It was during last year’s budget hearings that the opposition to Rob Ford’s administration galvanized—more than 350 people spoke at two marathon overnight meetings that were fuelled by the buzz and energy of a mass of people suddenly assembled to try to save their idea of what the city should be. Things were more subdued at this week’s budget hearings, when City Hall observers mostly witnessed a bit of theatre involving opposed vested interests showing their distinct disinterest in each other.
On one side of the microphone, with some exceptions, there was a parade of people who receive money from the city explaining why, in their opinion, they should continue to do so. On the other side, the members of the budget committee—Mike Del Grande, Doug Ford, Peter Milczyn, and John Parker—sat more or less silently, waiting out the pleadings, occasionally interjecting questions meant to score political points rather than elicit information. From the sidelines, councillors who oppose the mayor asked questions (often beginning with, “Did you know that…”) meant to show that any cut to the budget suggested by the current administration is a bad cut.
It’s fair to say that a consensus solution to Toronto’s problems is unlikely to emerge from this public consultation—in fact, it’s fair to say this is a consultation only in some formal, legally required sense of the word. Part of the problem is that it’s very difficult to even know what we’re talking about when we talk about the budget. Most of us begin with a fundamental level of financial illiteracy that makes any budget discussion hard. (This illiteracy extends to Del Grande, who was a chartered accountant before he went into politics. On Monday, at one point, he seemed to suggest the city was avoiding borrowing money now at record-low interest rates so that it could borrow later when interest rates rise.)
But even the sharpest financial spelunkers have a tough time getting very deep into the city’s budget. In fact, as Wellesley Institute analyst Sheila Block explained during her deputation, as someone with 30 years experience analyzing government budgets, she did not find Toronto’s to be very transparent. This understatement was vividly illustrated when another deputant made an impassioned plea to save the Hardship Fund—until Del Grande pointed out that, in fact, it was not being cut. But who could tell one way or the other when confronted by the telephone-book–thick stack of indecipherable pages that make up the budget? Even within City Hall, there are very few people who really understand what the budget document means, and how the numbers in it relate to actual services. Spacing columnist John Lorinc wrote this week, “I’ve been a business reporter longer than I’ve covered politics, and I can say without fear of contradiction that the City of Toronto’s budget documents…are the most impenetrable financial reports I’ve ever had the pleasure of decoding.”
Which is a shame, because if we could decode them, we might begin to have a vigorous public debate about the shape the city’s in. Our financial statements should be able to tell us what’s working and what’s not, and where, for instance, public-service costs are rising because people are using them, or where some services might be shown to be redundant. Nothing in the current budget gives anyone the slightest idea of where we might be getting value for our tax dollars, and where we might be wasting our money. Whether you’re someone who wants to root out inefficiency and cut waste—as our current mayor was elected to do—or someone who wants to deliver great services to more people, the lack of useful financial information makes achieving your goal nearly impossible.
With a document that was readable, we might even be able to have a meaningful public process where citizens could express their priorities armed with some realistic idea of what things cost and what their value is, and about the financial health of the city. Then we could all help decide what to do with the budget—which really means deciding what to do as a city.
Instead, we’re reduced to a ritual of the well-intentioned, ignorant, and self-interested people talking past each other; a mere formality to cap a mysterious process.