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Operating budget $67 million short

February 2nd, 2016 · No Comments

Cancelled car tax could have made up difference for Toronto

By Annemarie Brissenden

The City of Toronto’s proposed tax-supported operating budget for 2016 rings in at just over $10 billion, but what’s remarkable is what it doesn’t include.

Among the things it doesn’t include are much-needed Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) money, $25 per capita for the arts (a target set in 2003 that has yet to be met; it was to bring Toronto’s cultural spending in line with Montreal’s, which now spends $55 per capita on the arts), funding for an additional 57 paramedics, money for early Sunday morning service on the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), funding to increase the number of long-term care nurses who are dedicated to helping people stay in their homes, and money to enhance the Toronto Public Library service offerings with youth hubs, WiFi expansion, and digital innovation.

And all that’s before tackling the city’s capital projects that remain unfunded to the tune of $22.3 billion: the TCHC state of good repair backlog, the George Street revitalization, Lower Don flood protection, and a downtown relief line for the TTC.

Taken together, it’s a basket of necessary items that would not only enhance municipal programming, but also haul Toronto into the 21st century.

“We don’t have the resources to maintain the city we have, let alone the resources to build the city we want,” said Joe Cressy (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) at a budget consultation he co-sponsored with Mike Layton (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina) at the Centre for Social Innovation on Jan. 25. “We have $22 billion in projects we need that aren’t funded, and $67 million in programs we need that aren’t in the budget.”

The shortfalls also highlight just how much impact the city and its services has on our daily lives.

“Municipal governments are probably the most important governments that you deal with in your daily life,” said Layton. “Just about every part of your life is touched by the budget.”

“It is critical,” agreed Cressy. “The context of our city is that we are a growing city…with an increasing demand on infrastructure and services, and our budget is not keeping pace.”

Josie La Vita, the executive director for financial planning for the City of Toronto, explained that unlike previous years, city staff delivered a budget without recommending a property tax rate increase, choosing instead to highlight budget pressures and ask for direction on strategic priorities and “where we should put our limited resources”.

She noted the “goal is not to impact [current] service levels”, and, except for the TTC and the Toronto Police Service (TPS), “almost all city operations came in lower than last year”.

At just over $1.8 and $1.1 billion respectively, the TTC and the TPS represent the largest line items in the budget, something that many in attendance at the meeting questioned.

“Why do police come out every time a paramedic does,” wondered one person, suggesting that first responders might be better coordinated.

Another suggested that police, transportation, and technology are three areas where money is not being spent in ways that we want, and asked, “do we want these three sectors to be as big as they are?”

As to transit, a meeting attendee argued that “we have massively reduced what’s going into the TTC, and haven’t yet met a single monthly ridership target.”

Cressy explained that transit is a particularly pernicious challenge for the city.

“We are the only city in the world that doesn’t get national or state/provincial funding [for transit] on a consistent basis,” he said. “That’s not just a quality of life issue or an environmental issue; it’s an economic issue. We lose $6 billion annually in productivity in the Greater Toronto Area because of gridlock.”

Layton and Cressy believe the city needs to consider a higher property tax increase, pointing out that Toronto property owners pay an average of $3,170, the least amount in property tax compared to the average of $4,182 for the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area and Ottawa municipalities.

The councillors also suggested that it’s time to explore additional sources of revenue, including adding a sales and/or income tax, which they say is done in other world-class cities. A sales tax in particular would reduce the reliance on people who live in Toronto, and broaden it to include people who visit and work in the city, but live elsewhere.

Cressy added that the much-lamented Vehicle Registration Tax, which was cancelled under the Ford administration, would have brought in $67 million, and made up the shortfall in the operating budget.

 

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