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2011: "Core Service Review": North York session

29-May-2011 [6]

• Notes on the budget-related "core service review" that invited Torontonians to rank the services they liked best

2011: "Core Service Review," first of eight, at NY Civic Centre May 24 2011. By Jutta Mason

The meeting started at 7.10 pm. There were 36 round tables in the room, each with 6 chairs. Many tables had one or two chairs empty. There were about 130 citizens and about 45 city staff in the room.

The Director of Human Resources for the city led the meeting. He led off by saying that over 3000 people had already sent in the online questionnaire. This put the public meeting into a context where it was swamped before it ever began -- how could 130 people in this room compare with 3000? And who knew what those 3000 might have said?

The table I sat at was led by a “social development policy offer for Cluster A,” who said she works out of city hall. The other participants were two members of the Toronto Real Estate Board, one worker for the “Metropolitan Action Centre for Justice for Women and Children,” myself from CELOS, and one late arrival who said he lives at Bathurst and Steeles but didn’t say more. He spent much of the time looking around the rest of the room.

The Real Estate Board members said they had already had a presentation a week earlier, from Councillor Doug Ford.

On my way into the meeting I met two CUPE staff and the head of the Public Interest group, hired by CUPE to go to these meetings. It’s possible that many of the participants at the meeting would fall into the category of “stakeholder” organizations.

Also present were Councillor Mike Del Grande and Councillor Shelley Carroll.

The facilitator at our table explained that the core service review was being done by the consultant KPMG, but that the public meetings were set up and programmed by city staff only, with no consultant involvement at all. The staff included “subject matter experts” who could be summoned to any table. The facilitator said, “we’re not looking for consensus, we’re looking for a rich dialogue.” In order to promote this, staff had prepared a stack of cards and a big piece of paper with three columns: “necessary,” “contribute to the city,” and “not required.” Each card listed a different city service, e.g. police, water, city-owned theatres, community-run rinks and arenas, garbage, libraries, etc. The first task for the participants was to sort the cards into the columns that seemed appropriate. At our table, almost everything was sorted into the first column, except city-owned theatres, which was put into “not required. “

Once the sorting had been done, we were bidden to have the dialogue, to consider why a service might be expendable, or not. We were given a questionnaire, with “in-depth service questions,” which allowed each table to choose three sample services and determine whether “maintaining the quality is more important” or lowering the city’s cost is more important. Our group took the example of the police, and there was some objection about the phrasing of the options. Why was there only an either-or choice? What if the quality could be maintained, or even improved, at the same time as the costs were lowered? The facilitator said that this objection had been mentioned by others, but now that the questionnaire was out, the phrasing would have to stay the same, for statistical reasons. The follow-up questions were equally narrow – should the city increase user fees, or increase taxes, or increase both, or contract out activities?

Neither the cost of annual city wage increases (including of management), nor the size of the departments, nor the cost of capital expenditures and the associated debt financing, nor the work allocations (division of labour) of city employees, came up as options for discussion. After about 15 minutes, the city’s chief financial officer, Cam Weldon, went to the microphone to give a short briefing. He had been standing at the front for some time, in shirt sleeves, looking through some papers. He told the audience that the city’s operating budget for 2011 is $9.383 billion, and the capital budget is just over $2 billion. To explain the difference between the two budgets he gave an example: “The capital budget pays to build a community centre and the operating budget pays to heat and staff it.” He said that the city runs some of its own operations and contracts out others. As an example of contracting out he gave “permits for parks.” The reasons for the operating budget shortfall of $774 million next year are many, Weldon said. He listed: the cost of salaries, fuel, increases in transit riders, and a growing capital budget (meaning more debt charges for the operating budget). As an example of debt charges, he said that $11.39 of every $100 in tax revenue is paid out to service the debt. Taxes, Weldon said, are only 38% of the city’s revenue. Provincial and federal funding provide the other major revenue source, with fees next, for instance fees for water and garbage.

Our table called over a “subject matter expert” to find out the dollar figure for two sample city service costs. In 2011, the police cost $908 million, and debt charges cost $403 million. Since the mayor has already said that the police budget shouldn’t shrink, and capital spending was not on the table, I felt that it was a good time to leave the meeting. What I missed: the results of “theming,” a process whereby the facilitator writes down what people say, such as “libraries are important,” on a coloured sheet of paper. The “theming” staff circulate to the different tables and pick up these coloured sheets and enter the comments into their computer. A list of common themes is generated, which is then read out by the meeting moderator, backed by the visual text on a screen. There is no public discussion by the meeting’s participants. At the end, they are thanked for their effort in coming, and then everyone goes home.