Two ways Rob Ford’s budget comes up short (despite council’s victory)

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The outcome of this week’s council meeting is assuredly good news for all those who oppose the mayor. Despite some who will try to claim that the amendments moved by Josh Colle, Raymond Cho and others amount to only ‘minor tweaks’, the significant thing is that Rob Ford looks to have lost his grip on council. From here on out, every major vote in the chamber will be a heart-thumping adventure climaxing in a cool fight scene and a twist ending.

Still, even though the outcome at council was positive, it would be wrong to assume that this budget is necessarily a good thing for Toronto. Not only does Rob Ford’s first real budget as mayor fail to provide any indication of what our long-term civic priorities are, it also kind of sucks at addressing some of the core principles stated again and again during Ford’s mayoral run.

Failure #1: Customer Service

Ford made customer service a major campaign plank last year, but the 2012 budget is suspiciously light on any details as to how his administration actually plans to make service any better. Instead, the budget was crafted via an arbitrary 10% cut to every department. (Though not all achieved it.) It’s a move that raises a ton of questions about service going forward.

For example: is service supposed to improve now that  311 — a department that has recently taken some flack for dismal call response times — has 7% fewer approved positions on its payroll? Is it reasonable to expect that the City Planning department, which has long been overworked because this city is throwing up buildings faster than any other city in North America, can increase their productivity with 10 fewer people working in the department? Is it feasible to expect paramedics and the fire department to improve their response times when new hiring continues to be deferred? And how exactly does a reduction in the frequency of street cleaning count as better customer service?

Back in October, Ford reiterated that “customer service excellence is a priority for my administration.” He still needs to prove it.

Failure #2: Actually Finding Efficiencies

After it became clear to Ford allies that they were about to lose a major vote at council on Tuesday, new arguments began to emerge regarding planned cuts to things like arenas, pools and childcare spaces. Suddenly the focus wasn’t on fiscal prudence but rather all about efficiency.

The Globe & Mail’s Marcus Gee summarized some of those arguments in his column yesterday. The non-peak arena hours on the chopping block, he says, aren’t really used anyway. The daycares slated for closure were half-empty. The city-funded school pools were located too close to other pools. And so on.

Some of that seems somewhat logical — some if it doesn’t — and, of course, finding efficiencies and streamlining programs are very good goals. If the city can serve the same people for less money, they should totally do it.

But here’s the problem: this city was not able to have a clear-eyed conversation about rationalizing service levels to more accurately meet demand because the mayor’s team forced everyone into apocalyptic crisis mode. You can’t talk to someone about long-term capital costs when you’re threatening to close the pool their kid swims at. It’s all well and good to discuss evolving childcare needs given the new realities of all-day kindergarten but no one wants to listen to the details when you’re musing about locking the doors to daycare facilities. And well-done citizen-led proposals to examine user fee costs at recreation programs won’t matter if it feels like the mayor would rather just cut those programs altogether.

What was needed was a long-term approach to finding efficiencies, in consultation with users. What Toronto got was a rushed and haphazard process that, by design, pointed mostly to wholesale cuts.

If Rob Ford is looking to rebuild some of the political capital he lost during this budget process, a renewed focus on improving customer service and finding real efficiencies would be a good place to start.

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