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City's laser sharp focus on small items not good for budget

The obsessive focus on wrangling tiny savings from small budget lines takes focus away from the real budget problem staring councillors straight in the face.

Toronto city hall.

Torstar News Service

Toronto city hall.

In one of my favourite episodes of The Simpsons, Homer gets recruited to work for the Globex Corporation, a company run by erstwhile Bond villain Hank Scorpio.

In-over-his-head Homer, having being given a supervisory position, has to figure out how to manage his team of employees.

“Um, are you guys working?” he asks. His employees tell him they are.

“Can you … work any harder?” he asks. His employees tell him they will.

Homer is satisfied. In his mind, this is management.

That scene played in my head last week as members of Toronto city hall’s budget committee sat for three days of deliberations. The meetings saw a succession of representatives from city departments paraded before the committee to answer questions about their 2016 budget requests.

Most of the questions, paraphrased, went something like this: “Um, have you guys found any budget savings?”

Then the follow-up: “Could you … find any more budget savings?”

Some committee members had a laser focus on small line items.

Budget chief Gary Crawford asked about the shelter division’s need for $70,000 to send staff members to conferences. Coun. Justin Di Ciano wondered if the parks department had “sharpened their pencils” to find enough savings. There was even concern that the TTC’s reported savings didn’t count because the brunt of them come from lower fuel costs.

The obsessive focus on wrangling tiny savings from small budget lines might have been funny if it didn’t take focus away from the real budget problem staring councillors straight in the face: The residential property tax increase leaves the budget with a $23 million gap. There are a further $67-million in services endorsed by council that aren’t funded.

If politicians don’t figure out how to pay for this stuff, the consequences will be serious. Recommendations to fix Toronto Community Housing won’t be implemented, TTC bus service won’t start on Sundays in time to support the earlier subway opening and drop-in centres that are keeping homeless people warm this winter will be shuttered next year. And that’s just the top of a long list.

It’s still early days in this budget process, but I’m concerned that too many councillors can’t see the forest because they’re worried about the cost of the trees. There’s little appetite so far for a real conversation about the whole budget — both the revenue and expense sides. With so much at stake, that won’t do. The budget committee may think they’ve been working hard, but I’m going to have to ask them to work even harder.