Monday, March 3, 2008

Toronto's budget: show me the money

From the tyrant’s perspective, liberty is a delicacy. To wit, he does not wolf it down all in one mouthful; rather, he savours it one little bite at a time. In this way, a free populace is unaware of their liberty’s chomping until it is all but gone.

A rapacious ruler will often start with government’s transparency, and this approach is applicable to the City of Toronto. As the Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy has lamented, it is all but impossible for citizens, journalists, or even city councillors to obtain a line-by-line accounting of the city’s budget. By any standard of government in Western society, this is egregious.

It may not seem so, since working folks have more compelling things to do than curl up with copious pages of municipal data — but they ought to have the untrammelled ability to inspect how their tax dollars are being spent.

Can’t drive stick
Despots prefer dim lighting.

I am not concluding from this one instance that we are close to having tanks in our city streets — if for no other reason than I suspect not a single member of Mayor David Miller’s coterie can drive a standard transmission — but it evinces a Soviet-style contempt for the citizenry that manifests itself more boldly by the day.

For example, this winter’s heavy snowfall has prompted Miller’s loyal councillors to fits of proletarian pique that would make the Politburo proud. As Coun. Joe Mihevc contemplates how severely citizens ought to be fined for failing to clear city sidewalks in front of their homes and businesses, Coun. Glenn De Baeremaeker refers to those who pay his salary and expenses as “lazy” and imagines them “sitting in their homes eating popcorn,” rather than shovelling snow.

But this kind of mass recrimination and lack of perspective are commonplace among the swivel-chair Trotskyites who comprise the council of any major metropolis. A padlock on the books, however, is a step beyond.
Requests to the city for complete budget data yield direction to a website, where one will find summaries, Power Points and pie charts to beat the band. But a line-by-line accounting of all figures remains elusive, even to elected city officials.

Coun. Mike Del Grande, the only chartered accountant on Toronto city council, has requested complete budget data for years, to no avail. Moreover, despite accounting credentials that are unique among his peers, Del Grande remains excluded from the city’s budget committee.
In lieu of specifics, what one discovers within the published budget documents are the major challenges of city departments, as outlined by council, with a tenuous relevance to dollars and cents.

For example, the Toronto Police Service is charged with, “Reduction in Paper Usage: Double-siding photocopies and printing along with limiting paper handouts is projected to result in 5 million less photocopies in 2007 with a savings of $0.050 million.”

Police priorities
A citizen may be forgiven for wondering if, in a city with appalling rates of homicide and violent crime and an increasing number of areas in which folks cannot walk safely in broad daylight, a paperless paradise ought to be a priority of the police. Of course, this misbegotten approach does not reflect on Toronto’s finest, but on their civilian overseers.

It is a point so rudimentary that it seems odd to have to state it explicitly: This is our city, run with our money. Any citizen, taxpayer, or, especially, elected city councillor, ought to be able to see where each dollar goes.

Top-line reports of revenues and expenses, unveiled in multi-colour, expensive-looking reports (adding insult to injury), do not suffice. We have a fine city, and it belongs to us all. Liberty loves the sunlight.