Something tells me that municipal budgeting will never be the same again in these parts. "Once you've taken the stopper out of the bottle, it's pretty hard to get the perfume back inside," the executive assistant to a well-known city councillor muses. We're surveying the large crowd assembled at the Elmbank Community Centre in far-off Rexdale, one of the seven public consultation sessions Mayor David Miller and budget chief David Soknacki have been holding around town this week.
The place is packed with more than 200 people who want to tell the new chief magistrate and his head bean counter how they think council should spend their hard-earned tax dollars in order to keep Toronto a happening metropolis.
At this meeting - in a less than wealthy part of the city with a large Somali population - racial profiling, affordable housing and public transit are hot topics. And the folks sitting around the 20 or so tables set up within the community centre are clearly enjoying this incredible opportunity to make their opinions known - not just to the mayor, the budget chief and the city staff members who've come along to help facilitate the Listening To Toronto seminars, but to their own neighbours. The perfume is definitely out of the bottle.
"This is a great thing," enthuses Rob Ford, the Ward 2 (Etobicoke North) councillor with a curmudgeonly reputation for being extremely tight-fisted when it comes to spending tax dollars on almost anything.
Ford confesses he was highly skeptical about the entire Listening To Toronto exercise when Miller first proposed the $100,000 idea. But after stopping at a few tables to listen to what the folks who elected him and Ward 1 council mate Suzan Hall have to say, he offers that the consultation sessions are "money well spent."
"This what we should have been doing six years ago when we were first faced with amalgamation," Ford suggests. "It might have saved us from a lot of the problems we're facing now if someone had simply bothered to listen to the public. I think it's a constructive win-win proposition for the city and the taxpayers, and it will help council make some tough decisions."
Outside, the parking lot is so jammed with vehicles that Soknacki is moved to joke that a bylaw enforcement officer armed with a few books of tickets could do much to reduce the city's $344-million operating budget in just one evening.
But the parking cops have been given the night off, and it's left to the budget chief to call out the licence plate numbers of cars that have to be moved when someone wants to leave the meeting. Few do.
Like Ford, Soknacki admits he was "dubious" about the need for the listening sessions when Miller first proposed them.
"At first blush I said, 'We've just been through a massive consultation process called the election. Why do we need another one?'" But now the budget chief is so sold on a process borrowed from a city in Brazil that he's started calling the nearly $7 billion that will have to be spent on municipal operations this year "the people's budget of 04."
"This has been a real eye-opener for me," says the Ward 43 (Scarborough East) councillor, who has started off every session explaining the city's budget challenges to the registered participants.
"I think Toronto residents are getting an appreciation of some of the constraints we have on us to deal with the day-to-day issues of running the city," Soknacki says. "It's not an attempt to lower the public's expectations. It's to say, 'Here are the realities of the situation. How would you deal with the priorities?'"
And what are the politicians and staff hearing back?
"People are commenting directly on everything from police budgets to grants; all the way from debt issues down through the powers that the city has," the budget chief says. "You ask people for their opinion and, by golly, you're going to get their opinion. At the same time, I think there's a mature realization of what can and cannot be done."
Soknacki rejects the idea that the consultation sessions are being used to soften up city property owners for a property tax increase in excess of the 3 per cent ceiling he and Miller agreed on after the November election.
"In terms of consensus, I have a feeling that's about right," the budget chief says.
Joe Mihevc, a member of Soknacki's budget committee, is also on hand for the Rexdale meeting, and he, too, is convinced a 3 per cent property tax hike is all homeowners can reasonably be expected to bear this year. The Ward 21 (St. Paul's) councillor also agrees with the budget chief's contention that the public consultation process will give the mayor and council "a very strong mandate" to open talks with the federal and provincial governments regarding structural changes "not only to the way municipalities are financed, but in terms of power and responsibilities as well."
Says Mihevc: "A mobilized community that can articulate its political will is the best defence for local democracy. That's a very pleasant side-effect of this process."
Yup. Once you've taken the stopper out of the bottle .