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New term, new world: our first week back at City Hall

This morning when I made my weekly appearance on the radio, my husband tweeted a quote by me from the broadcast:

Toronto City Council held its first meeting yesterday and adopted rules and budgets for Councillors. The results of that session made many headlines, so let me walk you through it.

Setting an envelope

Here is what I mean by “setting an envelope”: if you are a councillor who has very little growth and development in your ward and no have large committee assignments, it is likely you easily managed your workload with just three staff members. In areas of rapid growth such as Don Valley North, Willowdale and all of downtown, that limited staffing model simply does not work.

In the former (and smaller) Ward 33, I managed by partnering with student placement programs at the University of Toronto. I also had a wonderful staffer seconded to me by the City Manager’s Indigenous Fellowship Program. Other wards experiencing rapid growth were allowed a higher budget for staff but this was never officially accounted for in those councillors’ budgets. Rather than opening a can of worms in the Council Chamber about who is busy and who is not, the additional staff for just four wards were added to the City Clerk’s Budget under Council Services. Consequently, Council’s growing needs left another corporate budget out of whack and unable to meet savings targets, while the Councillors’ appeared perfectly balanced.

What should happen

Every year during the City’s budgeting process, we review the books of every department, including our own. We calculate and acknowledge the cost of living pressures for each division but we also give each division a savings target. Before politicians even begin the political budget process, there is a conversation between leadership staff, finance staff and every service division that comes down to this question: what is the real cost of delivering your services at the level your community and City Council expect? If you claim that cost is lower than it really is to score brownie points, you simply will not get the job done and you are putting the City at financial risk.

Budgets are set based on the real cost of doing the job properly, and they are carefully tracked and reported. You could say the City’s method of budgeting is designed to create a surplus — for example, let’s say there are 52 people in your division, five retire in June and their replacements don’t start until September. We call that “gapping” and the savings are applied to our annual budget surplus. The same will be true for Councillors — while there is now a new, higher staffing budget, all unused staffing dollars should be reported as a surplus. My rough math anticipates savings of about $500,000 in 2019. Unfortunately, Council made a big mistake that may wipe these savings out.

Live by the rules you set for others

While I supported the motion for increasing Councillor staffing budgets, there was one motion adopted that I strongly disagree with.

All Councillor staff are paid within a range set by Human Resources. However, Councillor Gary Crawford moved a motion that councillors be permitted to pay their staff above the recommended salary range as long as they don’t exceed the overall staffing budget. Considering he was last term’s Budget Chief, this is a very imprudent move — essentially, this allows Councillors to bonus their staff members until any surplus is spent.

We don’t allow that type of bonusing anywhere else at City Hall and Councillors should hold themselves to the same standard. We follow the pay rates set by HR to avoid inequities in the organization based on personal favouritism, gender or anything else.

Location, location, location

Another issue arose in the first session of Council that will have an impact on the future of Don Valley North’s constituency office. Finding a location in our ward will mean having to choose from some of the most expensive real estate in North York. This is the reason I haven’t had a constituency office in the past. Now that our size has doubled, it is a necessity. Yesterday, Council acknowledged the budget for these local offices is based on unrealistic market rents and may need to be adjusted. This will be reviewed as part of the budget process early in the New Year.

In the meantime, here is how we will proceed in Don Valley North. Over the first three months of 2019, the City’s real estate division will help us locate a space for our constituency office. Once they do, we will work to have it ready as soon as possible. In the meantime, my staff team and I will happily schedule individual meetings with constituents in convenient locations such as our local libraries and community centres — frankly, even your own kitchen table is a fancy enough meeting location for me.


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