A Question Of Numbers

Last week, the final 2014 property tax bill notice arrived in the mail for my perusal. taxbillIt always delivers a brief moment of confusion when I think, Do I have to pay this now? Don’t I pay my property taxes through the bank in monthly installments? Why isn’t my bank making my property tax payments? I’m going to phone them and give them a piece of my mind…

And then, oh right. Property tax bill information. It’s just the final bit of accounting from the city, showing me all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed.

Included in this statement is a small pamphlet, informing the taxpayer about extended call centre and cashier counter hours, various tax relief, rebate and appeals processes, and one page detailing where exactly your tax dollars are being spent. This is a breakdown based on a house with “an assessed value of $499, 521”. Amounts may vary slightly according to the value of a house but you get the general idea of where your hard earned tax dollars are going.

The first thing you notice, if you’re looking closely, is the breadth of services and programs you get in return for paying your property taxes. The police, public transit, roads, parks, libraries, fire, EMS, children and elderly care, a zoo or two. But wait. budgetpieThere’s more.

City council, city planning, economic development and culture. Public health. Housing and shelter support. Employment and social services. 311.

All this (and more) for the low, low price of $2598.71 a year, if your home is valued at about $500,000. $216.56 a month. $7.22 a day.

If you never, ever use the TTC, living in your half a million dollar home, it costs you just over a dollar a day to keep other people from hopping in their car to get to work, and freeing up that much more road space. At 32 cents a day, our library shelves are kept stocked. You want to find out what exactly goes into the green bin or lodge a complaint about that massive pothole in front of your house? dothemathThat’ll be about 2 cents a day to keep 311 operational.

There are some troubling numbers, for sure, in our budgeting breakdown. We could wonder why we spend almost $300 a year more (again, based on a house valued at $500,000) on the police services than we do on 5 categories of social services that might keep our streets and homes equally safe. Should the police services be this city’s biggest single line item in the budget? By a significant amount, let me add.

It’s certainly a worthy conversation to have but beware the politician who tells you there’s a quick fix. Policing and police budgeting is a thorny matter, covering at least a couple jurisdictional territories. Untying such a knot won’t be an easy task.

When it comes right down to it, there’s no such thing as an easy task with a $10 billion annual operating budget. Always there’ll be more demand than the resources at hand. Making tough choices is simply part of the gig. But we could go a long way to de-mystifying the process if more of us took a moment, checked the numbers to see what services and programs were actually costing us on a yearly, monthly, daily basis. Evaluate them on a pretty straight-forward cost-to-value measurement. budgetneedsIs this item worth it to me, my community, my city?

Bring it down to a more manageable scale. Hundreds or tens of dollars rather than hundreds of millions or billions. This is what that service will cost you and your family, to the penny.

It would make for a more practical debate, freed as it would be from the tyranny of oppressively and mind-bendingly large numbers.

numerically submitted by Cityslikr

Don’t Say A Word

OK, print’s a bit smaller today as I feel like I should speak on this subject in hushed, whispered tones because no none else seems to really want to talk about it. At least, not out loud in the presence of mixed company. The walls, they do have ears.
Just looking at the breakdown of this year’s proposed operating budget and I can’t help noticing this really big, slightly cantankerous elephant in the room that is going unremarked on. With all the talk about budgetary shortfalls, cutbacks and sell-offs of municipal assets, why hasn’t there been so much as a peep of protest about the sizeable slice of the money pie being handed over to the Police Services Board?
According to this city issued chart I’ve been going over, of the $2427 property tax bill that a house assessed at $400+ K will have to pay in 2010, $607.38 of that would go to the Police Services Board. By my amazing powers of long division, that works out to just over 25%. Not including the $977 for education which is collected in a separate stream, we pay more for our policing than other city provided services. By a long shot. The much maligned TTC takes in just a 14.4% share while the equally vilified city council costs us a whopping .01%.

Yet all I’ve been hearing about is how we need to sort out the TTC from top to bottom, making it more efficient. Rocco Rossi pledges that if elected mayor he’ll cut his salary by 10% which by my calculations will save Toronto exactly… I don’t own a calculator that has room for that many zeroes after the decimal point. But nothing, is what I’m saying. A complete and utter empty gesture.

Yet the police budget continues to rise and—

Oops. Started shouting there. Hope no one was listening. Nothing but crickets from the council and candidates out on the hustings. Have we just decided that it is money well spent? The crime rate is low and continuing to drop and that’s because we keep increasing the police budget?
If this is so, then why don’t we apply the same logic to other municipal departments? Let’s jack up the spending on libraries, why don’t we. Raise literacy levels around town. Or following the same line of reasoning, if we spent more than the 7% of every $2427 property tax bill on Shelter Support and Housing Administration, we might actually put a dent in our homelessness blight.
I mean, if spending more on the police = less crime, why wouldn’t it work for other municipal departments? Why are we, at least, not even talking about it? To propose increased spending on the TTC is derogatorily categorized as simply throwing money at the problem while higher budgets at the Police Services is deemed prudent fiscal management. How come? If crime were to suddenly spike upward, we’ll then take money back from them, right? That’s what’s happened in the past, if memory serves. Crime rate goes up, all right thinking folks demand we start giving the police less money.

For a bunch of tough hombres, the likes of Mssrs. Smitherman, Rossi, Mammoliti and Ford sure purr like a pack of pussycats when talking about Toronto’s EMS especially Police Services. On that score, they’re not alone. Everyone who’s talking about out-of-control spending on the part of our municipal government, from politicians to journalists and outraged citizens, seems to exclude the police, fire department and EMS from their Things To Cut list. So much so that it’s not even a topic of discussion. Why is that, is all I’m asking. If everyone’s expected to make sacrifices during tough economic times, shouldn’t that really mean everyone?

Damn! Got a little loud again. Fingers crossed no one was listening.
almost inaudibly submitted by ????????

Fun With Numbers

With all the talk of Toronto’s looming economic apocalypse, I decided to submerse myself in a little policy wonking. I hunkered down with both the Toronto Board of Trade’s early February report, The Growing Chasm: An Analysis and Forecast of the City of Toronto’s Finances and a CUPE commissioned paper from economist Hugh Mackenzie entitled, Reality Check: Toronto’s Budget Crunch in Perspective. Two opposing points of view; two tales of two cities.

Now, I am no economic whiz. Numbers, pie charts, graphs and stats tend to make me break out into a cold sweat. Like most of us, I can be baffle-gabbed and hoodwinked when set upon by numerical waves. So in no way should this be taken as a valid economic assessment of these reports. Rather, what blinks before you is a general overview of my impression of them.

Firstly and not surprisingly, the conclusions drawn in both papers reflect the opinions and standpoints held by those who contracted, as it were, the reports. As to be expected, I guess. Still it feels a little, how shall I say, unscientific. But that just may be the nature of the beast when it comes to the field of economics as a whole.

In the Board of Trade’s The Growing Chasm, there is no mistaking whatsoever how we must not tackle the city’s dire financial situation and burgeoning structural operating budget deficit. Of their report’s 34 pages, two (#s 21 & 22) are delivered in dark highlighted boxes. Within those boxes is an impassioned plea against commercial property tax increases. According to this study done by Canada’s largest chamber of commerce, businesses in the 416 area code already bear an unfair tax burden and cannot be expected to carry anymore of the load. If future city councils were to try this than businesses would have no choice but to pick up their stakes and move to more tax friendly locations in the GTA.

To the Board of Trade the actual culprit for City Hall’s runaway spending and growing structural deficit are the wages and benefits that are doled out to municipal employees. Of course in his report done at the behest of the Toronto Civic Employees Union Local 416 of CUPE, Hugh Mackenzie strongly disagrees with that notion. His numbers suggest that employee wages and benefits are perfectly reasonable and that, in fact, Toronto’s recent increase in operating expenditures is 4% lower than the increases in municipal expenditures throughout the rest of Ontario.

Again, I can’t decipher the numbers thrown around in these reports well enough to be able to ascertain who’s massaging what figures or who’s cherry picking what data but I am confident enough to say that the Board of Trade’s report contains a methodological blemish that makes me, at least, suspicious about the veracity of their report. Early on in the Growing Chasm it is suggested that the city’s structural operating budget deficit has been around “since at least the start of the decade”. Sounds a little vague. Surely something this important, this ominous structural operating budget deficit, can be traced back a little more accurately than simply “Since at least the start of the decade”?

No matter. The report then bases all its assertions on the numbers gleaned from the 2002-2008 period. The end number, 2008, is reasonable as it is the last year for which the statistics are available. But why start at 2002? Why not begin right at amalgamation with the birth of the megacity before the structural operating budget deficit reared its ugly head in order to give us a full and complete view of the city’s finances from day one? 2002 seems an arbitrary snapshot as if the Board of Trade needed just that time frame to prove their point. It’s analogous to someone trying to establish the fact that the ancient Romans were poor builders of edifices by pointing out the shoddy condition of the structures from, say, 1945 to the present day.

Or maybe I’m just missing something. Clearly everyone in the mainstream press and the front running candidates for mayor have hopped on (the Toronto) board of Trade. There is a Growing Chasm. City Hall has taken part in an unsustainable spending spree! Cuts must be made! Assets sold! Taxes frozen!! Anything less and we will be going to hell in a hand basket while businesses flee the downtown core to the more amenable environs of 905.

No question. No doubt. And no paying attention to that man over there, Hugh Mackenzie, telling you otherwise.

studiously submitted by Acaphlegmic