Toronto gets those Trudeau bucks

City Hall Watcher #80: Visualizing Toronto's pandemic budget crisis, City Hall moves toward deal to digitize services, the popularity of media briefings & more!

Hey there. This is the landmark 80th issue of my City Hall Watcher newsletter. Time to party. And by “party” I of course mean “read about municipal government news.”

Because it’s a round number, this 80th issue is being sent free-of-charge to a wider list than usual. If you find it useful and like the idea of supporting independent journalism, you can become a paying subscriber and get this kind of content each and every week for just $5 a month or $50 a year, plus tax. It’s a bargain and a deal.

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In this issue, I’ve got a neat visualization of Toronto’s budget crisis, plus some news about a proposal to award a contract to a digital payments company as part of City Hall’s ongoing effort to digitize all the things. And, on a lark, I’ll chart the YouTube viewership of City Hall’s COVID-19 media briefings.

As always, if you like City Hall Watcher, tell a pal.

Matt Elliott

@GraphicMatt / /

Trudeau announces funding for cities — here’s where Toronto needs it most

Credit: YouTube/screengrab

After a loooong wait, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced more funding for cities last Thursday. The waiting game appears to be over. For now.

Details remain scarce, but here’s what we know so far: the federal government will be providing $19 billion in total, an increase from their initial offer of $14 billion. That money will be shared by all provinces. Ontario is expecting to get $7 billion, according to Premier Doug Ford.

There are numerous strings attached. Here’s how the Star’s Alex Boutilier and Robert Benzie describe it:

Of the $19 billion, $4.5 billion is for national purchasing of personal protective equipment by Ottawa plus $3 billion to support provincial purchasing efforts; $4.28 billion is for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing; $2 billion for municipalities; $1.8 billion for transit that the provinces must match; $1.1 billion for temporary income support for sick leave; $740 million to support vulnerable populations and long-term care; $700 million for health-care capacity plus $500 million for mental health; and $625 million for child care.

How much money will ultimately flow to Toronto remains an open question. But people are treating it like good news. TTC CEO Rick Leary told the Star’s Ben Spurr and Francine Kopun last week that he was “absolutely thrilled” with the announcement and believed it would go a long way toward solving the transit agency’s budget crunch.

In past deals, Trudeau’s federal government has doled out transit funding based on ridership, leaving Toronto with about 25% of total funds. If a similar formula were applied to the $1.8 billion in transit funds here, Toronto would receive about $445 million. Matched by the provincial government, that would eliminate the TTC’s projected year-end budget shortfall, and then some.

But that’s all speculative at this point.

What we do know for certain is that Toronto is now projecting a year-end budget shortfall of about $1.35 billion, according to a report heading to Tory’s Executive Committee tomorrow.

Here’s a high-level view of how the shortfall looks, by department, agency or source.

With a projected budget shortfall of just under $700 million, the TTC represents the biggest chunk, which is why transit funding from the federal and provincial government is the top priority. Turns out a massive drop in riders leaders to a massive drop in fare revenue.

Other big drivers of the shortfall are the Shelter, Support & Housing Administration, facing a $185.2 million crunch due to herculean efforts to keep people safe in the shelter system, and Senior Services and Long-Term Care, which projects to come up $17.6 million short for obvious reasons.

Other contributors include a $14.7 million hit to Court Services because fewer tickets have been issued, an $11.4 million IT-related budget overage largely because of the cost of moving many employees to telework setups, a $15.4 million hit related to the cancellation of the CNE and other events at Exhibition Place, and a $14.6 million loss by the zoo.

COVID-19’s impact on Casino Woodbine has a large effect, coming in with a projection $17.5 million below budget. Gamblers were expected to generate $27.9 million for City Hall in 2020, but new projections — which assume limited re-opening through the end of the year — put the figure at $10.4 million.

Parking revenues are also a big source of budget pain. A combination of not enforcing paid parking during the height of the pandemic and continued lagging demand will cost $53.9 million as fewer parking tickets are issued, while the Toronto Parking Authority is now projected to contribute $42 million less than budgeted in their annual payments to City Hall, as demand for Green P lots remains low. That’s a $96 million budget pressure related to parking alone.

Meanwhile, the collapse of the tourism industry means $51 million in foregone revenue from the Municipal Accommodation Tax that would have been charged to hotels and short-term rentals like Airbnb.

The biggest question mark here is the municipal land transfer tax. Currently, staff are projecting revenue will come in $249.2 million below the budgeted revenue target of $797 million, but there’s a lot of hedging on the number. “The COVID-19 impacts on MLTT revenue are generally delayed by 60 to 90 days and as a result limited post-COVID experience is available to draw from to establish year-end projections,” says the report.

It’s expected that staff will have more detail on the federal relief package in the days ahead and report to the July 28 & July 29 meeting of Council.

PayIt forward: staff recommend deal with online payment software platform

An example of the City’s “Customer Experience Vision” which could be realized with the PayIt platform. Credit: City of Toronto

When Mayor John Tory’s Executive Committee meets tomorrow, they’ll consider EX15.5. It’s an item that, if approved by committee and Council, will award a non-competitive three-year contract to Missouri software company PayIt. The report heralds it as a major step forward for Toronto’s digitization strategy.

The deal will see the PayIt platform power a new “myToronto” portal that allows residents and businesses to access and pay utility bills, property tax bills, parking fees, development fees and permit fees through a single online portal. Additional services, like business licenses, pet licenses, film permits, parking permits and others could be added to the portal in future expansions.

PayIt’s property taxes payment portal. Credit: PayIt

This has been in the works for a while. PayIt has been lobbying City Hall for more than a year, represented by Maple Leaf Strategies’ Jonathan Telch. Telch recorded 66 communications on the Lobbyist Registry between January 2, 2019 and February 19, 2020, kicking things off in earnest with an in-person meeting with Councillor Stephen Holyday on January 10, 2019. Since then, Telch recorded dozens of meetings with IT, Revenue Services, the Transformation Office, 311 Toronto, the Office of Partnerships and more.

The lobbying effort culminated with the presentation of an unsolicited proposal from PayIt to the city, which led to the Office of Partnerships working with PayIt on a proof of concept that went well.

What’ll it cost? The report to Executive Committee says the “value of the contract is variable to some extend because PayIt is compensated on a per transaction basis based on digital adoption of services and payments made through their platform. There is no cost to the City if there is no adoption by the customer.”

In other words, PayIt will take a small cut of each city-related bill paid through the platform. Over the three-year term staff estimate PayIt would make about $13.6 million off the deal. The contract would also include two option years for extension.

The deal has been accelerated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Now, more than ever, the need to scale delivery of digital government services and engagement is a focus,” says the report. “Public health standards, fiscal realities and customer expectations and increased comfort level for fully digital experiences require the City to accelerate at an unprecedented rate. ‘Business as usual’ is not an option. The pandemic has pushed digital services to the forefront.”

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In next week’s issue, you’ll get an in-depth preview of the July Council meeting. The following week, it’ll be time for LOBBYIST WATCH — my monthly summary of lobbying activity at City Hall. You won’t want to miss out.

In charts: how Toronto watched City Hall respond to the pandemic

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen De Villa, Mayor John Tory and Fire Chief Matthew Pegg at the April 1 COVID-19 media briefing. It was the longest and most-viewed of the 67 media briefings Toronto has held since March 12. Credit: YouTube / Screengrab

On Thursday, March 12, the first official COVID-19 media briefing was held at City Hall. It was a simpler time. Four speakers — Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen De Villa, Mayor John Tory, Fire Chief Matthew Pegg and Board of Health Chair Councillor Joe Cressy — shared the same podium and microphone. Reporters were allowed in the room. There had been just 172 COVID-19 cases in Toronto at that point, according to case data released by Public Health.

The briefing was 54 minutes long and watched by just over 6,000 people.

Nobody knew it at the time, but there would be 66 more briefings like it to come, and 15,000 more COVID-19 cases.

Looking at the view counts on the briefing videos posted to the City’s YouTube channel reveals a story about public interest in the pandemic and measures being taken. I thought it’d make for a cool chart.

The most-viewed briefing was April 1 — not a joke — when De Villa said she was “deeply concerned” about the numbers and urged people to stay home as much as possible. The video got just under 16,000 views on YouTube, at a time when the number of cases was spiking.

Here’s a view of the above chart with an additional layer showing COVID-19 cases by episode date.

Not all viewership is captured in this measure. The briefings are also carried on news channels and radio. But the trends are interesting, with upticks in viewership tending to coincide with spikes in cases, or major announcements about new policies.

Briefings were held on a daily basis (taking weekends off) through mid-May, when they started to become less frequent. By monthly average, March saw an average of 4,108 views per briefing. April saw 3,698. May saw 2,872. June saw 2,593. July, so far, has seen 1,335. Interest has definitely declined as the cases have fallen off.

Note: the June 8 briefing video was taken offline and re-uploaded, erasing its initial view count. I’ve left it out of the above chart.

How brief were these briefings?

Aside from the most-viewed briefing on April 1, which clocked in at a mammoth 1 hour and 19 minutes, the briefings have not varied a whole lot in length. In March, the average was 40 minutes. In April, it was 46 minutes. In May, 47 minutes. June clocked in at 44 minutes and July at 43 minutes, so far.

None of this charts include data from the media briefing held this afternoon, but for the record it was 58 minutes long. Above average.

More from Matt: on park boozing, and open data

For the Toronto Star last week, I raised a glass to the idea of drinking in parks.

After the column was published, the City modified their regular Friday press release to ditch the language about drinking in parks being subject to fines. I’ll call that a minor victory. Onward.

In the Star this week: a tribute to Open Data, and how the pandemic proved its value. Look for it in your favourite newspaper.

In other news

The week at Toronto City Hall

MONDAY: 📉 The Economic & Community Development Committee met this morning. They reviewed a report about the mayor’s trip to London in March, which was going pretty well until, you know, the whole COVID-19 thing.

A last-minute addition to the agenda came via Councillor Paula Fletcher, who is concerned that the planned above-ground Ontario Line route will negatively impact the Jimmie Simpson Recreation Centre. The committee passed her motion requesting an evaluation of how the transit line will affect the centre.

♿️ The Toronto Accessibility Advisory Committee also met to consider the City’s COVID-19 recovery and rebuild plans.

TUESDAY: ✅ The Executive Committee meets to consider the operating budget variance report and the PayIt deal, covered above. They’ll also vote on whether to give their approval to the bus lane plan for Eglinton East. And they’ll decide whether they’re cool with Exhibition Place changing their soft drink sponsor from Pepsi to Coke.

WEDNESDAY: 👉 The Civic Appointment Committee meets to decide who will sit on the Heritage Toronto Board of Directors and the Greater Toronto Airports Authority.

🏆 Bid Award Panel contract award of the week: $1.2 million for portable chemical toilets.

THURSDAY: 🏗 The CreateTO Board meets to hear about the Toronto Parking Authority’s real estate program, updates on Housing Now, and a deal to turn surface parking lots at Spadina & Adelaide into a new park and a development site, with the proceeds also going toward building affordable housing units.

FRIDAY: 🦁 The Board of Management for the Toronto Zoo meets. As you’d expect, their attendance numbers for 2020 are looking very grizzly.

🚘 The Parking Authority caps off the week, considering an update to the legal saga surrounding 50 Cumberland Street and some rate adjustments for weekend parking.

NEXT WEEK: Council meets on Tuesday and Wednesday, at what’s scheduled to be their last meeting until September 30.

City Hall Watcher #80

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