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Editorials 2011

Editorials 2011

The Money Issue in 2011

During May and early June, there were eight public consultations about the City’s “core service review.” The first one was at the North York Civic Centre. Participants were placed at individual round tables, and each table was told, “we’re not looking for consensus, we’re looking for a rich dialogue.” A tough call! At one point, the city’s chief financial officer, Cam Weldon, went to the microphone to give a short briefing. He was in shirt sleeves, and he looked tired. He told the audience that the city’s operating budget for 2011 is $9.383 billion, and the capital budget is just over $2 billion. The reasons for the operating budget shortfall of $774 million next year are many, Weldon said. He listed: the cost of salaries, fuel, increases in transit riders, and a growing capital budget (meaning more debt charges for the operating budget). Taxes, Weldon said, are only 38% of the city’s revenue. Provincial and federal funding provide the other major revenue source, with fees next, for instance fees for water and garbage.

One table called over a “subject matter expert” (a circulating city staff person) to find out the dollar figure for two sample city service costs. In 2011, the police will cost $917 million. Servicing the debt from capital expenditures (like buying new TTC trains and building new community centres) will cost $408 million. The debt keeps increasing, and so does the cost of paying it off.

Consultation participants were given a questionnaire, with “in-depth service questions.” Each table had to choose three sample services and determine whether “maintaining the quality” or lowering the city’s cost is more important. There was some objection among the participants about the wording of the options. Why was there only an either-or choice? What if the quality could be maintained, or even improved, at the same time as the costs were lowered? The facilitators said that this objection had been mentioned by others, but since the questionnaire was already online, the phrasing would have to stay the same, for statistical reasons. The follow-up questions were equally narrow – should the city increase user fees, or increase taxes, or increase both – or just contract out?

Some participants left the meeting early, feeling that the meeting was not dealing with details, only generalities. The details are being worked out by the giant consulting company KPMG, which will present its recommendations to city manager Joe Pennachetti. He will decide what to propose to City Council, and then the councillors will decide what to cut.

The scale of the decision-making is so large that the outcome will most likely be pretty messy.

The Recreation Service Plan: The general manager of Parks, Forestry and Recreation held four May/June public meetings, about the current restructuring her staff are working on, called the “Recreation Service Plan.” The most recent “strategic plan” before this one, developed under the previous two general managers, was published in 2004 as a thick, colourfully-illustrated booklet called “Our Common Grounds.” This plan was meant to cover a longer period, but it has now been removed from the city’s website and is presumably no longer in force. A “Parks Plan” comes up for discussion in September. User fees are also under consideration, as is the “Welcome Policy,” which is the last vestige of the former City of Toronto’s universal free programs policy prior to amalgamation.

The fate of the park: Somewhere between $500 million and $774 million has to be cut from next year’s budget. Right now it looks like the only tool available is a very dull knife. Will the city shutter Dufferin Rink, or install turnstiles and reassign all the rink staff to collecting admission? Stop operating the wading pool? Turn off the basketball lights?

All of this is possible, multiplied across the city, but it’s not the only way to reduce costs. Another way is to simplify the way parks and community centres run. But in order for park users and staff to find solutions, we need to broaden the considerations that are on the table. A couple of ideas, for starters:

Idea: Hold off on building more new mall-style community recreation centres. Building new community centres increases the debt and the staff needed. 17 years ago, some neighbours of Dufferin Grove Park decided to try and use one orphan field house and one underused rink house more fully, as well as the park around them. A “Community Centre Without Walls” grew up over the years. This “CCWW” is used by more people in the course of a year than most of the city’s mall-style Community Recreation Centres (“CRC’s”). The total cost to run the CCWW is about $560,000 this year. (About $190,000 of that is paid for through the summer and winter cafes, Friday Night Supper, and bread baking for the farmers' market.) For comparison, the City’s formula for projecting the operating costs of new CRC’s is 10% of the capital cost. The two new CRC’s being built right now cost $20 million and $27 million. By the formula, it will cost $2 million plus $2.7 million a year to run these centres (is debt servicing included?). Eight new CRC’s are planned for the next ten years.

Meanwhile, the city has a big list of existing orphan field houses and three-month-usage rink houses, some of them far more elegant than those at Dufferin Grove. The buildings are presently used to store trash cans or road salt for most of the year. The city can try the Community Centre Without Walls model in some of the places which are waiting for a Community Recreation Centre.

Idea: Reassign staff back into neighbourhoods. There are too many staff working in central planning, policy-generation, standards and innovation development, risk assessment, central training, permit and user fee administration, community capacity building, youth outreach, fee subsidy assessment, and community engagement development. Let them move back into direct, neighbourhood-based parks and recreation work which naturally involves many of those issues, locally.

Of the approximately 432 management-level staff listed in the Parks, Forestry and Recreation directory, at least 118 are part of that extra central layer listed above. That layer costs at least $10 million in salaries, and the cost of the various staff meetings generated by these policy/standards activities, if tracked, would come out to millions more. Any such tracking doesn’t even include the widespread unhappiness of staff who have been reassigned to administration, book-keeping, and compliance-detection, but who actually want to go back to working in neighbourhoods with ordinary people.

Those are two ideas, out of many possibilities. Contribute your insights:
Tuesday June 21, 7- 9 pm. Public meeting: The future of Dufferin Grove Park: putting our heads together about city plans and budget dilemmas.

With City Councillor Ana Bailao. At the rink clubhouse. Supper available by the oven from 6 pm.

Public consultation questions, June 21 2011

The general manager’s questions in the City’s Recreation Service Plan “Consultation toolkit”:

Click to enlarge

1. What are the barriers to equitable recreation opportunities across the city?
2. Your opinions on the currently available mix of programs?
3. How to engage people who don’t use recreation programs now?
4. “How can PFR help to strengthen communities and who can we partner with?” 5. How can PFR find and keep volunteers?
6. Other comments?

Some issues to consider, in the light of the general manager’s question topics:

Before the four cities were amalgamated (Toronto, Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough) in 1997, the former City of Toronto had universal free access to recreation programs. Former Toronto’s total Parks, Forestry and Recreation operating budget in 1997 at amalgamation was $53.1 million (down from an all-time high of $59.1 million in 1993). The total operating budget for Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR) in the current city of Toronto is $375.7 million for 2011 ($275.1 million if you subtract the revenue collected in fees and provincial grants). Over the past four years, PFR’s operating budget has increased by $51 million (of which $32 million is for increases in wages and salaries). The budget expenditure rise is not correlated with a corresponding rise in the number of people using recreation centres nor with a rise in the number of picnic benches available in parks.

At the same time as costs have been rising quickly, some major themes have emerged in how PFR is managed. The current problems at Dufferin Grove reflect these themes:

Process over outcomes: the majority of management staff time citywide is now spent monitoring compliance with City Hall policies rather than in setting up and running programs. Example: all city wading pools are supposed to have two staff on duty, no matter how many kids use them.

Management has now determined that Dufferin Grove wading pool must have the same as the others, so the extra wading pool staff provided in past years for such a busy pool has been reduced to two. Silos: The wading pool staff have always been involved in other playground programs when they have time. Management says this is not acceptable. Wading pool staff must take their direction from separate aquatics co-ordinators. They are not supposed to be integrated with the Dufferin Grove team. Issuing tickets and times for kids at the wading pool has been suggested as a way to deal with the staffing restriction when the pool is crowded. That outcome is not seen as a problem as long as the central staffing process is followed.

Cost of monitoring and training for proper process: The mandatory training for wading pool workers takes between 8 and 24 hours, rotating between Year One or Year Two of their work. Even senior staff have to retake the training, which includes information about sunscreen and wearing flip-flops. Most Dufferin Grove staff report that a four-hour training session could have been condensed into 10 minutes. The cost to the city of substituting mandatory citywide lowest-common-denominator training sessions for good local supervision is unknown. The local cost of supervisory staff who are monitoring compliance with policies and who are reworking what goes on at Dufferin Grove is perhaps $40,000 in additional staff wages. Mistrust: Staff and citizens are supposed to follow centrally-generated policies, and wait for direction. Dufferin Grove Park’s on-the-spot collaboration between staff and park users is seen as an inappropriate independence of PFR policies. Also, citywide wage categories do not fit Dufferin Grove work descriptions. The most senior recreation workers at Dufferin Grove earn less than an entry-level park litter-picker. Attempts to outline a more accurate work description are ruled out of order. Management has suggested that attempts to use existing pay codes to make wages fit with Dufferin Grove work amount to “wage fraud.” Downloading: recreation workers used to run kids’ sports leagues and special events. Then kids’ sports leagues were downloaded to external groups with no help from recreation staff. Events like park concerts and fun days were not longer put on by the city. Neighborhoods were invited to organize such events themselves. Then the sports and events organizers were charged permit fees to do that work. Example: A recent neighbourhood park party at Healey Willan Park involved two city wading pool guards for three hours of wading pool time, and no other help. Neighbourhood people were charged $354 for permission to do all the work (a “bargain,” down from last year’s $450). And despite the presence of already-insured city staff at the wading pool, the neighbourhood still had to take out separate insurance in case of injuries from the music, the bake sale, the kids playing, and the neighbours meeting. Partnership limitations: If Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment paints a rink change room (including its logo), there is no permit fee for them. They are seen as a partnership with Parks and Recreation. If a band offers to give a free concert at a park, this is not considered a partnership and the band is charged a permit fee for playing. Restrictions on fundraising: for three years, CELOS (the CEntre for LOcal Research into Public Space) has been negotiating with the City to hand over the money raised through the food and skate lending operations, so the city can use the funds directly (instead of going through CELOS) to pay for the extra staffing to run these programs. No progress yet, because the food and skate lending are against policy.

Many parks are not very lively. And Dufferin Grove Park is sometimes too lively.

Good ideas for the general manager?

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