Very few writers covering Toronto city politics—very few writers, period—do as good a job of taking us under the hood of wonky topics like municipal budgeting and making them not just understandable, but interesting, as Matt Elliott of Metro. He showed that talent again today in debunking the myth of Ford’s shrinking budget.
Last week, everyone was obsessing about the chart that showed up in the National Post, among other places, showing Toronto’s gross operating budget going up, up, up since amalgamation and then flatlining under Rob Ford. Elliott explains that the gross numbers are not all that useful in showing fiscal discipline or health, since they include all kinds of things the city doesn’t fund through taxation (provincially-funded programs, things that are paid for by user fees, etc.) The net budget is the number that really shows how Toronto taxpayers money is being spent, and Elliott’s chart of that number shows something quite different:
As Elliott writes:
Increases to the net operating budget have been kept small for all of amalgamated Toronto’s history. And since the gross operating budget is at best a misleading metric, the whole narrative of out-of-control spending at City Hall starts to fall apart.
It’s a really smart post. You ought to go read it in its entirety.
I would point out, just by way of being fair to Ford and his boosters, that the gross budget does measure the total cost of everything: provincially-funded services are still funded by tax dollars, of Torontonians and people across Ontario, and user fees are paid by the people of Toronto (and others who visit or do business in Toronto) and so while these dollars aren’t a measure of the tax burden City Hall imposes on us, they’re still tax dollars of some kind being spent by the city. Under the “there’s only one taxpayer” principle, a tax-hater like Ford may legitimately oppose any such spending, by any level of government. Which is what we see when he votes against accepting provincial or federal dollars for public health nurses, childcare spots, or anti-gang programs. (His votes there make a certain amount of sense if he was trying to keep the gross budget number down for bragging rights, too.)
Just as a helpful add-on, John McGrath and CitySlikr did some math and pointed out, over on Twitter, that adjusted for inflation, growth is very slow across the board: “The 1997 sum of ~2.5B, adjusted for inflation using the Bank of Canada CPI calculator, is $3.36B,” McGrath tweets.
“You saying, adjusted for inflation, city’s net budget has grown from $3.36 to $3.7 b? In 15 years?” City Slikr responds.
“& that ignores the fact that inflation in the sectors the city operates is higher than base CPI,” adds McGrath. Spurred on by James Bow, McGrath then roughly calculates that if you account for population growth, per-capita spending has been static at $1400.
So. Some useful perspective there.
And as for the growth we have seen, Matt Elliott ends his post by telling us to look at the places where jobs have grown—mostly police, emergency services, and 2,000 jobs at the TTC. Now why has the TTC added so many new staff? Elliott has another post with a chart for that too: