Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

After Rob Ford reverses on fees for sports fields, why not fix other budget mistakes?

As I write this, Mayor Rob Ford has put forward a motion at today's council meeting that will waive new 2012 fees planned for city sports fields and other recreational facilities. After supporting the new user fees as part of the overall budget in January, the mayor now wants to hold off on implementation of new fees until after a consultation process can take place.

The new fees had been termed – rather theatrically – as a “tax on kids.”

Ford's motion will almost definitely pass, probably unanimously. With that vote, council will have erased a mistake they made when they approved a sweeping change to the operation of public sports facilities without consultation or debate. It'll be a nice, bipartisan victory for all involved.

But even past the particulars of baseball diamonds and soccer fields, the precedent this sets is interesting on its own: if council is willing to reopen their approved budget and right the wrongs contained therein, why stop with sports fields? As services start to erode, why not use this opportunity to fix some of the city's other budget mistakes?

Take the example of the High Park Zoo. Local councillor Sarah Doucette has been working around-the-clock to prevent the century-old public facility from closing, essentially presenting a cherished piece of Toronto's history as a hard-luck charity case. The cost of operating the zoo is so small it's almost invisible in the context of the larger civic budget. With the $1.5 million council will divert to waive planned user fees for sports facilities in 2012, the city could operate the zoo for more than six-and-a-half years. No last-minute private donations needed.

We've seen the same situation with farms in Riverdale Park and on Toronto Island, beloved family-friendly institutions that come at a minimal cost but have been forced to fight for their lives over the last year.

There are other examples. The city has an $8 million surplus after a mostly snow-free winter – that cash would be enough to reverse most of the recent TTC cuts if applied to next year's budget, or it could be used to pay for some new buses the TTC has said it can't afford. Either way, it's time council took a stand on transit cuts – is the plan to keep whittling down bus service in the suburbs, or will transit once again become a priority?

The same goes for a longer-term, more sustainable approach to other services that have ended up on the chopping block: access to community centre programs in priority neighbourhoods, the Toronto Public Library's budget for its collection and educational programs or the bevy of 10% cuts being implemented at various departments across the city bureaucracy. It's that 10% mandate, remember, that almost resulted in the elimination of email service at 311 before council stepped in.

If the goal is cost reduction, then set a goal for continuous improvement that still maintains service levels where demand warrants. Use a scalpel, not a butcher knife. And, seriously: take the time to consult with the people your cuts will most directly impact.

Ford's motion at City Hall today has to stand as a tacit admission that his administration's independent, bulldozer-like approach to the city's finances has been a mistake. Any review of the impacts of this mayor's budget should extend beyond the boundaries of the city's sports fields to look squarely and honestly at the city's civic priorities. It's time to get back to sensible budgeting that preserves and promotes the services this city values.

This post was originally published at on 2012-04-10T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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