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What your driveway has to do with the City's Budget

On Monday morning, Mayor Tory and the Budget Chief, Councillor Crawford, launched the proposed City Budget for 2019 with an inflationary property tax increase of 2.5 per cent.

Then it started to snow…and snow, and snow and snow.

By Tuesday morning, the Budget was no longer in the news and our office phones were ringing off the hook with complaints about snow plowing and windrow clearing — or the lack thereof. What no one was doing was connecting the dots between the City’s Budget and the City’s ability to deal with your windrow (the snow piles left by plows at the end of your driveway).

Buried in every Budget are lists of what we call "service levels." Service levels outline the services the City delivers and what to expect from them, such as snow clearing and garbage collection. Councillors adopt those service levels along with the dollar amount it costs to deliver.

This is just another way of saying that the Budget has a huge impact on even the most minute parts of your life — and it goes well beyond what your property tax bill will be. Windrow clearing is a great example.

A brief history

North York is proud to have started the practice of machine windrow clearing. The service began when a North York Works Commissioner lost his best friend to a heart attack when the poor fellow was struggling to clear ice and snow from his wide suburban driveway. The commissioner was inspired to invent a plowing attachment to cut and clear these windrows, and Mayor Lastman was happy to fund having windrow cutters follow snow plows on neighbourhood routes.

When Toronto was amalgamated in the 90's, windrow clearing became controversial. It can’t be done in the downtown core because cars have permits to park on the street overnight. The former municipalities of Etobicoke and Scarborough hadn’t yet adopted the service even though they wanted it. After much debate, it was determined that downtown Toronto will get other types of service enhancements and windrow clearing would be extended throughout Scarborough, Etobicoke and continue in North York.

Budgeted Service Levels

So, why isn’t this service still happening as it should? Why do plows arrive within hours of snowfall but windrows remain blocked for days? The answer is Budgeted Service Levels.

In order to keep budgets low and property taxes down, the Mayor and Council ask each department of the City to deliver the same services year after year on top of absorbing the impacts of inflation — without adding funding. It is not possible to do this forever, because it means eventually service will have to be reduced. That's what has happened in transportation.

Snow removal is entirely contracted out, so the City's transportation department is able to tweak the terms of service levels, often without Council noticing. Having a contracted service also means a reduced Budget won't result in any layoffs of City staff that would jump off the page. Instead, there’s just a slight reduction in the cost of the outside contract. But when the costs of a contracted service are reduced, the service gets poorer.

In all fairness, City staff take these actions only because they are trying to meet the stringent budget targets the Mayor and Council have set. The windrow clearing reduction, however, is a false economy. Now, because of this reduction in service, the new expectation for windrow clearing is 72 hours after a snowfall instead of just a couple of hours.

This results in staff at 311, the transportation department and many City Councillors' office being overwhelmed with complaints from residents. Having to send out plows to address those complaints ends up being much more expensive than simply having the services integrated.

I will be raising this matter as Budget discussions progress — the effects of climate change mean we can expect weather events like this to happen more often, so we need to address these discrepancies as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, it's important to keep an eye on your neighbours and help each other with tasks like driveway clearing if you're able. No one has eyes on your community like your own neighbours do, which is invaluable during big storms like the one we just experienced.

Have your say

The Budget matters. We must start connecting the dots between budgets, TTC fare increases, services, repairs and taxes. We have to understand that insisting on a bare-bones Budget will impact the services you expect.

That's why I will be holding my first Budget Town Hall in this new, bigger ward on February 15th. I want to make sure everyone understands how the Budget works and how we are really starting to see services crash up against our goals and wishes for life in our City.

I need to see you at this Town Hall so you can make it clear what service levels you want in Don Valley North. That way, I can truly be your voice when it's time to vote on the final Budget on March 7th. Details about the Town Hall are below — I'll see you there.



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