Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Understanding Toronto's budget: It's a whole lot more complicated than it needs to be

By: Metro Published on Mon Oct 28 2013

Politicians at Toronto City Hall are gearing up for yet another fast-paced season of municipal budgeting. And you’re excited, aren’t you?

No? Really? Huh.

I get it. The city budget doesn’t have the immediate intrigue of an Etobicoke police investigation or a Senate scandal, but the reality is that the series of government decisions that make up Toronto’s approximately $10-billion operating budget are incredibly important.

The municipal budget is how kids get child-care spaces. It’s how roads and bridges get fixed. It’s how your streetcar gets less crowded. It’s how the city gets a little better — or a little worse, depending.

But it tends not to get the attention it deserves. And a lot of that is because the process that Toronto uses to set the budget is broken.

The big problem is communication. There are ways to make budget information accessible, but instead the city tends to present dense tomes of needlessly complex information.

Charts and visuals are kept to a minimum, brushed aside in favour of, well, text. Lots and lots of text.

That situation is made worse by the way politicians and the media tend to frame the budget. The whole thing gets distilled down to just a couple of simplistic figures: the so-called “property tax hike” and the size of the operating budget.

Neither of these things is a great way to judge the effectiveness of a municipal budget. Because Toronto can’t run annual deficits, and receives a significant portion of its funding through provincial transfers for programs it must provide, the size of the budget year-over-year is generally irrelevant.

And because property taxes are both incredibly complicated and poorly understood, it’s hard for people to conceptualize what an increase actually means to them — and to city services.

We can do better.

Already some engaged citizens have picked up the ball.

Better Budget Toronto, a non-partisan advocacy group dedicated to demonstrating that “shaping public policy can be collaborative, interactive, and even fun,” held their first Better Budget Day earlier this month, co-sponsored by the Wellesley Institute.

There, more than 75 people from a diverse set of backgrounds explored new ways to do the budget better.

They even invited me to give my two cents to the group.

The energy in the room was encouraging.

And so are Better Budget Toronto’s next steps.

“We believe that improving the way the city spends public money should be an issue in the upcoming elections,” Better Budget Toronto co-founder Alex Mazer told me.

“We want to distill the good ideas we’ve generated together into a pledge that councillor and mayoral candidates across the political spectrum can sign on to.”

As budget ideas go, there’s one that makes a lot of sense.

This post was originally published at on 2013-10-28T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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