Welcome To The Hot Seat, Mr. Budget Chief

September 4, 2013

Anybody else pause a moment reading the Toronto Sun’s Don Peat write that our budget chief, umwhatCouncillor Frank Di Giorgio, suggests the process of balancing the 2014 operating budget might ‘require a few miracles’? The man in charge of the $10 billion (more or less) purse strings casts an eye heavenward in hopes of some divine intervention to make sure revenues match expenditures because actual math might not do the trick this time round. Fingers crossed. Say your prayers. Hope there’s a rabbit to pull out of the fiscal hat.

I’m sure it was just an expression and the budget chief isn’t really that concerned. He has no choice but to balance the budget. The province mandates that he does so. It could even be he’s simply ramping up the concern, clearing the way for either service cuts or tax increases as necessary in order to meet the zero bottom line. ohdearHe won’t be the first budget chief to do so.

But it could also be that Councillor Di Giorgio, in his first kick at the can as budget chief, is now staring into the hard reality of Mayor Ford’s voodoo economic model for running the finances of the city. Cut revenues, cut the gravy but whatever you do don’t cut services the public actually wants. Those are much tougher numbers to crunch. And if all that easy waste wasn’t nearly as prevalent as the mayor claimed?

Well, that’s enough to make any budget chief look for a little guidance from the big guy upstairs.

The almost impossible task the budget chief faces was made glaringly apparent at yesterday’s budget committee meeting. City staff reported a $58+ million projected surplus after the 2nd quarter of 2013, made up largely of bigger than expected revenues from the Land Transfer Tax and money saved from unfilled staff vacancies, now in excess of 2500 positions including in vital departments like Human Resources, Planning, Health and IT. squaringthecircleIn order to keep the city in the black, it seems, the budget chief is going to have to keep that tax revenue coming in and maintain a freeze on making new hires.

The problem arises, however, when his boss wants to reduce that particular tax by 10% and preserve the façade of putting customer service first and foremost which entails keeping departments properly staffed up. Cut revenue and increase costs. It’s a difficult equation to keep in balance. Less money in + more money out = the same 0 it has to be every year.

To be fair to this administration, not filling staff vacancies – ‘gapping’, to use the euphemism — didn’t start in 2010. It has been an ongoing issue for some time now as an unobtrusive way to keep costs contained that isn’t immediately felt by the general public. A slight delay here. An unreturned call there. An accumulation of neglect owing to fewer and fewer bodies present to do the jobs that need getting done. workaloneKicking the can down the road, essentially, in the name of fiscal prudence.

Things become acute however when such gapping is combined with a downward pressure on revenues. Never mind hiring to fill in the gaps. The gaps just get bigger, deeper.

Under questioning from councillors, City Manager Joe Pennachetti admitted that maybe they had cut a little too much in the Human Resources department at City Hall over the last few years. So there aren’t enough people to hire other people in other departments. The gaps just get bigger, deeper.

Team Ford stalwart and budget committee member Councillor Frances Nunziata tried to suggest that many of these unfilled vacancies were unnecessary management positions that didn’t affect front line services. The city manager gently disagreed, saying the bulk of the vacancies were front line workers. He will deliver a report to next month’s meeting setting out the numbers in more detail.texaschainsawmassacre

But it’s hard to believe that the 36 vacancies in the planning department, say, are unnecessary management type positions. The understaffing in that vital department has long been decried, going back to at least the Miller years if not before but it’s staggering to think that it’s continuing all during the building boom that the city has been experiencing, not to mention the fact that we’re also reviewing our Official Plan… with a depleted planning department.

The city manager did point out that Toronto isn’t the only municipality experiencing problems hiring qualified people to fill its bureaucratic ranks. Competition is tight from competing cities as well as the private sector. It’s not as easy as just topping up your human resources department and telling them to go out and get hiring.

It’s going to take opening the wallets up and creating a desirable work place environment in order to successfully recruit candidates here. Both conditions seem to be the exact opposite of how the current administration operates. badnumbersDedicated to the best customer service that the money we refuse to spend can buy.

If that unworkable kind of Dr. Doolittle, push me-pull me approach wasn’t evident to the budget chief before yesterday’s meeting, it certainly should be now. How he’s going to straddle that divide, God only knows. So far, there’s no indication the budget chief does.

celestially submitted by Cityslikr