Seven earnest citizens sit around a table at the Toronto Reference Library. They have come to answer the question: What is important to you? As the city tries to cut at least $774-million in spending - the size of its looming budget shortfall - it is asking the public to rate the importance of the city services they receive.
More than 5,000 people have already filled out forms on their preferences, online, on paper or in sessions like this one, the sixth in a series that began May 24 and winds up with meetings at city hall on Saturday and Scarborough Civic Centre on Tuesday.
A facilitator hands around bunches of cards bearing the titles of 35 city services, from firefighting to road repair to public parking. He asks them to place the cards in one of three piles: "Necessary for the city," "Contributes to the city, but less important" and "Not required for the city."
Josh Fullan, a humanities teacher at University of Toronto Schools, goes first. "Transit is super-important to me. I don't own a car and the transit system is really behind the times." He puts a transit card in the "necessary" pile.
Jessica Cattaneo, a researcher at the AIDS Committee of Toronto, says garbage collection and support for the homeless are things we can't do without. Michael Griesz, who works in student services at Jarvis Collegiate, says the city forest and tree service helps make the city "a little bit more environmentally sound." Researcher Tamara Pravica say engineering, design and construction services are must-haves.
We can't do without a public health service, says information technology manager Sonny Yeung. Government worker Chris Drew says that long-term care homes and services for seniors are equally vital. "I have two grandmothers who are in their nineties."
By the end of the evening, the "necessary" category is piled high. Only a few things are considered potentially touchable. Perhaps we could do with fewer police officers now that the crime rate is down, Mr. Yeung suggests. Any maybe the 311 city service hotline could close down in the small hours instead of staying open all night.
At the back of the room, city budget chief Mike Del Grande shakes his head. "I have to find $774-million. If we're going through this exercise and everybody says we're going to leave everything as it is…." - well, then, what's the point?
What indeed. It's true that lots of the services the city provides are vital. Many of the people at these service-review sessions are coming to make just that point - to tell the mayor, in effect, to back off on his cost-cutting drive. Instead of eliminating services, suggests Mr. Griesz, "maybe we could get rid of Rob Ford."
But it is also true that the city is chronically short of money. "This is an alligator that we fight year in and year out - not having enough money to do what we need to do," says Mr. Del Grande. "It needs to be fixed, and you have to have the fortitude to fix it."
Mr. Ford's views on cutting city services may be simplistic - it's a lot more complicated than stopping the gravy train - but his drive for better, cheaper service provides a chance to take a good hard look at everything the city does.
"Should the city be in the zoo business?" asks Mr. Del Grande. "Should the city be in the theatre business?"
It's unrealistic to expect city hall to keep on going merrily along as it has, living in a never-never world where fees stay low, service stays the same or gets better and the city keeps trying to be all things to all people. As tempting as it is just to curse Mr. Ford and everything he stands for, true city lovers will accept city hall's challenge and help it become a leaner, more efficient level of government, delivering only the services we really need and delivering them as efficiently as possible.