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Feb.6 meeting Follow-up posts about the Northwest Corner Project

1. Capital Projects staff’s BIG Problem: covering their payroll

Lots of people have noticed that even though city staff hold many public consultations for new public building projects nowadays, what gets built at the end may not closely resemble what people asked for. When all the questionnaires and stickies on plan boards have been collated, the projects still often look a lot like what Capital Projects staff originally put into the city budget. Here’s one reason why --

Not long after the four different cities that make up the current Corporation of the City of Toronto were first stitched together in 1997, a park supervisor told me something strange. He said that the new City Council had set up an unfortunate arrangement for paying the staff who plan new city projects. Unlike any other city department, most of the payroll for Capital Projects staff would be covered, not by a fixed budget amount, but by a percentage of the cost of any new capital projects being built. The percentage could vary between 1% and 10% depending on the size of the project. The bigger and more expensive a new project was, the more money there was to pay the city planning staff. In effect, they would work on commission. They were the only city department required to have such an uncertain payroll budget.

It looks like this arrangement – which for good reasons used to be illegal in the old municipal code -- has continued to this day. In a recent sample year (2015), 68% of the Parks and Rec Capital Projects staff payroll was covered that way. In other words, Council has put those staff in a position where they have to try to convince city councillors to spend a lot. The more a project costs, the more they get.

Advising better maintenance, or working on small ingenious changes to improve an existing building, gets Capital Projects planners much less money to cover their payroll. If they do that, they have to start to lay off staff. Who would want to do that? So they have a major conflict of interest.

It seems like building bigger is the only way Capital Projects can afford to go. But that creates another problem: Torontonians often like what they have, and they may get mad at their city councillors and dig in their heels about demolishing good things and replacing them with bigger. So Capital Projects staff have to hire firms whose specialty is shaping the outcomes of community consultations.

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