nothing happened for a year or so.

Conflict of interest

One day during that down-time I got a ride from a Parks supervisor who was in a bad mood. He mentioned that a new park design project was in trouble because the Parks capital projects department’s 10% allocation of the project cost was squeezing the project budget badly. He said the 10% went right off the top to cover the City capital projects staff payroll, even if, as in this case, they really hadn’t worked much on the design, nor did he expect much help in the day-today project management. I asked him, but isn’t that illegal? If capital funds for a new park are going into City staff payroll, that means borrowed money is going to pay for City operating costs. That’s not allowed, in the municipal act!

He said they do it anyway.

This was one more peculiar piece of information in a collection of mismatching facts and capital expenditure numbers that our CELOS research had turned up, in the course of a year of freedom-of-information requests about capital costs and consultant reports. We had asked, how many consultant reports were commissioned by Parks staff? How much did the reports cost and what results did they lead to? What kinds of repairs made it onto the state-of-good-repair lists?

Our information requests had been prompted by the fact that repair or improvement requests at Dufferin Grove Park were almost inevitably turned down. The field house roof shingles were frayed and falling off? No funds to re-shingle. The dirt thoroughfare that is the main path through the park needs paving? Not even on the capital projects list. The wading pool staff are dislocating their shoulders trying the open the crank that turns on the pool tap? No fix in sight. The drinking fountain hadn’t worked for two years? Needs a new water line – no funds.

Park supervisors elsewhere had complained for some years that the park levies that developers have to pay to the city – 0.04% of building costs, to make sure there is adequate park space in the neighbourhood of new developments – were not showing up as available funds for improving nearby parks. Where was the money going?

Freedom of information requests take a while, but eventually some responses come back. First off, in response to the percentage of capital projects funding that goes into Parks capital projects staff payroll:

Only the Capital Projects section is required to recover 100% of staff salaries & benefits through a ‘recovery from capital’ charge. Shortly after amalgamation, a corporate decision was made that the full salary and benefits of the Capital Projects Section were to be recovered by allowing a charge of up to 10% against the gross budget of sub-projects within the capital budget.

The budget for any capital sub-project contains the following components:
- salary and benefit recovery
- professional and technical services (external consulting)
- contingencies for design and construction
- construction costs

The fact that the municipal act prohibits borrowing to pay staff (payroll is an operating cost) was apparently not a problem for the City government, nor had the provincial auditor challenged the practice. It was explained to us that the larger, more complex projects are more likely to result in the 10% charge or close to it. Small or very straightforward projects might divert as little as 1% into the capital projects staff payroll.

But here lies a problem (and presumably the reason for the Municipal Act prohibition). Large projects are obviously what’s needed to cover the payroll costs for a sizeable unit of capital project staff. Building a new community centre for $15 million helps the most. But during budget restraint, new community centres have to be put on hold. At such times, a repair project that involves rebuilding a park facility from scratch contributes a lot more to the payroll than re-shingling a field house roof for $15,000. The conflict of interest in weighing small repair requests against large rebuilding projects is therefore pretty strong, for City planning staff.

There are also outsiders who are very collegial with Parks planning staff, as a natural consequence of working together and even swapping staff at times. Architects and other external consulting companies benefit very little from a straightforward roofing or paving job that could be done by a construction company with minimal blueprints. Having mainly small simple projects would hurt those companies that predicate their own payrolls on getting regular contracts with the City. So when a $300,000 mechanical upgrade recommendation for the McCormick Community Centre, near Dufferin Grove Park, is converted into a $3,000,000 top-to-bottom overhaul, a lot of people are happy. That includes the local city councillor. Although the project can still be categorized as “state-of-good-repair,” he can tell his constituents that he managed to get them a state-of-the-art renovation, with the latest in new flooring and wall tiles and sleek sitting areas.

Over the long term, though, this arrangement has led to the neglect of many everyday repair problems in parks and community centres, all over the city, wherever a repair or improvement is too small to be of interest to capital projects staff. And the attractiveness of large projects has contributed to the mounting capital debt that the city has to carry.

No money for paths

Just up the street from Dufferin Grove Park, there lived a woman named Yvonne, who had to use an electric wheelchair. She loved to drive her wheelchair down to the park and watch people, and read her book out in the sunshine. But the main path into the park was unpaved and rutted from the bike and stroller wheels that sank into the ground whenever it rained. Like many people in wheelchairs, Yvonne found it very painful to be shaken, so she was often unable to come into the park on the rutted path. She asked if there was any chance that the main park thoroughfare would be paved. So I e-mailed the manager in charge of such projects, asking how we could get on the paving list.

Here was his reply: I have been allocated $37,500 for Hard Surfaces Preservation from the Capital Budget. This is to fund projects (walkway improvements, tennis court resurfacings , interlocking paver repairs and concrete sidewalk repairs for the South District , which includes the former City of Toronto and East York) which would cost less than $50,000, the budget amount which would allow a project to qualify as a capital project in its own right.. Requests for use of these funds are sent to me from the 12 park supervisors in our District , and I try to distribute these funds as equitably as possible. Currently, I have a list of "urgent" requests for this funding which total over $365,000. Dufferin Grove is not on the list, but I can add it to the list of projects which I am currently not able to fund this year.

Development levies confusion

By that time, Dufferin Grove Park had already become one of the busiest neighbourhood parks in the city. There had recently been some small housing developments added to the area. So we sent another little cluster of CELOS freedom of information requests, asking City staff about the levies paid to Parks by developers. These are the levies for adding more parkland, or improving existing parks, wherever new housing was added. But we had seen no park levies funds, not for paving the park thoroughfare nor anything else.

A little group of freedom-of-information replies arrived all around the same time. We learned that park levies are divided into four parts:
25% goes to local parkland acquisition
25% goes to local park development
25% goes to citywide parkland acquisition
25% goes to citywide development

When we read the lists of projects funded by the levies, we saw that the boundary between “local” and “citywide” was very porous. “Local” was taken to mean any one of the former cities, so that the new housing development around the corner from Dufferin Grove Park could mean a new park near the Beaches – the boundaries of “local” in this case encompassed the whole former city of Toronto. What’s more, quite a few projects moved around – the same project would sometimes be labeled “citywide,” sometimes “local,” and back again. We thought that switching the categories might make a project eligible for more park levies if one category’s funds ran out. The Wychwood Streetcar Barns, for example, came up in both local and citywide columns.

This was puzzling, but the sums of park levies money spent within the different categories was even more confusing. Two related freedom of information requests asking the same question had completely different replies. For the years 2000 to 2004, one staff response showed $22.1 million for park development and only $8.4 million for parkland acquisition. The other showed $12.6 million for park development and $18.2 million for parkland acquisition.

Three inquiries about funds spent to acquire new parkland in 2001 gave three different totals, take your pick: $2.7 million, $4.8 million, or $5.5 million. [Access Request 05-1903, Access Request 05-0531, and Access Request 05-1904].

Our question about the total 2000 to 2004 non-debt financing (including park levies) for Parks and Recreation capital projects got the response $101.4 million in one chart and $158.8 million in a second chart. Which number is the right one? Does anyone know?

The amount taken off for capital projects staff payroll was just as puzzling. Most years there is quite a gap between the approved Parks capital budget and what is actually spent. There are construction delays, and sometimes the plans change. So for example in 2004, the capital project amount in the budget for Parks and Recreation was $82.78 million, but the actual amount spent was about $44.50 million.

A chart of capital projects for 2004 that we got from the City’s Freedom of Information office gave the percentages of the project costs held back for staff salary. Percentages varied from 2% to 10% with an average of 7%. Calculating 7% of the actual spending, this would suggest that in 2004 the capital projects section was allowed to keep back $3,464,930 for its payroll.

That year there seem to have been 22 staff in the capital projects section. If all 22 staff were paid at the top of their salary range, that cost would be barely over $2 million (counting benefits). If staff costs were $2 million, but the capital projects section got $3.4 million from these projects, does that mean they ended up with a slush fund of $1.3 million? [Access Request 05-3085] And if so, how was that money used?

We sent all these capital projects follow-up questions to the general manager’s office and she sent back a letter informing us that her special assistant would be replying shortly. But he never did.

The $2000 floor-tile opinion

Because CELOS is involved in actual parks in the day-to-day, large and confusing analyses tends to yield to more pressing everyday events. The first manifestation of state-of-good-repair action at Dufferin Rink came in the spring of the year after the $803,000 facilities audit. Rink staff heard that there was to be a new floor in the rink house change area.

Rink users didn’t need a consultant to tell us the rink house needed a new floor. It was obviously fraying and nasty, so no one questioned the need for the work. But the contract was odd. One day the technical services supervisor came by the rink and introduced a new capital projects manager, recently hired by the city, and an architect. They had with them a sample catalogue of rubberized floor tiles. The rink staff who happened to be there looked through the sample book for some tiles that might be easier to clean than the old gray floor tiles. A lot of mud and salty snow gets tracked in and out of rinks, and skate blades cut the tiles so that the muck sinks right in. But none of the tiles in the catalogue seemed made for such a circumstance. They were mostly weight-room tiles, nice and spongy but made for socks. The staff asked the visitors if they could find something better.

A week later the group returned. Meantime we had found out that the cost of the floor project included $2000 for the architect, for choosing the tiles and “designing” how they would be arranged on the rink house floor.

The architect had some printouts from the internet in his folder, the technical services supervisor had brought a couple of more sample books, and the staff picked a tile. The project manager stayed behind after the others had left. I asked him why they needed an architect to pick the tiles. He said that the project would only be “covered” if an architect designed the flooring. (“Covered”? For what? If somebody slipped, or if a tile came loose, would the City sue the architect?) The project manager also told us that this particular architect had been his competitor for his new project management job, and that he had wanted to show good will by giving this small job to the person he beat out.

This explanation seemed inadequate, so we wrote to the general manager asking why the city had to spend an extra $2000 to design a floor that needed no design.

She wrote back that the consultant architect had verified existing conditions to determine that new flooring was needed, had done extensive research on materials. Beyond that, he had given the city the lowest bid for an architect’s services for the rink house flooring design. We tried to argue point by point, but there was no response. The question stayed moot – how many state-of-good-repair projects all over the city have such extra little jobs added in? The park’s dirt path would have cost less than $30,000 to pave, for Yvonne and her wheelchair, and all the bikes and the strollers now rattling along the ruts. How many floor-tile architects had been hired instead?

The tiles were laid – blue in the middle, light gray around the outside. The contractor had subcontracted to a couple of guys who drove down every day from Orillia. They had car trouble the second day and had to rent a car. The tile design meant they had to do a lot of extra cuts and they ran out of blue tile before the end. So the job wasn’t as straightforward as they’d hoped, and they didn’t make much profit. The rink staff tried to comfort them by keeping them supplied with coffee and park cookies. Nobody saw the architect again, but we guess he got paid.

Capital project borrowing means less operating budget

A couple of years after Toronto’s forced amalgamation, City Council decided to cut the rink season to ten weeks a year. The money saved went to hiring new parking ticket officers. That caused an outcry. So Parks management went back to twelve weeks – still leaving the rinks closed during the good skating weather at the beginning of the winter. They said there was not enough money in the operating budget to run the rinks any longer. Although both Parks management and the City Councillors were quick to remind us that capital costs and operating costs are unrelated, we had an idea that the interest costs on all the capital project loans must add up to a lot more than it costs to put ice in the rinks. We sent in a freedom of information request about how much interest is paid (it comes out of the operating budget) on the many parks-related building projects that are paid for with borrowed money.

This was the answer: for the period of 2000 to 2004, the total approved capital budget was: $217,148,000. (Actual spending: $206,038,000). The amount of that spending that came from debt: $115,389,000. The amount of debt charges between 2000-2004: $33,507,401.

The freedom of information response about the debt charges for Parks and Recreation capital projects showed how steeply the resulting operating costs were rising during that period:
2000: $1,803,759;
2001: $4,560,905
2002: $5,819,184
2003: $10,149,499
2004: $11,174,054

But not to worry, wrote the Parks staff: “The debt charges, while attributable to Parks and Recreation, are paid out of the corporate account ‘Non Program,’ and are not part of the department’s operating budget.”

They are paid by the city as a whole, part of the operating deficit crisis that rears its head every year now. And when City Council takes up the question of balancing its budget, it looks around and points the finger at: the outdoor rinks. “Close that rink, we don’t have the money to run it.” No matter that the City just put in a new floor, lock the door and spare the floor.

Year after year the outdoor rinks came under fire again. From the 2006 budget recommendations: Close all artificial ice rinks except Nathan Philips Square and Mel Lastman Square. They would be open 14 weeks. That would save $569,400 operating funds in 2006 and $1,117,500 in 2007. No one could tell us where those numbers came from. The same budget recommendations called for the decommissioning of all park drinking fountains, since new provincial health regulations required onerous backflow testing at the beginning of every season, and there weren’t enough plumbers left to do the testing. The Parks plumbers had already been reduced to less than half the number needed to service all the parks washrooms, fountains, irrigation systems, and wading pools. Shutting down drinking fountains would save more by eliminating a few more plumbers.

Neither of these measures were fully carried out that year, but they had been put on the agenda.

Destruction of the playgrounds

During the summer when the rink house tiles were being laid, I heard that the deputy mayor had called the Parks capital projects staff and screamed at them about a playground replacement estimate they had sent in, for a playground in his ward. A playground replacement allocation of $60,000 had been reduced to $45,000 because $15,000 was going off the top for architect’s fees and capital projects staff payroll. “How many architects does it take to figure out where a swing set goes???” he was said to have shouted into the phone. So a new estimate was sent over, more moderate in its extra billing.

Only a few weeks earlier, CELOS had lost its playground information appeal to the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner. That appeal was the climax, or nadir, of our first freedom-of-information search, which had already gone on for several years before we appealed to the province. As with many of our inquiries, we were trying to learn how capital projects spending is decided and what happens next.

Between 2000 and 2005, the City had spent $5.9 million to tear down and rebuild existing park playgrounds to “bring them into compliance” – with a non-governmental standard that was written by playground manufacturers. Enter a young kinethesiologist named Maya Litmann, the mother of four young children, whose neighbourhood park playground structure had suddenly been replaced by what she regarded as a cheap piece of plastic. Maya began to call around to find out what had happened.

It emerged that in 1998, two years before the playgrounds began to come down in schools as well, federal public health staff had set up a playground safety conference for municipal park managers and school officials from all over the country. The conference organizers had invited insurance company staff to address this meeting about playground risks, and these insurance company representatives told scary stories of million-dollar lawsuits. They urged the local managers to set up compliance systems for the new manufacturers’ standard, to prevent potentially crippling liability claims. The managers carried the news back home to their towns and cities. Across the country, courses were set up with funding support and curriculum help from playground manufacturers.

Newly minted playground inspectors, having learned their safety expertise in a weekend course, came out ready to condemn existing playground pieces en masse. What the schools in Toronto did in a summer of bulldozing playgrounds became a scandal, outraging parents and headlined in the press. Toronto City Council even passed a motion of censure, noting that even school playgrounds that had been jointly built with city funds were pulled down with no notice given to the city.

At City Council, one hand evidently didn’t know what the other hand was doing. At the same time as councillors were pointing the finger at the school bureaucracy, hastily designed capital projects, to demolish older park playgrounds and replace them with new play-sets, were brought before Council. The councillors just as hastily voted in the funds to “comply” with the new trade standards. Masses of tenders for new, cheap plastic play-sets went out to international playground equipment manufacturing companies, and the task began. And once the pattern was set, the machine ground on with little refinement and no second thoughts for the following four years.

By 2003, when Maya Litman began to tell her story and CELOS woke up to the parks playground massacre, it was almost complete. Dufferin Grove Park was missed, perhaps because of the fear that playground users would lie down in front of the bulldozers.

Following the playground money

What remained was to find out how this sweep had been organized and carried out. But that was not so easy. We contacted parks management and asked them about the playground replacement project. To us the questions seemed simple: how dangerous was the park playground equipment before it was destroyed? How many claims had the city paid out for playground injuries? How had the playground replacement funds been allocated? Why were so many of the playgrounds so sparse now? How did the capital projects staff decide who got what piece of replacement equipment? Why was there so little repair or adaptation of existing structures and so much replacement with new catalogue play-sets? What project fees came to capital projects staff from replacing playgrounds?

Very little, almost nothing, came back from Parks management in the way of answers. So we filed some freedom-of-information requests. By then we had learned that requests had to be very specific, so we asked our questions separately. No replies came after 30 days, so we appealed to the provincial commissioner. Then the letters began to arrive in the mail. For playground injury claims against the city, the records showed only seven playground injury claims in twenty-five years, costing the City of Toronto a total of $35,033. There might have been more but nobody could find them.

Nor were there any specific details in the claims records, to learn from experience what kinds of playground injuries actually happened and how they might be prevented. There were just the seven abbreviated playground items on the long city claims lists – claims that seemed to be mostly about accidents involving city trucks.

The claims department told us later that they could have provided more details in the records they produced, but no one from Parks had ever asked them. The individual stories were of no interest to Parks management. The concept of compliance with a standard – even an equipment manufacturers’ standard – was the focus.

For the capital projects staff payroll percentage, the reply was 1%. However that same payroll document made a $300,000 error in the project cost, which they apologetically called a “transposition error” when it was pointed out. So our confidence in their numbers was not perfect.

As for our questions (1) how the playground funds were allocated and (2) which playgrounds got repairs instead of replacements, the response was a bit of a shock. “The Division advises that it would take approximately 320 hours of a City Staff person’s time to search for and compile the requested information responsive to request #1. An additional 112 hours of a City staff person’s time would be required to search for and compile the information responsive to request #2. It is estimated that the following search time fee under section 45 of the Act will therefore apply to your request:
320 hours @ $30.00 an hour $9,600.00
112 hours @ $30.00 an hour $3,360.00 $12,960.00

“…your written acceptance of the fee estimated together with a deposit of $6480.00 [bold in the original] is requested prior to proceeding with this request.”

CELOS appealed this fee to the provincial commissioner, on the grounds that we didn’t have that much money and besides, finding out this information was in the public interest. The city then changed its argument. They said that actually, no details of playground spending records exist at all, so no matter how many hours the city employees searched, they’d never be able to find the answers CELOS was seeking. CELOS appealed that response, saying that it was not possible that no records exist of how $5.9 million was spent on replacing playground equipment.

After some months there was a hearing at the Information and Privacy Commissioner’s office, with an adjudicator. The city sent two lawyers and three senior staff to attest to the absence of records. The adjudicator said to the city – if you say so, it must be true. So CELOS lost our appeal, on the grounds that you can’t get blood out of a stone.

Out with the bad

We asked the City Recreation director – if there are no records of spending details, is there maybe an amount allocated to each playground? If Dufferin Grove Park had a part of the playground safety budget assigned to it, could the carpenters undo the one instance of damage at the Dufferin Grove playground, that had come from the playground replacement project?

The playground’s “jiggly bridge,” a favourite for three-billygoats-Gruff re-enactments, was gone early one morning, having been removed by the city carpenters before anyone was at the playground. Since this bridge was not actually banned by the manufacturers’ standards, could it be restored with some simple safety modification, using whatever funds were left in the Dufferin Grove allocation?

The answer was no, there was no set allocation per playground, the funds were used “wherever they were needed.” There would be no funds to restore the jiggly bridge.

We had asked for it to be restored because Mays Litman had learned the new “standards” very thoroughly. With some helpful advice from an insider, Maya had discovered that many pieces of equipment – including the Dufferin Grove playground’s jiggly bridge – had been unnecessarily removed by edict of the brand-new-trained city playground inspectors. These play structure removals were not even called for in the manufacturers standards. Maya had also discovered that the latest provincial injury data showed a slight rise in playground injuries, despite the destruction of so much play equipment in both schools and parks. Maya felt that since the replacement play-sets were so uninteresting, children were actually taking more dangerous risks to add challenge to their playing.

A Parks supervisor came by the park one morning with a story. He had come across one of the inspectors just setting up to remove a metal roundabout at a playground down the road from Dufferin Grove. The inspector had already unloaded his cutters from his truck and put his goggles on when the supervisor came down the hill. This roundabout was one of the central attractions of the playground, so the supervisor shouted at the inspector to STOP. The inspector was disgruntled, but he got into his truck and left.

The supervisor said the roundabout was not on any removal list. But metal playground pieces had also disappeared from other playgrounds, and the rumour was that they had been privately sold to scrap yards by a few of the workers. The citywide playground destruction had created such chaos, anything might disappear, and there was no one to follow up why, or where, or by whose hand. The supervisor said he wasn’t shocked or even surprised by this. He grinned ruefully. “Nothing works around here.”

I told this story to Maya, who said she had heard similar things from several of the city workers as they were taking down other playgrounds. They told her that it bothered them a lot to be required to remove so much good play equipment, some of it almost new. Many of them did it reluctantly, but among a few of their co-workers there was almost a frenzy – if playground equipment had been identified as dangerous, get rid of it, more of it, all of it! Those people who resisted were guilty of not caring whether children might die.

Risk conquers all

The purge of playground equipment is almost worldwide, at least in those industrialized countries where children are set down inside playgrounds and told to play there. There is a pretty big literature now, about risk in playgrounds, giving numbers and causes of injuries. Many of the numbers are dubious, contradictory, and of no statistical significance, since reporting variables are numerous and often unrecognized by the battalions of newly-minted “risk analysts.” Deaths and bone breaks are the only straightforward markers of injury (head injury is too broad and changeable in its definition), but deaths in playgrounds are so rare and idiosyncratic that they can’t be arranged into a pattern. Bone breaks, on the other hand, are relatively common in children’s play inside or outside playgrounds.

One thing most of the risk writers agree on is that children can break their arms or legs when climbing on monkey bars and other kinds of playground climbers, losing their hold, and falling onto hard-packed ground below. So the risk writers’ advice to soften the ground by loosening the sand around climbers made sense to us, and it fit with our experience. Playground users at Dufferin Grove could remember three bone breaks over the years, one broken leg and two broken forearms, after falls from a climber. Softening the ground was supposed to be part of the new “playground safety” protocol, also emphasized in the new manufacturers’ standards. But there was no sign of any Local 416 crew coming with their rototiller, to harrow the playground sand.

So the recreation workers used shovels to dig up the ground under the climbers and monkey bars, with the help of a couple of jailbirds who had to work off some court-ordered community service hours. Those guys liked the work – simple, short-term, requiring strength, and helpful to cute little kids. All good.

The day after the digging was done, we asked for a playground inspector to bring over the high-tech tool they use to measure ground hardness. All the articles on bone breaks contained charts on the right technical number for sand softness – how did we measure up?

Two inspectors, park labourers for years before, brought a big metal tripod with a metal ball on a wire. They set it up on the climbers and let it fall on the freshly dug areas, then read off the electronic measure that told how hard the ground was. We asked them to drop the ball on the hard ground too, to compare.

Success! The dug-up ground measurement was well within the safety standard, while the harder ground was far outside it.

We were impressed but the inspectors weren’t. They looked around the playground, one of the last in the city that had not been replaced. Those swings – the chains are too long, they said. Kids could smash right into the side post of the swing’s frame and be killed by the impact. A child could fall off the climber and break its leg in a really complicated way, requiring months of rehab. Or maybe the child could get its head wedged in at the top of the climber and strangle.

The more we countered that the space at the top of the climber was much too wide to wedge a head, that the swings wouldn’t swing if the chains were too short, that getting rid of all the climbers wouldn’t stop kids finding places to climb – the more the inspectors conjured up grim possibilities of death and destruction. If it was up to them, they said, the Dufferin Grove playground would come down tomorrow.

The inspectors, having moved from their former world of driving park tractors and fixing park benches, into their newly certified standing as compliance officers, had not passed through any stage of actual experience with real children in real playgrounds. It was clear as we listened to them that they had passed over into a kind of nightmare of bad possibilities lurking everywhere. There was no play in their world.

Damn statistics

After Maya Litman read about the rise in playground injuries after all the playgrounds were destroyed [2002-2003, Canadian Institute for Health Information], CELOS tried to find out whether the trend continued in the following year. But the Institute decided not to track those numbers for their next release. The 2004-2005 follow-up numbers didn’t appear until 2007. But then, sure enough, the number showed another increase. The increase wasn’t large, and the number of children labeled “possible head injury” had actually gone down. But the quality of data collection from the hospitals is known to be weak, so neither a rise nor a fall should be believed on the basis of those shaky numbers alone. Even so, the moment of triumph still eluded the risk analysts, the moment when their destruction of playgrounds would be vindicated with a whopping decrease in injury numbers. The City of Toronto had spent $5.9 million to dumb down the park playgrounds, and the injury rate had not decreased. What was the point, again?

At the end of the day: no maintenance crew

The commentary from the Institute grasped at the straw of good news, speculating that the lower rate of head injuries that they seem to have found might be because of safer equipment and better playground maintenance, particularly the softening of the ground under the structures. In Toronto, maintenance was not part of the program, though.

In 2004, parks management requested an operating budget increase of $1 million to hire 12 new staff who would carry out “daily, monthly and seasonal maintenance schedules….created by the owner/operator and strictly followed in order to promote a safe environment and to minimize the threat of injury.” This was not approved. When the request was reintroduced in 2006, with the budget shrunk to $843,000 for the same number of new playground maintenance staff, no luck either. The city had spent $5.9 million to put in cheap plastic playground equipment that would conform to the new standard and – in the absence of a large budget increase – had taken no steps to “meet the ongoing CSA requirements as well as the city’s own inspection and maintenance guidelines.” Playground maintenance is back to the time before the big leveling – ad hoc, based on complaints from users. But as the plastic structures begin to show wear, the question becomes stronger: what was the point, again, of all that destruction?


It could be argued that the point was to give out contracts for buying more stuff, for the sheer joy of shopping. There are no legislated limits on how much the city can borrow to cover its capital expenses, and the wish list is long. The latest ten-year projection (2006 to 2015) of Parks and Recreation capital projects comes to $859.86 million. And in the last few years over $4 million was spent for the new (and still not functioning) 311 “customer service strategy.” There was Capital Planning and Asset Management 2006 for $750,000. And then there was the list of consultants. One Toronto company, Accent Building Sciences, had these planning and audit contracts during the three years from 2001 to 2004:

Oct, 22 2001 $69,696 “consultants capital asset management”
Dec.11 2001 $91,790 “consultant – structural inspection”
April 30 2002 $46,566 “state of good repair audit”
May 14 2002 $19,097 “arena roof architects”
June 16 2002 $33,256 “Audit Toronto Island”
Dec.19 2002 $2884 “roofing program consultant”
Oct.21 2003 $92,340 “state of good repair”
July 5 2004 $804,907 “Due diligence assessment audits”

The planning and audit consultants are there to help set up the shopping lists.

Wading pool “all or nothing”

More than two years after I ran into the engineer who had been contracted by Audit Building Sciences to do the report on the Dufferin Grove Park wading pool, the other shoe dropped. Dufferin Grove staff got a surprise message from the city councillor’s office – Parks capital projects staff had commissioned a design for a brand new wading pool for Dufferin Grove Park, and there was $250,000 in the budget to build it, right now, this fall. Until then, no one had been around to talk to the wading pool staff, or to any park users, about the project. The councillor called a meeting in early July, down by the wading pool. City staff and the architect were there with the plans, which looked nice and also included a long-awaited plumbing repair. (Wading pool staff had been asking about fixing the rusty and stiff plumbing set-up in the “pit” for ten years.) Some small project changes were suggested and the architect incorporated most of them.

Then near the end of July a City forester came to meet with park tree-watering volunteers. He dropped a bombshell: the Forestry report for the wading pool project had warned that ripping out the wading pool concrete could damage the big Norway maples that shade the pool and the playground, maybe even kill them. Shade and kids go together -- that's why most city wading pools have few users especially during heat waves -- no shade.

But it sounded like the state-of-good-repair project was all or nothing – take it as designed right now or wait for 10 or 15 years, or forever, to repair the plumbing and any other problems that come up in future. What to do? The city councillor asked for public opinion, and lots of people called his office or e-mailed him.

Another look at the wading pool made it evident that the concrete surface of the pool actually looks very solid. With many people insisting that shade is of the utmost importance but that the needed plumbing repairs should not be postponed, the councillor’s staff went back to the capital project staff for a rethinking. Could the project be changed to leave the wading pool surface in place and carry out the rest of the plan?

It began to sound as though the "all or nothing" proposition might not be so ironclad as it first appeared. There were people in the neighbourhood, though, who reacted to the ”all or nothing” threat as if Moses himself had brought it down from the mountain. The lamp posts were postered with entreaties to the neighbours to call the councillor and vote “yes,” to counter the “small but vocal group” who wanted to keep the existing concrete and leave the tree roots undisturbed. And the idea that in a time of operating budget panic, there ought to be curbs on borrowing as well, was seen by many as preposterous. Including the city councillor.

Audits from Moses on the Mountain

I talked to a lot of people about audits. To many people, the word “audit” has a ring of science, of expertise, of the final word on a question. The councillor’s assistant sent over a copy of the wading pool audit, which had been subcontracted to a large international company of engineers called Affiliated Engineers, Inc., in 2005. It was the basis for the plan to redo the wading pool. Since amalgamation, the city has hired a number of consultants to do such audits. One of the audit companies reported in 2001: “Service contract arrangement, drawings, service records and history were requested. Few facilities could actually produce such information.” And indeed, the audit engineer based the Dufferin Grove wading pool assessment mainly on the original construction date (1955). This meant that the wading pool automatically got an assessment of “0 years life expectancy.” Under some engineering standards, city buildings and facilities such as rinks and wading pools are assumed to have a useful life of 40-50 years. (This kind of assumption contributed to the widespread destruction of many older public buildings in Toronto in the1950s and 1960s, stopping just short of demolishing Old City Hall.) But the idea that new is better has not always worked out. For example, in the early1990s, Alex Duff Pool at Christie Pits was rebuilt because of such an “expiry date.” The new swimming pool developed cracks and leaks after less than a year. After a number of expensive attempts to fix it, the water still pours out into oil drums in the basement under the pool.

Another example is Dufferin Rink – five years after it was rebuilt, the floor began to sink under the rink’s cooling compressors, dragging down the adjoining rooms as well, and emergency structural repairs had to be made. There are many such stories. In the case of the park wading pool, the concrete pool surface was very solidly built by the (probably Italian) construction crews who also built roads and sidewalks at that time. The wading pool surface has no cracks, only long straight lines are intentional expansion joints. On the other hand, the rink surface and the concrete areas surrounding the rink house at the other end of the park, built in 1993, are already full of cracks.

So it seems good to keep what is solid, and to fix what’s not. Although the wading pool audit said that plumbing has not been touched since 1955, on closer inspection one can see a long cut where the pipes run. The plumbing must already have been repaired sometime in the interim. That means that a relatively easy marking is already there, in exactly the right place, and it should be able to be re-opened. If that gets done, wading-pool/playground users can get their drinking fountain back as well, get the plumbing rebuilt, and perhaps retain a few other features of the original plan. The big old trees can give their shade as long as they may live (5 years? 20 years?), while the newly planted succession trees gain height. And hopefully the city will not have to spend as much money as was forecast. Economy of expenditure would be good now.

Next: Operating budget stories