How to Get Your House in Order: Expert Panel Reports on Toronto's Financial Situation

Urmi in Urban Issues

The last few weeks have been a good refresher on the importance of public policy making, with newly-released budgets introducing landmark measures, such as BC's new carbon tax scheme.

Toronto is badly in need of some astute policy making, particularly when it comes to its dire finances.  On February 21, an expert six-member panel, including representatives of big business and unions, issued a 86-page document, which, summarized the Globe, delivered a simple message: "It's time for city hall to grow up and take responsibility."  Hopefully, City Council, led by Mayor David Miller, who ordered the review in October 2007, is ready to think long and hard about policy - and push aside that other p-word.

The doc, 'Blueprint', features these notable recommendations:

-setting fiscal targets to realize $50 million in savings in 2008 and $150 million in 2009

-increasing the city's revenue base by encouraging more development and introducing user fees

-reduce the ratio between residential and commercial property taxes

-unlocking high value by taking a unified management approach to the city's entire real estate portfolio

-transferring or otherwise managing key assets, using proceeds to pay down the current debt

-exploring cost-share arrangements with other orders of government, particularly in the area of public transit

-establishing a comprehensive review of HR strategy, including restructuring compensation for senior officials and constraining the growth of salary and benefits for city workers

Above all, the report instructs Council to behave, citing the high prevalence of "petty bickering, grandstanding to score points, mistrust, bad blood and remembrance of past grievances."  Some measures, particularly the one asking the City and unions to work together to contain compensation costs, are predicated on yet to be seen demonstrations of the 'sharing and caring' principle (though it should be noted that Jim Stanford, economist for the Canadian Auto Workers Union, was a panel member).  And while some of the panel's other recommendations, to strengthen the Mayor's Office and the Executive Committee, are intended to help settle Council cat fights - they could merely get animals of a different stripe involved.  While the vision is grand, a lot stands in the way of making groundbreaking policy for Toronto.

Urmi Desai is a policy analyst and a freelance writer specializing in urban issues.  She is editor of the Move Smartly blog. Email Urmi

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