Planning without money

Planning without money

This Saturday, May 24, People Plan Toronto, a coalition of residents’ associations, will be hosting a Neighbourhood Planning Summit at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design. (Their slogan: “Do you think city planning is a mess? Want to help clean it up?”) The agenda for the day features a number of worthy speakers, and Chief Planner Ted Tyndorf will also be there—not in any official capacity, but just to listen and discuss. One of the issues that isn’t on the summit’s agenda, but which will likely hover over every discussion like an elephant in the corner, is the planning department’s desperate need for additional staff and resources.

With a record number of development applications swamping their desks, many city planners work ridiculously long hours, and job stress is contributing to high absenteeism and turnover. (For a more in-depth description of the department’s desperate afflictions, check out the June issue of Toronto Life.) It’s hard to fathom, given that Toronto is a city full of urban-planning wonks and dandies. You’d think good planning would be a top priority, but there hasn’t been an infusion of resources since the pre-amalgamation days.

Earlier this spring, Tyndorf went before a budget subcommittee and told them that, in order for his department to accomplish its job in a way that met the expectations of city council, he’d need an additional 30 staff. This was not a first: Back in 2006 he’d asked for 12 extra staff, but he backed off due to budget pressures facing all departments. This time around he didn’t back down, but the pressures hadn’t changed, so it was a fight he was destined to lose. The subcommittee essentially ignored his request. His proposal never made it any further up the decision-making chain.

Interestingly, next year’s budget process will feature a new twist: the city is considering a new land-transfer tax of up to $2,000 on home sales, and some people have floated the idea of dedicating a portion of that new revenue to city planning. Councillor Brian Ashton, who chairs the Planning and Growth Management Committee, supports the idea. “It’s better to tell people what that fee will pay for, rather than just dumping it into the general revenue stream,” he says. But the real estate lobby will surely try to kill the initiative. At Wednesday night’s revenue tools public consultation in Scarborough, a real estate agent took the microphone and told participants that, including borrowing and insurance costs, a land-transfer tax of $2,000 could cost homeowners more than $10,000 over the life of their mortgage. The closer this proposal gets to reality, the more the public will be inundated with voodoo math. “In the interest of prudent management, I have to assume that there will be no new money next year,” Tyndorf says.

As a result, Tyndorf is busy restructuring his department so that the efforts of his existing staff are focused on the city’s most urgent needs, particularly on being more proactive in the city’s development hot spots. This is a necessary and overdue management exercise, but I wouldn’t want to be in Tyndorf’s shoes. He says he needs an additional 30 staff, and it’s hard to imagine how he can free up the equivalent of 30 full-time employees (roughly 10% of his existing workforce) just through reorganization. City council will, at some point, need to come to grips with the problem by making it a budget priority. So one of the most useful things this weekend’s Neighbourhood Planning Summit could accomplish is to kick-start a groundswell of public opinion in favour of a strong planning department with the staff, resources, and independence it needs to do its job.