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Toronto's Groundhog Day

Does anyone remember eight years ago when the City of Toronto went through an “outside auditor" efficiency hunt? It was called the Core Service Review and it was conducted by world-renowned third-party auditors, KPMG.

KPMG spent four months hunting through divisions of the City of Toronto looking for efficiencies. The auditors asked in every area of service:

  1. What do you do and with what resources?

  2. Who directed you to do it: Council or the City Manager, and why?

  3. Is it still necessary?

  4. If so, is it being done as cost-effectively as possible?

What they found was that these questions were already being asked annually during our budget process – the harmonizing of services had largely taken place in the first decade of the Mega City. The auditors were satisfied that issues of fraud or waste seemed to be getting surfaced and stamped out through the robust audit process of Toronto’s own independent Auditor General if they hadn’t come to light in the budget process.

So instead, KPMG made a long list of suggestions on what we should stop doing or do less often. The City erupted in controversy and residents lined up in the hundreds to speak to Mayor Ford and his Executive Committee. Twice that summer, meetings ran 22 hours long – leaving councillors to listen all night, grab some breakfast and then start another day.

Anika Tabovaradan, a modest 14-year-old who hates public speaking, was the emotional high point of the 22-hour executive meeting.

KPMG's recommendations

Here's a sampling of what KPMG recommended we cut or scale-back:

• Toronto's target of 70 per cent waste diversion from landfill is "very aggressive." A slowdown could yield savings.

• Toronto currently conducts street sweeping throughout the summer. The report suggested only sweeping residential streets in the spring.

• Elimination of windrow clearing of snow and introducing higher thresholds for all snow-plowing operations.

• Elimination of the fluoridation of Toronto water.

• Elimination of Community Environment Days (held jointly by City councillors and Solid Waste Management staff to facilitate pick-up of hazardous waste).

• Elimination of the four free overflow bags of garbage each household is allotted per year.

• Elimination of commercial waste collection for small businesses.

• Reduction of the scale of cycling infrastructure throughout the city.

• Consider reducing the number of libraries or their hours of operation.

• Consider sale of the Toronto Zoo.

• Consider sale of heritage attractions such as the Zion School House and Gibson House.

• Consider sale of all three of the City’s theatres.

One of the areas the external auditors suggested we cut was winter road maintenance, including windrow clearing.

All over again

And now, in a Groundhog Day exercise, Premier Doug Ford is offering up $7.5 million in cash for any Ontario city to repeat that whole process. It promises to be just as superficial as the exercise his brother ordered eight years ago.

In 2011, KPMG freely admitted there was not a lot they could find in a complex organization without hurting services. They were impressed with our Auditor General office and its fraud and waste hotline. That’s because the AG’s investigations can get quite forensic and they take as long as is necessary.

Two current-day examples are the tree-trimming invoice issue that recently made headlines and the issue of fare evasion at the TTC. Each investigation took at least a year but the findings are conclusive and the City is able to confidently take the recommended actions. Millions of dollars will be saved – but not enough to replace the immediate $178 million that the Premier wants to cut from city services in time for next year’s City budget.

Toronto's Auditor General, Beverly Romeo-Beehler, reports quarterly to Council through the Audit Committee, identifying savings, operational efficiencies, and policies to keep staff and Council accountable to the taxpayers of Toronto.

Why not?

Where we struggle is that we are running out of places to make big savings. We have already privatized areas that yield savings. Eliminating duplication of services left over from amalgamation used to make it possible to find $60 to $80 million in efficiencies in just one budget year. Now, those opportunities have all been realized and we are finding efficiencies of $10 or $15 million per year.

Mayor Tory has indicated he would be happy to talk about the City’s operations and welcomes any auditor to have a look. But an outside auditor will ask the same basic questions that Councillors and the Auditor General already ask every year – are we doing everything as cost-effectively as possible?

Answering that question always takes time. Can we combine administration for Fire and Paramedic services? The answer is yes – and we are doing this gradually, over the course of several years.

Can we sell our theatres? Not without taking away all their valuable community uses people rely on. And we have amalgamated all three theatres under one board of directors, one CEO and one administration, making them more viable. These are lasting savings and when auditors recommend them, your Mayor and Council act on them with rational, steady hands.

So if we have to go through this process again – with outside auditors suggesting to eliminate a city service you can't live without – I’ll be happy to stay awake for another 24 hours to listen to you and defend the services that make Toronto your home.


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