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Building Toronto to meet the needs of all its residents

Toronto Star by Kara Santokie 17 August 2014

Torontonians treat any hint of higher taxes like bad medicine but expect infrastructure and services that make Toronto a world-class city.

What exactly is Toronto’s problem?

Transit? The mayor’s unsubstantiated budget claims? Property taxes? Aging infrastructure? All of the above?

new report from the Institute for Municipal Finance and Government has come to the rather unsurprising conclusion that the City of Toronto needs to expand its revenue base in order to maintain existing service levels and repair rundown infrastructure. Therefore, property tax increases and new sources of revenue are needed.

According to the authors, Toronto has a revenue problem, not a spending problem. Notwithstanding the mayor’s questionable diagnoses of our woes and our previous perilous perch at the edge of a mythical “fiscal cliff,” as a city we treat any hint of higher taxes like bad medicine. Yet we expect infrastructure and services that match our status as a world-class city. Quite simply, we want to have our cake and eat it, too.

So what exactly is our problem? Overall, we have been collectively shifting the burden of responsibility in several ways. We must begin with an honest acknowledgment of where we have come from and where we’re going. The conclusions of the report are not new — they have been repeated by city staff over the past few years. City manager Joe Pennachetti has emphasized on numerous occasions at city hall about the need for new or at least expanded sources of revenue.

How can it be that in a rapidly growing city, expenditure is roughly the same as it was 10 years ago, controlling for inflation and population growth? At the same time, the repair bill just to keep our existing social infrastructure is expected to reach $2.5 billion by 2020. When you separate fact from fiction, it isn’t hard to see why we have trouble maintaining what we have, let alone investing for the future.

We shift the burden of responsibility when we continuously blame the provincial and federal governments for insufficient funding, while we remain obsessed with “efficiencies” and preventing property tax increases. It is right that the largest city in Canada should receive sustained and adequate funding from other levels of government. And it is also right that taxpayers’ money should be spent appropriately.

However, a quick glance at the current mayoralty race confirms that little has changed. Each of the main candidates has carefully crafted platforms that placate the public’s distaste for higher property taxes. As a result, there is little mature and meaningful discussion about how future growth will be funded. We don’t want to pay for the things we want, and politicians face the task of delivering on both counts. In fact, maybe we do have a spending problem after all.

We also shift the burden of responsibility when we fail to consider what kind of city will meet the needs of all residents of Toronto, and how we can build that. Mayor Rob Ford’s pronouncement last week that jobless people don’t need transit reflects the broader ongoing trend of declining expenditure on social and family services. Macro-level discussions about capital expenditure can easily blind us to the everyday social reality of thousands in our city. But they are very closely connected. We need to reduce congestion and invest in the TTC, but we also need transit that is affordable for those on low incomes.

We need new construction development, but we also need to address the $860-million Toronto Community Housing repair bill and create new affordable housing units. We need to build new infrastructure, but we also need to think about how this infrastructure can help to support crucial services like child care, youth recreation and seniors’ programs. Jobs and the economy are important, but they mean little without a vibrant and thriving population.

With good fiscal health, we’re in a position to work for an even better, brighter and equitable future. Let’s use the opportunity this election provides to take responsibility for the kind of city we want.

Kara Santokie, PhD, is the director at Toronto Women’s City Alliance.