In the December issue of Spacing magazine, John Lorinc laments Toronto’s wilted budget process and demands a restructuring of budget documents to better communicate and serve the city’s needs. Acknowledging budget mayhem as a systemic issue, Lorinc maintains that the city’s municipal budget documents continue to “obscure, rather than enhance, understanding”, much to the dismay of residents. Those of us who wish to remain abreast of municipal issues, but lack the tools, time and resources to decipher the budget, long for the day when our leadership takes the necessary steps toward budget accessibility and intelligibility.
A Better Budget For A Better City, part of the Wellesley Institute’s budget series, acknowledges many of these systemic weaknesses, but it also outlines a spectrum of possibilities for budget process reforms available to Toronto. We completed a jurisdictional scan of four North American cities and found that resident engagement, accountability through oversight, fiscal prudence and transparency through third party intermediation are fundamental components of a healthy budget process.
Many may share Lorinc’s sentiment that emulating our international counterparts delivers “far-fetched comparisons,” but I challenge you to view them as inspiration for good governance in Toronto. Initiatives like participatory budgeting (the unabashed poster child for equitable budget reform), though seemingly far-fetched in our current bleak municipal landscape, are just one cog in a bigger wheel of healthy city-building. Should we lack the imagination or consensus to devise a purely “made in Toronto” budget reform strategy, these comparisons serve as proof of possibility.
We can no longer hide behind the excuse that these jurisdictions are distant cousins, sharing only a few superficial characteristics but not a clear genetic match, making us unlike them. The 2008-09 recession levelled us all, and our international counterparts all struggle with similar urban issues. Surely, if other North American cities like Calgary, New York City and San Francisco can prioritize and actualize resident engagement within the context of city budgeting, Toronto can re-work its budget process to better facilitate informed, collaborative and equitable decision-making.
Lorinc’s article echoes the Wellesley Institute’s plea for clarity in the budget process and documents, implying that reform would grant residents both the opportunity and knowledge to participate meaningfully in decision-making. Lorinc offers great ideas for City Council to explore:
(i) establishing a consultation group comprised of councillors, city staff and residents to discuss optimal budget content and layout; and
(ii) incorporating an array of data visualization techniques capable of stimulating an intellectual and substantial conversation about city finances.
While Lorinc’s article and the Wellesley Institute paper both emphasize the budget document’s potential to help stakeholders visualize and contextualize investments, we purport that it is not enough for Toronto just to change the tools used. A true and lasting departure from the status quo – covert budgeting in a vacuum – requires both institutionalizing and living the values on which our governance systems are based.
Torontonians must work towards a budget process that demands resident engagement, accountability through oversight, fiscal prudence, and transparency through third party intermediation. These changes must come from the bureaucracy, political actors, and other stakeholders, if we are to avoid a lifetime of stagnation and mediocrity.