Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Toronto's new 'salad bar' approach to budgeting could be just what the city needs

City of Toronto budget binders in the press gallery at Toronto city hall.
City of Toronto budget binders in the press gallery at Toronto city hall.

Since I started obsessively following things, the City of Toronto’s budget process has, most years, been a lot like going to a boring restaurant with a fixed menu.

City hall bureaucrats would present a balanced budget, complete with much of the new spending council had previously requested. Then, the mayor and councillors would go on to make a bunch of mostly minor tweaks before approving that year’s selections.
They’d add some salt, smother some items in hot sauce, scrape off some superfluous parsley, overcook a bunch of items for no clear reason and call it a day.

This year, though, new city manager Peter Wallace has flipped the table. At the launch of the 2016 budget process last week, Wallace introduced something that’s less like a prix-fixe menu and more like an elaborate salad bar.

The preliminary budget for next year includes virtually none of the $67 million in requests for new and enhanced program spending Mayor John Tory and city council approved over the last year.

Instead of getting a menu that’s basically set, elected officials were told to pick which things will get implemented. That might mean bigger tax increases. It might mean new revenue tools.

It’s a novel approach — one that could have both benefits and drawbacks.
On one hand, the salad bar approach to budgeting could give councillors an opportunity to put a favourable spin on the budget process. Look, they can say, the budget — before considering any of the new stuff we asked for — is almost balanced.

Much of the new spending could then be dismissed as unnecessary in an environment where government belt-tightening is the order of the day.

But that would be unfair. The $67 million isn’t a bunch of nice-to-haves. It’s a bunch of need-to-haves. It includes things like $6 million needed for council’s anti-poverty strategy. It includes $13.7 million for implementing the recommendations of the mayor’s task force on Toronto Community Housing. It includes $16.7 million in badly needed TTC enhancements, including the delivery of earlier Sunday service, something that was endorsed by Tory himself.

These items were announced for a reason. To back away would be dishonest. Money must be found. It’s the finding money part that gives me some hope for this process.
The previous approach to budgeting seemed to give some councillors the impression they could vote for service enhancements with no budgetary impact.

With the right leadership, the salad-bar process could put an end to that, leaving less room for obfuscation.

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

If a politician supports something, now they must also support finding a way to pay for it. And if Toronto goes hungry, we’ll know exactly who to blame.

This post was originally published at on 2015-12-21T00:00:00.000Z

About the author

Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
Website / Twitter / Email Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott


Follow Me on Twitter

Recent Posts

Recent Comments