Here's a handy timeline for how events will unfold.
In cities around the world, the idea of “participatory budgeting” has taken off in recent years. Started in Porto Alegre in 1989 and implemented in various ways in New York and Chicago, the process gives a portion of the budget over to citizens to set their own priorities. Some councillors, like Shelley Carroll (Ward 33, Don Valley East) and Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) support this idea, arguing it empowers citizens, and promotes civic participation and government transparency.
We don’t have participatory budgeting as part of our budget process right now, but that doesn’t mean residents don’t get a say. You can share your thoughts with your local representative—many are holding community meetings in the coming weeks—and speak at the special meeting city council is convening soon. (You may also, if you wish, groan despairingly.) And while that may not sound like much, as we saw during last year’s all-night budget meetings, it can put enough pressure on city council to force significant changes to the budget before it’s passed.
Here are the key dates to watch out for as Toronto debates its $9.4 billion annual operating budget, and its ten-year, $15.25 billion capital budget.
December 3–5: Budget Presentations
This is the fine-print portion of the proceedings, when City staff explain the budget department by department, and answer questions about specific pieces of the budget posed by councillors. Nuanced details—things that don’t quite make the headlines, but can have real day-to-day effects on how a program or department works—emerge during this stage.
December 10–11: Public Deputations
This is your chance to speak as a formal part of the process. Anyone can sign up to address the Budget Committee, to share thoughts or concerns about the budget. So far this year’s budget has proved to be a much less controversial document than last year, when the core service review motivated hundreds of people to speak to cuts as wide-ranging as student nutrition programs and water fluoridation. Shaping up to get attention this year: the multi-million dollar police deficit; a 104-employee cut in the fire department (including 91 front-line firefighters); spending $505 million over 20 years to repair the Gardiner; and the elimination of the $104,000 Global AIDS Initiative.
You can find out more about how to participate in the budget process on the City’s website.
December 14: The Police Debate
Currently the police service faces a $19.1 million shortfall. Police Chief Bill Blair argues that since 90 per cent of the $927 million police budget is tied up in salaries and benefits, the only way to achieve the City’s budget target would be to lay off front-line officers, which he refuses to recommend. He has gone so far as to suggest he will explore legal remedies to preserve the force’s complement (the number of officers Toronto has is outlined by the provincial government, so there is an appeal mechanism he can pursue). Budget chief and new police board member Mike Del Grande (Ward 39, Scarborough-Agincourt), on the other hand, has been particularly vocal in arguing that TPS needs to get more efficient. The police board meets on December 14, and they’ll need to settle on the final budget number they put before council.
December 12 or 17: Property Assessments
The City gets the final word on how much it can expect from the property tax assessment (CVA) uplift. Staff anticipate this number will be higher than they have accounted for in the draft budget, meaning there will be some new money on the table. The City’s top civil servant, Joe Pennachetti, is strongly recommending that this money be saved for reserves, and not go to the police department to help close their shortfall. (And by “strongly” we mean: he said Toronto would be better off cutting the budget elsewhere or raising property taxes, rather than spending the property assessment money on the police.)
January 7: The Rob Ford Factor
On December 5, Mayor Ford will ask for a stay of the decision that he be removed from office. If that is denied, Ford will vacate his seat on December 10; in that case the budget advanced by his administration in his absence may have a harder time making it through council without changes. If (as most observers anticipate) the stay is granted, Ford will remain in office pending the outcome of his appeal, which will be heard as early as January 7—right in the middle of the budget process.
January 10: Executive Committee
The final draft of the budget goes to the executive committee. This is essentially the mayor’s cabinet, so even if there have been some changes from the original draft, it is likely to look more or less like what we’ve seen by now.
January 15–17: Final City Council Debate
Last year, this became a major showdown, as a centre-left coalition of councillors decided to reverse many of the mayor’s proposed budget cuts. Though the budget itself is less dramatic this year, some councillors are trying to find ways to distance themselves from Ford, which makes this budget ripe for change as well.