City budget debrief: opportunities for community participation need to be increased for Scarborough residents to highlight vital local issues

By Paul Bocking (Originally Published in February 2013 Issue of Bluffs Advocate)

Another year, another Budget has been passed for the City of Toronto.  In public debates leading up the budget and in the aftermath of its enactment, two widely diverging interpretations have been presented.  The official story of Ford’s city hall and the local councillors who broadly subscribe to his political vision- Crawford, Berardinetti, Ainsle and others, is that of a “budget within our means” that is “fair and sustainable.”  Critics of the budget, many affiliated with community agencies and social activist groups, argue that the budget is the product of imposed austerity in which the city struggles to meet the needs which by law it is required to serve, let alone challenge growing levels of socioeconomic inequity in the city, themselves the product of much larger political and economic shifts.

For Toronto residents to make their own minds up on the city’s priorities, access to decipherable data on the city’s operating and capital budgets and its revenue sources is critical, along with a diversity of voices into how this information should be interpreted.  Unfortunately, opportunities were sparse this year for the public to become educated on the process and to provide their input in a community setting, as opposed to individual correspondence or meetings with councillors.  Just three public meetings were held this year on the city budget in Scarborough, one organized by Scarborough Rouge River Councillor Chin Lee for his constituents, the other two by advocacy groups, Social Planning Toronto- an association of non-profits and social service agencies and Public Interest, a progressive public policy firm.

The weekend before the budget was passed, the third of these meetings was held at the Birchmount Bluffs Neighbourhood Community Centre.  Local Ward 36 Scarborough Southwest resident Diana McLaren introduced the event.  Citing broader trends of rising poverty amidst pockets of affluence, she said “We’ve got more million-dollar homes, but we have seniors who are moving out of their houses because they can’t afford it.”  Meanwhile, “the level of usage of the local food bank is shameful.”  She also criticized the recent sale of public lands on the Gerrard street quarry site for condo development as a “lost opportunity” to meet community needs for affordable housing or public services.

Sean Meagher from Public Interest presented a wealth of interesting statistics on the proposed city budgets, highlighting both its largest allocations and its strained sources of revenue.  Residential property taxes increased by 2% and business property taxes by 0.67% to sustain a budget with virtually no significant funding increases.  With across the board zero increases for nearly all departments, many actually experienced a relative decline in funding due to inflation and a growing population leading to increased demand for services.  The proportion of the city operating budget (money used for running city services) funded by property taxes increased to 39.5% or $3.72 billion, up from 38% in 2011, while the relative proportion funded by business taxes continued its decline from 3.5% in 2002 to under 2% in 2013.  Meanwhile, user fees (eg. TTC fares) contributed 16.2% or $1.52 billion and grants from the provincial government added $1.84 billion or 19%.  The fiscal role of the federal government in supporting the daily functioning of Canada’s largest city and most important economic engine is harder to find, comprising a mere 2% or $190 million of the total $9.42 billion operating budget.

“The budget process is about deciding what kind of city we want to live in.” said Meagher.  A motion from midtown Councillor Joe Mihevc passed one of few program increases, $1.163 million to fund an additional million meals for elementary and secondary students across the city at a mere $1.50 each.  The community grants program that funds over 2500 local projects also received an extra $894,450 to cover inflation.  However pointing to deeper prevailing inequities, an additional 264 subsidized childcare spaces were far from meeting the needs of the 22 000 families currently on the waiting list.  Meagher pointed out that while the city was projected to run another surplus, it was keeping front-line positions unfilled in Toronto Public Health, Parks and Recreation and childcare.

Ward 36 Councillor Gary Crawford attending part of the local meeting, was far more upbeat, hailing the “historic budget for the City of Toronto that is fiscally sustainable, not relying on previous year’s surpluses.”  Describing himself as a “fiscal conservative but a social liberal,” he highlighted a $6 million increase in arts funding drawn from the new billboard tax.  He also cited dozens of new firefighter and paramedic hires.  Without studying comprehensive budget data, it is difficult for members of the public to put these increases into context or to reconcile them with the broader picture of freezes and reductions presented by Meagher and others.

“We seem to have an austerity mentality as a city,” Mclaren remarked.  “Why aren’t we putting more pressure on Ottawa?” Under Mayor Ford, Toronto has not supported other big city Canadian mayors in advocating for increased municipal funding from the federal government.

Her sentiments were shared by local residents Elinor Reading and Shirley Goldin.  “What happened to the common sense of residents that you have to pay taxes to get good services?”  Reading asked the audience.  She slammed the proposed revenue-earning casino as a “bullshit plan.”  Goldin added, “I keep hearing arguments: ‘cut taxes, cut taxes,’ with local services suffering as a result, including cuts in hours for the Taylor Creek library.”  “It sounds so American,” said the former US resident.  “I don’t want a tax cut, I want my library to be open.”

Their sentiment was not shared by everyone.  “Thank God Del Grande came to save us.” said an attendee, referring to the Scarborough-Agincourt councillor and former budget chief who resigned after its passing in protest against the addition of funding for initiatives like the student meal program, also claiming insult from a call for greater transparency in the budget formation process.

Concerns about the lack of opportunities to participate in the city budget process were shared by many in the room.  Asked whether he would consider increasing opportunities for local Scarborough residents to educate themselves on the budget process and add their input, Crawford urged his constituents to contact him to arrange a meeting at his office.

Individual meetings are an important direct avenue of communication with elected officials. They are not the same as a town hall meeting.  If well-attended and participatory, local residents are able to also hear the perspectives of their neighbours, and not only those of politicians or expert consultants.  They are more difficult to control, the collective mood of the room may challenge the positions of the elected leader.  Last year a special budget meeting convened by Scarborough councillors at the Scarborough Civic Centre was filled to capacity by concerned residents, many of whom were strongly critical of that year’s proposed cutbacks and unhappy with their advocates.

Nevertheless, along with Councillor Lee, councillors in Beaches East York, Toronto-Danforth, Don Valley East, Don Valley West, Toronto Centre, Trinity-Spadina, Davenport, St. Paul’s and Parkdale-High Park held local public meetings this year.  What’s holding back the rest of Scarborough’s councillors?