David Soknacki writes that with its next budget, city council should look to make an impact.
As of tomorrow morning, another budget cycle will be upon us at Toronto City Hall. While the process typically produces fair entertainment value, what matters most is how budget decisions will impact residents.
Looking at the prospects for this budget, the odds are that it will impact residents much less than it could. Whether that is good or bad depends on your perspective.
On the one hand, the likelihood the budget won’t make a big impact means that Toronto will not face the uncertainties of change, the fatigue of marathon sessions, or the disruption of carefully balanced interests. After a term of drama, predictability might be a relief.
On the other hand, a boring budget means that the administration will have missed an opportunity to devote public resources to a new set of values.
Making changes during a budget is a daunting task, even if there is the will to do so. Even those with the best of intentions face inertia, particularly in a first budget, because so much of that budget will have been written during the previous year. And there are other constraints: Toronto’s budgets must be balanced by law, must be approved by a majority of council, and must take into consideration the interests of a professional bureaucracy and powerful networks of stakeholders.
Even the temptation to wail against the municipal masters at Queen’s Park must be largely resisted. Provincial co-operation and subsidies are required for most major municipal services—in fields as diverse as transit, income support, public health, and the courts.
Nor can anyone expect help from the federal government between now and when council passes its budget in late March. At best, the federal government’s interests lie far outside the current budget cycle.
So it’s almost a relief that Mayor Tory—perceived by many as the safest option—won the election. Much of the public will be satisfied with budget gestures such as nods toward youth unemployment and homelessness, investments to ease gridlock, and some growling about efficiencies.
For Tory’s honeymoon to continue a little longer, it is probably enough for him to declare a number of small budget victories, grumble at obstacles that could not be overcome, and move on.
But it doesn’t need to be this way.
The next election is an eternity away in political terms. And despite the forces allied against change, this administration has inherited a stronger opening position—politically and financially—than any since amalgamation. There has never been, and in this administration will never be, a better opportunity to make bold moves.
Many examples come to mind. Seed money could be found to fund transit improvements—such as free “early bird” fares—that would offer immediate relief for transit riders. A few hundred thousand dollars could be dedicated to the better co-ordination of traffic lights. Additional funding for environmental assessments could lay the groundwork for more infrastructure, such as bike lanes. As little as $3 million annually could go a long way to improving safety at accident hotspots. Funds could be allocated to reviewing governance across a number of portfolios. On the other side of the ledger, savings are available in the police budget, the City’s vehicle fleet, and, possibly, its office footprint. A new vacant commercial property levy could lead to the revitalization of dozens of community spaces. It’s a list that is limited only by vision.
Yes, there would be considerable inertia to overcome. Excuses are plentiful, and expectations are low. But the opportunity is remarkable. There may never again be a point when the mayor has such strong public support, an overwhelming majority on council, financial room, and an uncluttered budget cycle.
This could end up being a budget that will put resources behind the decisions we need to make. Or it could be a budget that will put us back to sleep. If this budget is not one calculated to make an impact, the new administration will have missed a great opportunity.
David Soknacki is the former chair of the budget committee at Toronto City Hall, and ran for mayor in 2014.