The debate over the size of Toronto’s city council is usually depicted as a fight between two seemingly defendable positions. On one hand, proponents of a smaller council tout potential savings, both short-term and long-term, as well as more effective decision-making. On the other, those who favour the status quo describe the move as a blow to local democracy. As far as facts are concerned, there is distinct lack of evidence to defend the former stance.
This is not the first attempt by the provincial government to tinker with local government structures, both in Toronto and elsewhere in the country. Who can forget the political crises over amalgamation that contributed to the downfall of governments in Ontario and Quebec at the turn of the century? In both cases, proponents of the proposed reforms championed fiscal responsibility and efficiency in decision-making as key arguments. While evidence may have lacked at the time to prove or disprove these claims, that is decidedly not the case anymore. Having studied the impact of council size on local governments’ budgets as well as the effect of council downsizing on their fiscal performance, we can predict that the impact of the Ford reform will at best have a marginal effect on Toronto’s overall budget, even in the long run.
Let’s look at the numbers. The City of Toronto’s expenses totalled $11.12 billion in 2018. The government estimates that slashing council from 44 members to 25 will lead to $25 million in savings in the operating budget. This represents a little over 0.2% of the City’s budget, and we would argue that this constitutes an overly optimistic estimate of potential savings that will actually materialize. Sure, reducing the number of elected officials will have an immediate impact on the operating budget of the council as an entity if the reform is implemented in time for the next election. But is it justified to weaken democratic responsiveness and representation for savings of just 0.2% of the total budget?
However, posed in this fashion, the question fails to account for the complexity of estimating the cost impact of such decisions. The work that elected officials actually accomplish on a daily basis, ranging from appearing to council meetings to fielding calls from their constituents and championing their causes in the municipal bureaucracy, does not disappear in thin air overnight once the bill currently debated at Queen’s Park receives royal assent. Recent research we published in Canadian Public Administration shows that the reduction of council size in Toronto in 2000, Quebec City in 2009, and Halifax Regional Municipality in 2012 is not correlated with a reduction in these cities’ operating budgets. In other words, downsizing council did not lead to savings on the overall budget. Whatever savings were accrued from council’s operating budget were simply transferred as increased expenses to other budget items to pay political staff and civil servants who are essentially doing the work that elected officials previously accomplished. In each of these cases, council downsizing failed to achieve what it was meant to do – namely to reduce costs. What is more alarming is that it also negatively impacted local democracy by imposing a time crunch on the remaining elected officials who now have less time to dedicate to their constituents because each councillor is representing more voters.
The question, therefore, is not whether achieving marginal savings is worth reducing the
effectiveness of local elected officials in representing their constituents, but rather how to defend an attack on local democracy in the absence of any discernable impact on the City’s financial performance.
Patrick Kilfoil is a Ph.D. candidate in the School of Urban Planning at McGill University. Jean-Phillippe Meloche is Professeur agrégé in École d’urbanisme et d’architecture de paysage, Université de Montréal.