Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Toronto's troubling history of job vacancies means a deficit in fulfilled promises

By: Metro Published on Mon May 25 2015

The good news out of last week’s budget committee meeting? The city is rocking a $190-million surplus from the 2014 budget year.

The bad news? As has been the case with every City of Toronto budget in recent memory, a chunk of that budget surplus is due to the city not hiring people to fill positions.

The budget nerds call this “gapping,” and it’s significant.

Last year, for example, the city left 56 positions vacant at the Toronto Public Library and 121.5 positions open at Toronto Public Health, according to the city’s 2014 budget variance report.

At Transportation Services — the department responsible for maintaining the roads — more than 110 jobs went to nobody. And at Parks, Forestry and Recreation, the division that maintains our parks, there were a whopping 206 unfilled jobs.

Some departments offered excuses for why they didn’t hire enough people. The Parks department said there just aren’t enough arborists in this city. (Hey kids, maybe consider a career as an arborist.)

But even taking those explanations into account, the city’s job vacancy rate is high.

At big organizations like the City of Toronto, some level of vacancy is expected. People move about a fair bit: They retire, get promoted, drop everything to pursue a music career, or whatever. But the city budgets for that, setting a target for a 2.3 per cent vacancy rate. But last year, like every year, the rate was far higher, at 5.2 per cent, if you take gapping into account. That’s 1,200 total jobs.

Those empty chairs aren’t very good at keeping parks clean or roads clear. They do a lousy job of getting people access to social programs. And they’re terrible at answering phone calls and emails.

Over the years, these vacancies have serious impact. At City Planning, years of high gapping rates — more than 13 per cent in 2011-2012 — meant long delays in completing heritage studies and development applications.

It’s no coincidence the city saw some questionable planning during that time. There were hastily approved projects and a lack of infrastructure to support new developments.

It was an untenable situation. And while the situation at the planning department has gotten better, the numbers say the problem remains across other departments.

At last week’s budget committee meeting, Coun. Mike Layton and Coun. Shelley Carroll both pointed to high gapping rates as a concern. Layton suggested city projects wouldn’t take so darn long if positions were filled. Carroll, a former city budget chief, used stronger words.

“We have a surplus, but we also have a deficit in what we promised to achieve,” she said. “Deficits are not always financial. Sometimes they are deficits in what we promised to do.”

Matt Elliott lives and writes in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @GraphicMatt

This post was originally published at on 2015-05-25T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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