During Toronto city council’s first meeting after the 2010 election, then-mayor Rob Ford slashed councillor office budgets in a symbolic act of penny-pinching. At this week’s first council meeting since the 2018 election, total office budgets increased despite political slashing by Premier Doug Ford, demonstrating that sometimes dramatic symbolic measures, even when they’re very disruptive, might not save you much money at all.
Huh? Well, first the biggest news coming out of the meeting: councillor budgets for staff and office administration got increased. So much so that the total council budget for those line items under the new 25-seat council is more than $1 million higher than it was under the previous 44-member council.
In the old alignment, before the premier forced a reduction in council’s size, each councillor had a budget of $241,000 per year for staff members and $34,000 a year for office supplies and administration costs.
On Wednesday, with the new councillor representing wards almost twice as large (and, in some cases, with more than twice as many constituents), those budgets got increased. Now they’ll have as much as $482,000 to hire staff, and $50,000 for supplies and administration.
You can do the math. Staff and office expenses for 25 councillors will now cost $13.3 million; when we had 44 councillors, it was $12.1 million.
This was entirely predictable. And necessary.
Everyone — including Ford and his government — insists that good, responsive service to constituents needs to be a top priority for elected officials. At city hall in particular, the entire system is set up so that city councillors’ offices are the main troubleshooters and hand-holders for any complex interaction. Development applications, speed-bump approvals, neighbour disputes, liquor licence applications — all of these are mediated by city councillors, and a surprising number actually require councillors to bring forward bylaws to get done.
If you double the number of constituents a councillor is serving, you’re doubling the number of calls they are going to get, the number of development applications they need to negotiate, etc. That requires, logically enough, double the number of staff, and more office cash.
This isn’t what Ford foresaw when he cut the size of council. He predicted more than $25 million in savings over four years. To get to that number by cutting 22 councillors (the number was supposed to rise to 47 councillors, Ford cut it to 25), you’d need to include both the councillor salaries and their staffing and office costs. That isn’t what’s happening.
Now, the city will indeed not incur the roughly $110,000 salaries of those 22 councillors, which comes to just under $10 million over four years. But the city will now spend almost $5 million more on expenses for the 25 councillors. Instead of $25 million in savings over four years, we’re looking at something significantly less.
In response to a request from the Star, a city spokesperson estimates the total council budget — salaries, staff, travel and expenses — for the 47-councillor model was projected to be about $3.4 million higher than the new cost for a 25-member council. That’s about $13.6 million over four years.
You and I can agree, I hope, that $3.4 million a year is a lot of money. But these things are relative.
If you’re running a city government, those dollars get eaten up pretty quickly. If you wanted to cut TTC fares to return that savings of $3.4 million per year to citizens, you could do so by reducing fares by about half a cent per ride. Save that up after a year of commuting and you could buy yourself a coffee.
Saving money is good. I wouldn’t blow off the value of banking seven-figure sums for other city purposes. I’m just saying annual savings of $3.4 million for such a drastic change to the city’s government is pretty modest.
And the change is drastic, make no mistake. The other big agenda item at this week’s meeting was trying to figure out how to fill the city’s 485 committee, board and agency positions from a pool of only 25 councillors. Having each councillor serve on 20 different committees doesn’t seem likely to work. Council approved an interim strategy recommended by staff, while planning a council committee to study the issue and figure it out for the long-term. Which may well reveal more hidden costs to the restructuring.
We’ll be dealing with the complications and consequences of a smaller council for some time. The projected savings, meanwhile, have already begun to disappear.
Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwire