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Toronto voters divvy up public funds as city tests out participatory budgeting
From park lighting to outdoor exercise equipment, three Toronto neighbourhoods decide how they want to spend $150,000 in budget experiment.
Feb. 19, 2016
Sarah-Joyce Battersby

Can you and your neighbour agree on when the hedge needs to be trimmed? What about how to spend $150,000?

It’s a question three Toronto neighbourhoods faced as the city offered a chance to divvy up funds in a test run of publicly-led budgets.

Rather than let politicians and bureaucrats decide, participatory budgeting puts the purse strings in the hands of the people.

Residents in Ward 33 (Don Valley East) and Neighbourhood Improvement Areas in Scarborough and Etobicoke dreamed up projects, which were vetted by city staff for feasibility. The final votes were held in September.

In the winner’s circle: outdoor exercise equipment in a Don Mills park, more park lights in Scarborough’s Oakridge Park, and shade at the Maple Leaf Park playground near Jane St. and Black Creek Dr.

Among the losers were shade for the Maple Leaf bocce court and a mural to brighten an ugly underpass near Victoria Park station.

Despite the air of competition, Walter Palaroan, who led the campaign for the Don Valley Fitness Park, said the process was civilized.

“I think we were all supporting each other because win or lose it would all benefit our community,” he told the Star.

It’s not the first time Torontonians have tasted participatory budgeting. The Toronto Community Housing Corporation has employed the technique for almost 15 years. City councillor Josh Matlow used the process to allocate “Section 37” funds from developments in his ward. As did Shelley Carroll, who, as Ward 33 councillor, is on her second round.

“What you get from this is building the capacity of residents to understand how municipal government gets things done. What rules they work inside. How they get bang for their buck,” Carroll said.

Allowing the public some control in the decisions could cut down on apathy and frustration, she believes.

“Are you going to yell at your neighbours, or are you going to develop a new idea of your own?”
More than 1,500 cities across the world, including New York, Chicago, and Montreal, have invited public participation in budgets since the concept was introduced in Brazil 15 years ago.

In New York City’s most recent round, more than 50,000 people voted to dole out over $32 million.

That same enthusiasm has yet to grip Toronto, where voter counts reveal only about one per cent of the population participated in the pilot.

Councillor Frank Di Giorgio, a former budget chief, questioned the costs of the project.

“There’s nothing wrong with exploring the intangible benefits,” said Di Giorgio, who is the councilor for Rustic. “But then you have to assess that against time and work that staff has to put in to the project.”

Those concerns grow with the potential to take publicly-voted budgets across all 44 wards.

“Will you get as much from (dividing the money) as allocating $45 million more strategically in bigger projects,” Di Giorgio said.

For advocates, the process presents an opportunity to increase civic engagement.

Alex Mazer co-founded BetterBudgetTO a group aimed at improving the city’s money management. He believes more public participation in the budgets could strengthen democracy.

“A huge portion of the economy … is allocated through public budget processes in some way or form. And those are not processes that are well understood.”

But he cautioned it could backfire without enough effort and money on the table.

“The main risk is that you build up public expectation and people don’t feel like their voice is actually reflected or that their time is well spent,” Mazer said. “The last thing you want people to feel is a greater sense of disillusionment after a process like this than when they started.”