The City Budget – An Unsustainable Approach to Planning

Last week, I attended a presentation on the City’s 2010 budget given by Councillor Shelly Carroll (the head of the budget committee), courtesy of Social Planning Toronto. According to Councillor Carroll, there is now a general principle at work of cost recovery within city departments whenever possible.  In the case of the planning department, that means when development fees go down – as they have this year, given the recession (and because the City froze development charges last year) – the budget of the planning department takes a dive as well.

This is worrisome for a number of reasons...

First, tying the planning department’s budget to development charges reinforces a reactive, not proactive, approach to planning, since the emphasis is clearly to deal first and foremost with applications coming from outside the department.  Second, whether perceptually or actually, it encourages the planning department to solicit development applications, since it’s in their interest to collect the fees (which range from about $500 for a minor variance, to $14,000 for an Official Plan amendment, to over $20,000 for a plan of subdivision approval).  Third, it’s an unsustainable approach to budgeting for a major municipal function, since economic volatility – like the recession we’re just now beginning to pull out of – can have a major impact on the resources available and thus the activities that can be undertaken.

In October 2009, City Council requested that the budget be balanced, while accomplishing three things:    protecting the quality of life in Toronto; keeping Toronto affordable for residents and businesses; and continuing to protect the most vulnerable.  A quick look at the City’s 2010 projected operating expenses shows that Planning, at $36.2M, takes up less than 1% of the City’s budget (in fact, on the City’s pie chart, it’s shown as 0%).  The only department that receives less than planning is Economic Development and Culture, at $35.9M. Yet planning, economic development, and culture are the functions arguably most key to attaining City Council’s objective of protecting the quality of life in Toronto.  What are they thinking?

Never mind that the symbolism of all of this is emblematic of the problems with City Planning in general. What happens next? As Councillor Carroll herself noted last week, it’s almost time for a new Official Plan – but under the current strictures, there’s not going to be the staff in the Planning Department to do it.  Current staff in the Planning Department, are, to be fair, trying to work on longer-term projects like Avenue Studies, but when we are told that there isn’t enough funding to create secondary plans or more meaningful civic engagement strategies, we wonder just how much real planning can be accomplished.  Perhaps we should just change the name of the Planning Department to the Development Applications Processing Department and be done with it.

As for planning?  Well, I guess it’s up to us, the citizens, to put in some constructive thinking about how our neighbourhoods and city should grow and develop.  Stay tuned.

- Dina Graser

Comments

This is a really interesting piece by Dina Graser. There's a similar situation in a part of the Capital Projects section of Parks, Forestry and Recreation. Since amalgamation they've been required to cover their payroll with a percentage of the project funds. The percentage varies -- bigger project, bigger percentage (up to 10%). This method of covering staff payroll used to be illegal, since it pays operating costs (staff payroll) by borrowing (capital projects can be -- and usually are -- paid for by loans). The reason it used to be illegal, is that this way of funding puts city staff in a conflict of interest situation. The more public money they persuade Council to spend, the more permanent staff they can have.

The councillors on the Executive Committee say this connection is no longer illegal, and besides, said Councillor Gord Perks, "everybody does it." But it has some unfortunate effects in parks. It means that "state-of-good-repair" projects (by law at the top of the city's to-do list) tend to be large, citywide and -- too often -- fixing-what's-not-broken. For example, instead of addressing a cumbersome plumbing arrangement at a handful of wading pools, staff created a big citywide plan, with $500,000 a year allocated at various sites over six years. When staff were able to get councillors to vote the funds, the wading pool plan (only one example) did its bit to help stabilize the Capital Projects staffing budget.

But on the ground, it also meant that the plumbing wasn't reworked at the pools that needed it until the big machines rolled in. At Dufferin Grove Park, the idea was to tear out a metre deep of concrete mixed with tree roots, create a clean field, and build a new wading pool from scratch. In the end, the existing concrete form was preserved, because of local resistance to creating useless landfill. But $225,000 later the plumbing arrangements are nearly as clumsy as before. And the other old problems have been replaced by new ones.

The cost-recovery rule for Capital Projects also encourages/forces city staff to play shell games with categories of spending (parks development versus land acquisition, "enhancement" versus state-of-good-repair). Capital projects staff lobby councillors, for the biggest, most long-term projects, to gain stability in their staffing budgets. They alarm councillors (and the press) about the dreadful state of our public buildings, so that buildings only 30 years old are put on the critical list, candidates for major work. And to the (shrinking) extent that neighborhoods are still consulted, project staff tempt people with shiny new bells and whistles to distract them from the loss of solid infrastructure about to be discarded.

There are many more forces at work (in poor decision-making about public space and public buildings) than just the conflict of interest forced on Capital Projects staff by City Council. But as Dina's piece shows, it's very worrisome how much "full cost recovery" undermines planning or project staff's ability to be an honest witness about what can be done in our public spaces. In this situation, citizens are forced to work against our own civil service, or to discover dissenters, and plot together. But although plotting can be fun for a little while, then it gets tedious and wastes our time (as Jane Jacobs often pointed out).

So a few of us over here in the near west are reporting in, happy to read Dina's plain talk about planning by people. We have a little group called the "Centre for Local Research into Public Space" (CELOS, pronounced 'see-loss'), and we've been experimenting with what works (and what fails) in parks for about a dozen years. We've got a particular interest in park field houses, and playgrounds, and making better use of what's "in the pantry," i.e. in building on what we've got. If that qualifies us to collaborate with People Plan Toronto, we're in.

Sat, 2013-02-16 12:33

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