Participatory Budgeting: a Budget process we can believe in

Source: https://mailchi.mp/toronto/participatory-budgeting

This morning, I watched Council members arrive for the Special Meeting of Council to adopt the 2019 City Budget. You and I, dear readers, have already discussed the Budget at length, and I thank those who attended my recent Town Hall on the subject. There is not much more to say other than that the Budget is still not balanced under the fundamentals of accounting, as I know from my years in banking.

Let’s agree it's time to move forward with what we have. I’ll be working with my team to apply what the Budget does bestow on our little corner of the City – and I think you'll be a fan.

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Section 37

In Don Valley North, we're lucky to have another way to invest in our ward beyond the limitations of the City Budget. As a result of rapid growth from development along the Sheppard subway line, we have a reserve of Section 37 funds at our disposal. Here's a great explanation from the Toronto Star about it:

"Section 37 (s37) refers to a section of the planning act, which allows for what other cities call “community benefits agreements.” If the owner of a property wants to build something that does not comply with zoning regulations, the owner can agree to provide community benefits in cash or amenities in exchange for approval.

These benefits are negotiated by city planning staff and with local councillors in the area where the development will be built. Though the agreements themselves are approved by city council, the use of the funds is largely controlled directly by the local councillor for use in projects inside his or her ward.

The purpose of the section in the act is to offset the problems caused by changes to a neighbourhood when different kinds of developments are added to it, such as to compensate for increased traffic, population, or changes to the streetscape new developments bring."

How can we use s37 funds?

I am very excited to announce that some of these funds can be spent by you through Participatory Budgeting (PB) and a democratic vote.

Residents from the former Ward 33 have engaged in Participatory Budgeting for four years now. We take a sum of money set aside from the s37 reserve and we gather local residents to brainstorm ideas for improvements and new features in our ward.

This can look like bike lockers at the subway station, exercise equipment in the park, a running track, beautifying our streets and so on – all of which have been accomplished in our ward, by the way. They just have to be capital projects requiring a one-time source of funds.

The very popular basketball court at Pleasantview Park was built as a result of PB

The very popular basketball court at Pleasantview Park was built as a result of PB

From there, we connect residents with the right City Staff so they can learn how much their ideas will cost, why they cost what they do and how long it would take to implement them. Over the course of a few meetings, we all work together to come up with a ballot that provides a range of ideas for how to spend the money. Then we promote the ballot ideas all over the neighbourhood and invite every resident, age 14 years and over, to cast a vote on how to spend the money.

Residents learned a lot about how our city works over four Participatory Budgeting rounds. I am especially proud of how much the City staff learned, as well – the staff who helped us through the PB process said it taught them a lot what it means to be committed and directly accountable to residents for their delivery, which is a win-win for everyone. Sometimes the smallest winning projects can be the hardest to keep on track, and we saw staff improve delivery in this area significantly. Best of all, we all had tremendous fun.

A collage from our first-ever PB process in 2014

A collage from our first-ever PB process in 2014

PB in Don Valley North

This year, the Parkway Forest and Henry Farm communities will have an opportunity to determine how to spend $500,000 set aside for them as a result of the Emerald City development. In the coming weeks, I will be inviting all Don Valley North residents to join us to observe and help execute a round of Participatory Budgeting. Volunteers can lend a hand, meet their neighbours and see how it all works.

Next year, we will conduct another round of PB for the area between Leslie and Bayview. It would be fantastic to hold our first PB in the western part of the ward with a few community members who learned through the upcoming Emerald City process.

To wet your whistle, I want to share a video from an organization in New York City, Participatory Budgeting Project. They are a not-for-profit agency that helps New York City and Chicago councillors conduct PB processes for $1 million per ward every year. Click the image below the see the video:

I firmly believe Participatory Budgeting can play a crucial role in engaging residents in super-sized wards like Don Valley North. If this is something you're interested in – or even if you're not sure – stay tuned for news about the next round of PB in our ward.

Ani Dergalstanian