Mar 12

Shocker: budget cuts can negatively impact services

Councillor Michelle Berardinetti, member of Rob Ford’s executive committee and the city budget committee, in her December 2011 newsletter to constituents:

Taxpayers want City Hall to reduce expenses and for the first time ever, we will spend less next year than we did this year. It is a balanced budget that will help rebuild our fiscal foundation. There is a rate of inflation property- tax increase of 2.5% which will be approximately $5 a month for the aver- age tax payer. There are inflationary increases which the city cannot avoid addressing, and we have kept the property tax increase down to the level of inflation.

Through the Core Service Review, service efficiencies and modest service level adjustments we found $355 million in savings. Some of the services being cut were identified as outside of the city’s function.

via Councillor Michelle Berardinetti’s Newsletter – December 2011.

The centrepiece of that budget, of course, was a 10% cut across all city departments — including the TTC. Ford’s move to cut the transit subsidy despite record and ever-growing ridership forced the TTC to make several cuts to bus service, most of which took effect in February.

Which brings us back to Berardinetti’s newsletter. From the March 2012 edition:

I have written a letter to TTC Chair, Karen Stintz, to voice my opposition to the impacts of all bus route schedule adjustments. Residents in my ward have reported to me that signs have been posted at the Warden subway station with respect to a reduction in service specifically affecting the Warden 69 bus route. A large number of people rely upon this route for travel to work and school and the proposed reduction in the frequency of service will significantly and negatively impact their commuting time.

In the context of the considerable 2012 Budget surplus allocations of $139 million made to the T.T.C. for the purpose of purchasing new surface vehicles and the significant nature of the impact reductions on this route will have on the constituents of Ward 35, I am requesting that this decision be reviewed and that the service reduction be cancelled.

via Councillor Michelle Berardinetti’s Newsletter – March 2012.

During the budget debate, Councillor Josh Colle moved a motion that sought to reverse many of the route cuts on the table. Berardinetti opposed it.

This looks like a sign of things to come. Many councillors supported the 10% reduction target as an abstract budget-busting measure, but now that the impacts to services are starting to emerge, how many of them are going to change their tune?

Another example: 311 announced recently that, in order to meet their reduced budget, they would eliminate email service at their support centres. They’re going to force anyone with a question about city services to call in and listen to their hold music. This prompted Mike Layton to ask “What decade are we in? I wonder if they’ll accept faxes.”

Layton, backing a motion by Kristyn Wong-Tam, will attempt to reverse this cut to customer service at council next week. They should have the support of at least one Ford ally — and enthusiastic supporter of the mayor’s 10% cut — in Paul Ainslie, who told the Toronto Star that he was “certainly going to push for putting [email service] back in.”

It’s easy to support budget cuts. It’s hard to support service cuts. Councillors may want to consider that there’s a link between the two.

Jan 12

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

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.