Sunday, February 05, 2006

My first city budget meeting

Here's how the North York Civic Centre public consultation went.

The meeting starts out with a talk from Mayor David Miller and Budget Chair David Soknacki. They emphasize that the city is doing a good job with the money they have, but will have budget problems in 2006 unless they get various downloaded programs funded by the Ontario government.

Then everyone gets a chance to engage in a group discussion. People are organized in groups of 10 or so, and we were to talk about balancing the budget. Accounting isn't exactly my specialty, but I quickly discovered that I wasn't alone. Fortunately there were a few people there who kept the discussion relevant and moving.

The organizers must have been concerned that everyone would just show up and ask for money for whatever issue they care about. The group talk was heavily directed towards:
1. How can the city increase revenue to balance the budget?
2. How can the city change the budget in order to balance the budget?

While I was worrying about how I could fit cycling into the discussion within that framework, another person in my group brought cycling up and related it to the city's priorities for the 2003-2006 term, which are:
1. Make Toronto a Clean and Beautiful City
2. Make Progress on the Waterfront
3. Improve the Business Climate
4. Improve Public Services
5. Strengthen Our Neighbourhoods
6. Improve the Planning Process
7. Get the Powers and Funding Needed for Toronto to Succeed (New Deal)
8. Ensure Housing is Affordable
9. Increase Public Involvement in Civic Affairs

You can imagine how improving cycling facilities easily fits in well with Priorities 1 and 5, which was the point made by the other person in my group. She made the point that even though these are priorities, the city has turned down the relatively small requests for cycling education programs.

After the small group talks, the format changed back to involving the whole room. People were given a chance to present the better ideas (as they saw it) from their small group. The mediator worked hard to keep the conversation linear, and attack one topic at a time, but when we turned to transportation and pedestrian issues, someone else brought up graffiti then social housing, then something else. It was almost like a joke. So the mediator changed the format to force people to make shorter points and counter-points which worked surprisingly well to keep people on track (it was almost magical).

I wondered how much of the point of the talk was to get new ideas, and how much was to satiate people who have specific concerns that probably aren't going to be met in the upcoming year. If the council wanted to know what moves are going to get them re-elected, a city wide poll would be a much more accurate means. Raising taxes might be very unpopular, but you wouldn't have guessed it from the crowd in the room. On a related note, Mayor Miller mentioned that the New Deal for Cities gives the city much more flexibility to raise money in “progressive” ways that do not involve raising property taxes. (Something like a local sales tax doesn't seem like a bad thing to me, especially if it's coordinated with neighbouring regions and the federal sales tax is reduced). There were a few people there who were interested in things like reducing the number of traffic tickets given (!), getting rid of the city council, and so on.

I should wrap this post up. In case I'm giving the wrong impression the meeting was worth going to, even if we didn't talk about bikes as much as I would have liked. The two and a half hours flew by.

Just one more thing: if you're thinking of going to the meetings later this week, keep in mind that if you get bored with the finance details, you can try to learn sign language! They had two people signing for the whole first part of the talk. I can’t think of a time I've watched anyone signing other than on TV. The signs were much more animated and dramatic than I would have expected, but maybe that’s just the style of these signers. For example, when Soknacki said something about provincial downloading, the signer gave a motion with one of her hands stepping downwards, along with a sad, burdened look about her. It couldn't have been more appropriate.

Darren J 2/05/2006 09:16:00 PM

4 Comments:

Thanks for the info Darren. I'll link this post of yours, if that's okay.
Of course. Go for it!
I appreciate this post. Thanks for giving a voice to the cyclists in Toronto at that meeting.
These meetings are for show, they don't actually care what the public thinks.

You might want to look here about City of Toronto public consultations.

It is an old letter about the city's John Schaffter who Mayor Miller has now put in charge of all of its major public consultations and all the dirty tricks the guy uses to come to preordained conclusions.

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