Councillor Shelley Carroll

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Friday, March 31, 2006

Budget Editorial From the Toronto Star

Editorial: Budget marathon becomes a sprint
Mar. 31, 2006. 01:00 AM
The process of passing Toronto's operating budget has traditionally taken day after agonizing day, each one consumed by grandstanding speeches, arguments over minor spending, and rude expressions of frustration.

Fortunately, all that changed this year. While plenty of bickering remained, a new fast-tracked approach has moved the city's budget briskly forward. And this successful effort to streamline the budget debate is worth maintaining in coming years.

In fact, the new approach has been so efficient that it raises the obvious question of why wasn't it tried long ago. Last year, it took city council six days and 62 hours of debate to pass Toronto's operating budget, with councillors finally approving the municipal books at 3.16 a.m.

Clearly, a better, faster way was needed and this time councillors found it. In an unexpected procedural manoeuvre on the first day of debate on Wednesday, several members of council proposed eliminating the traditional item-by-item discussion of the operating budget. Instead, they wanted to focus on the broad thrust of the $7.6 billion spending package.

Rather than examining the document on a department-by-department basis, which typically takes days, councillors were given limited time to deliver a speech on the budget as a whole and to raise their biggest concerns. This broad-spectrum approach was adopted by council in a 24-16 vote, clearing the way for a quicker budget process.

With a 10-cent Toronto Transit Commission fare increase scheduled to take effect tomorrow; a 3 per cent property tax hike looming for local residents, and a 1 per cent increase proposed for businesses, there was much in this year's budget worthy of debate.

Little would be gained by devoting up to a week to thrash out minor matters, especially since councillors have always had ample opportunity to see, discuss and shape Toronto's budget earlier in the long process involved in bringing it forward. City hall's budget committee began meeting months ago, in open sessions that every councillor was free to attend. They all had a chance to raise matters of special concern to their ward and to discuss their overall priorities. There should be no need to wait until the last stage of the process to raise relatively small concerns.

Despite that, some councillors couldn't resist wasting limited time on a series of picayune matters, such as Councillor Rob Ford's bid yesterday to shave $2,500 from a multi-billion-dollar budget by eliminating a community access and equity brochure. That was defeated 40-4.

Such antics formerly devoured days of council's time, turning the budget process into an often embarrassing marathon. This time, thankfully, steps were taken to limit trivial discussion in order to concentrate on the big picture. And the city was well served as a result.