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Summertime, and City Hall Makes Me Queasy

September is just around the corner, and while Rob's main job will be to try to deliver Toronto to the Conservative party, maybe we can still take it back.

I had an opportunity to take a little vacation this summer. It was nice to get away, but when you come home it's also nice to be surrounded by familiar things. Sure enough, I got back in time to hear about the all night publicity stunt, sorry the public meeting, at city hall. It's good to be home, Rob. I'd like to say I missed you.

The longest meeting in the city's history certainly got a lot of media attention. Most notably, it was for being the longest meeting in the city's history. Too bad the same attention wasn't paid to the report from the Core Services Review that also summarized a number of public consultations on these issues. That was published in early July.

I had a chance to read the summary of these public consultations ("Appendix B - Core Service Review, Public Consultation), and made a few observations:

Feedback was gathered from almost 13,000 citizens through the public meetings as well as individuals doing the online questionnaire. The participants were generally younger than one would expect, with a significant portion between the ages of 25 and 54. Not the standard retired voters we usually think of when it comes to these things. Higher-income households were also well represented.

Of all the potential priorities people could choose, transparent and accountable government was number one. Meeting the needs of vulnerable people was a close second. The lowest ranked issue was fair and affordable taxes. People seem to believe Toronto should invest to continue to create the environment that makes it one of the better cities to live in. Furthermore, residents and businesses may be willing to invest in that. On the subject of taxes, the people participating were more receptive to tax and user fee increases than not. A property tax increase of five per cent was not seen as out of line.

In general, the data does not suggest a fervent desire to contract out city services. People do not assume this will mean more efficient use of resources. Interestingly the Top 5 service items deemed not necessary appear to be: managing Courts for provincial offenses (seen as a provincial responsibility), Exhibition Place, Toronto Zoo, City-run live theatres, and Business Improvement Areas. These also ranked highly on the parameter, "The city should contract out this service". I guess entertainment is not a high priority, and neither is funding local business projects. Seems sensible enough.

Unfortunately, the release of the KPMG documents hijacked the headlines. I'm still trying to digest all the goodies KPMG is dishing, but I love these particular phrases from the introductory document "Final Report to the City Manager." This is the document that in part sets the context for how to read the rest of the reports that pertain to specific services being examined. Notable quotables:

"KPMG did not assess the effectiveness or efficiency of City services. Assessment of how services are delivered is envisioned to be conducted through separate efficiency reviews."

"Options are identified as things the City could consider doing, rather than advice to proceed."

"KPMG did not conduct financial analyses of programs and services to identify potential savings...The actual annual savings percentages realized will vary from those presented, and such variance may be material."

Provisos be damned, hyperbole became the order of the day with suggestions to kill the library system, close day cares, let the maintenance of parks be reduced to grass cutting and tree trimming, reduce waste diversion targets, and all the other things that don't seem to be truly quantified, but are all footnoted with:

"Potential Savings are relative to the size of the corresponding program/service/activity the option/opportunity relates to, and may include increased revenues to produce lower tax requirements. Savings will accrue to utility rates rather than taxes where noted."

"Timeframe refers to first year in which savings could be realized. Full savings may take longer."

The taxpayers of Toronto outsourced for this? Couldn't the mayor have said, "There's some cuttin' to be done, and a-cuttin' we're gonna do"? He could have revved a giant chainsaw for effect, maybe even sawed some communist councillor's desk in half. I have to assume that would certainly cost less.

Instead, the closing act was the all-nighter at city hall with the media-friendly histrionics -- the perfect distraction. Before the smoke has cleared, the mayor drives his SUV into the morning light, double-checking that he hasn't accidentally exposed his middle finger. King Harpernicus could definitely coach his boy up some, but burgermeisters will be burgermeisters.

Speaking of coaching, a football coach usually only has need for two letters: x and o. This is why the Ford boys aren't big readers. However, that's no excuse for the rest of us. Please encourage other citizens of Toronto to go to the Toronto Service Review website and read for themselves. September is just around the corner, and while Rob's main job will be to try to deliver Toronto to the Conservative party, maybe we can still take it back.

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