Sewell: Police spending in Toronto is scandalous, irresponsible and mismanaged
John Tory and company signed off on the billion-dollar police budget
If you don’t want to be bamboozled, it’s best to snip a few zeros from the big dollar figures floating around.
So when you read what Kyle Lowry is being paid each year by the Raptors, think $120,000 — very handsome compensation in my books — rather than the unreal figure that includes another two zeros. Missing a few zeros at least puts a great basketball player into the world we live in.
When you think of restoring an eastern chunk of the Gardiner Expressway, assume that the majority of Toronto City Council agreed to spend an extra $500,000 to keep it functioning. It simply doesn’t make sense to think they made a decision to spend a sum with another three zeros. Or assume the extra cost of the unnecessary subway extension in Scarborough is a modest $1,000,000, not something with another three zeros as the media has reported. We simply don’t have that kind of money to waste.
The bigger figures seem ludicrous and are certainly unwieldy. Fewer zeros allow us to get a handle on things.
When it comes to this year’s city budget, I take the simple position that it is about $11,500,000 because I have some understanding of a figure in the millions. My mind gets muddled when people use the B-word and say the budget has another three zeros. I am no different than members of city council who blink over the elephantine sum and instead debate fees for various services. After all, it is the $15 or $25 fee for a dog licence that we can all understand.
How can you analyze a budget that ends with more than four or five zeros? You can’t. You falter and slip and revert to talking about sums you can understand. So when it comes to the almost empty Union Pearson train, we don’t talk about the amount it cost to build — $456 followed by six zeros — we talk about whether the current fare of $27.50 one way should be reduced to $5. It’s a debate about a sum we can understand. As for the construction cost, well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Then there is police spending. The Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB) and city council both said the police service could spend a sum that has a one followed by nine zeros. I couldn’t believe it, so I asked to see the budget on which this spending is based. No one wanted to provide that information last November — I called it a Potemkin budget in my last column. So I filed a freedom of information request, and at the end of January, I got my answer from police services staff:
“After consulting with members of our Budget & Control Office, our office was notified that a 2016 Operating Budget Report (similar to budget reports prepared in prior years) was not requested by the TPSB for 2016. Therefore, a 2016 Operating Budget report was not prepared.”
A full budget was never prepared. The board just winged it. They did not have before them a budget of what each police division can spend or how much is allocated to detectives or the mounted unit or domestic assaults or anything else.
That’s when I realized the fancy decision makers also had trouble with those zeros. It’s as though board members simply said, “Let’s close our eyes and give them the money.”
Mayor John Tory said on Feb. 1 there was, in fact, a budget, and it would be released immediately. Board chair Andy Pringle said that, unfortunately, there was no electronic copy of the budget — I guess it had been prepared on an old Underwood typewriter — so it would take some time before it could be made public. As of press time, no detailed budget had been produced.
In short, the decision makers were doing their best to cover up the fact that they didn’t even have the figures in budget form. When staff told me it would take two weeks for them to prepare budget material for me, I asked to simply meet with them and they could show me what they had presented to the board. I was told the chief administrative officer would contact me instead. In the meantime, city council knew of the lack of detailed budget but still approved the many zeroed decision of the board.
Scandalous? Irresponsible? Maybe. But look at it this way: unless you forget about all those zeros, you get worried our public decision makers seem to be acting irrationally. You might lie awake nights thinking our local government structure is out of control.
That would be a very sad way to greet the spring in Toronto. Just forget about a bunch of zeros and you will feel better. The police services will spend more than we like, whatever we do.