Monday, January 10, 2011

Losing Our Way in the Toronto Budget Process

January 10 = Toronto City Budget Week

Lost in all the political left versus right debate on Toronto's 2011 budget is determining what the people want and what they are willing to see cut. A Values Execise if you will; never mind the dollars or the blame game - what do Torontonians value? Where does maintaining city parks stand against public health? Where does emergency services like police, fire, paramedic stand versus the TTC?

When you look at how city budgets have been traditionally managed and predicted, it has largely been a matter of taking figures from the year before, then tinkering with them to reduce or expend particular activities. This wrongly assumes that the priorities of who got last year's money were what Torontonians wanted. In other words, we proceed from a false premise that we as a city have our act together on what is important in relative terms to any other line in the budget.

Look for instance at this year's budget process. The Agenda for budget launch today starts with STAFF recommended budgets. Yes, the Mayor often gives them a guideline to follow (like reducing by 5% across the board), but that's not a smart exercise to determine what is important when compared against everything else.

Also, stop for a second. Why are we asking unelected staff to kick off the budget process? Why do we not have a more detailed platform outline that first determines what is important, and then - only then - look at the figures.

Some may say that the election campaign is what is the Values Exercise I am taiking about, but it is not. People and talk shows start with a political bias, then claim depending on their bias who does or does not have a mandate to do that particular action. Election campaigns are notoriously famous for being confusing. Candidates throw out all kinds of claims that this or that can happen without costing money - and they do not have to prove it.

So back again, we start with the entirely false assumption that a good starting point is to build on what we did last year and rely on bureaucrats with a self interest in maintaining or expanding their particular budget.

Then, the next step after the politicians have allowed unelected staff to create a starting point, is to have "public consultation", which means that it draws out only that segment of the population who have a narrow interest in one piece of the budget. "Give me more for this and I don't care where you take it from" is the message, and a childish one at that.

What we need is either to have election campaigns that clearly outline a complete platform (an argument for political parties at city hall), or, my preference, is public consultation FIRST before any budget tinkering or attention to dollars is done. Specfic public involvement on items can still occur as the budget is formed, but at least we know the relative standings of say, the arts group versus the parks and recreation people.

I would have a mechanism whereby all of the city is asked what is your personal priority for city services and initiatives, and further, how do you rank these 10-15 city services in importance to you? The technology and tradional print means to do this exist.

Then take this public input, create your guidlines for staff to do their budgets, and constantly refer to the priorities expressed by citizens as the budget is completed. Take the pety personal debates and mud-slinging out of the process. Stop listening to the media and talk shows who play up this or that small point to sell their product.

Like I believe most ordinary citizens, I am tired of hearing who hates Miller and who loves Ford. Lets put real citizen concerns to the forefront. Change the budget process!