Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Budget 101: Did Mayor Rob Ford's City Hall really tame the police budget?

By: Matt Elliott Metro, Metro Canada Published on Wed Dec 19 2012

When we last looked at City Hall's proposed 2013 operating budget, the stage was set for an epic battle between Mayor Rob Ford's administration and Police Chief Bill Blair.

At issue? Some $21 million needed to balance next year's budget. All eyes were on Chief Blair, who was tasked with finding savings even though he's pointed out that his budget is 90% labour costs, so any real savings would have to come with layoffs to uniformed officers. And Ford, who campaigned on a platform of hiring 100 more police officers, has said he definitely doesn't want layoffs.

Things came to a head at a special meeting of the Toronto Police Services Board on December 10. There, board members forced Blair's hand and committed to a budget that would achieve City Hall's targets. Ford-allied councillors immediately got to celebrating, touting their fiscal prowess. The mayor, by then firmly on vacation, chimed in, posting a hearty congratulations on his Facebook page. “I was confident [the police] could find a way to meet their targets, while keeping Toronto safe,” he wrote. “And I'm very pleased that they did.”

But did they? Really?

A closer look at the way in which the board opted to meet the city-mandated-budget target prompts a bunch of questions. Up close, away from the rhetoric and the top-line numbers, the balancing strategy looks a lot like a flimsy band-aid solution, designed to achieve the illusion of budget savings this year while foisting more costs and hard decisions onto future years.

Here's how they did it.

When City Hall launched their budget, the Police-Board budget gap was expected at $21 million. That was reduced by $2.3 million in advance of the December 10 meeting, as Chief Blair cancelled a planned recruiting class once scheduled for the spring of 2013.

That left about $19 million for the police board to find. They did so with a series of vague, unsustainable moves. By freezing all hiring and promotions — with only a few exceptions for communication operators — they saved $6 million. Reducing the budgeted amount for premium pay knocked off another $1.4 million. And pushing back a payment to a reserve fund for vehicles and equipment brought another $5 million.

None of these strategies amount to actual sustainable reductions, mind you. The police certainly can't freeze hiring and promotions forever, especially in a city with a growing population. And skipping out on a reserve fund payment is the kind of strategy you can only use once or twice — eventually, the money's got to come from somewhere.

Then there's the top of the chart, which calls for unallocated savings of $6.7 million. After hearing their police chief say repeatedly he didn't think he could find more savings, the board decided to once again ask Blair to find more savings. But they didn't even so much as vaguely gesture toward any areas in which savings might be possible. As financial tricks go, it's an especially lousy one.

The budget will now go forward looking like it's held the line on spending, but it doesn't even bother to explain how.

There's not much good to say about the outcome of all this fiscal jousting . Once again, the Ford administration has focused too much on achieving a budget that looks good to outside observers. Conversations about real sustainability and service levels have taken a backseat to soundbites about the relative size of the gross operating budget and achieving zero percent increases.

Meanwhile, no one wants to have the real debate about the size of the police budget and ways to permanently reduce it. Because that debate, tied up in the issue of how many police officers Toronto actually needs, makes for tough questions and tough decisions. And no one seems interested in those.

This post was originally published at on 2012-12-19T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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