Politics

Toronto Council, Do Your Job!

By Ben Bull
Published July 22, 2007

Toronto Mayor David Miller just proposed a whack of sweeping cuts to Toronto's TTC and other core services.

Although this is nowhere near as shocking as Argentina's cheating victory over Chile and the brawl that followed, it's enough to get Torontonians well and truly riled up.

Among the Mayor's suggestions:

As I drove to work and soaked up the news, my only questions was, How did it come to this?

Mayor Miller says this city has been in a crisis for a 'long time.' That councilors 'knew this was coming'. But how can a major metropolis like Toronto be reduced to a subsistence economy?

Miller blames the recent veto of his proposed land transfer and vehicle tax legislation, but clearly this crisis has been brewing for a while.

The province says nothing can be done. 'We'll help the city review it's books' says Finance Minister Greg Sorbora, 'and make further savings where we can' Then what?

Just as Hamilton has been facing a budget crisis year over year, so too has Toronto been dipping its hand in the Hydro fund till and eking out an annual stipend with limited-time-offer provincial handouts, cost-of-living property tax increases and carefully selected service cuts. It's obviously not enough.

Social service downloading is the usual culprit in all of this but what irks me the most is the lack of forethought by our municipal officials.

As citizens, we are being asked to blame the province and make this 'an election issue.' But it was an election issue! A municipal one. When we voted in our four-year term of office Toronto city councilors, we mandated them to deal with this. It's your job!

We expected a lot better than Mayor Miller's thinly veiled land transfer tax grab too.

I hate tax grabs - we all do. There's nothing worse than being tricked out of your money only to see it vanish into a vat labeled, 'municipal services'.

Here's an idea for Mayor Miller - why not link some of our taxes directly to services? A vehicle tax to cover road maintenance? Fine! Road tolls to fund transit? Great idea? Pay-By-The-Bag fees for our garbage pick up? No problem!

Until Toronto city council starts to get the idea that citizens are more willing to pay for the services they receive, so long as they can see where the money is going, the sooner we might start seeing our way through these on-going budget crises.

In the meantime, I guess we'll just have to keep playing politics.

But back to the real news of the day - did you see the Chile-Argentina game...?

Ben Bull lives in downtown Toronto. He's been working on a book of short stories for about 10 years now and hopes to be finished tomorrow. He also has a movie blog.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 22, 2007 at 11:29:24

Miller and TTC Chairman Adam Giambrone are hamstrung by a post-amalgamation council filled with suburban ward representatives who couldn't give a damn about transit and resent having to spend any money on it.

Giambrone in particular is stuck. He gets handed his budget and told to do what he can. The TTC already operates at unimaginable levels of efficiency. It's basically the only major city in the industrialized world that doesn't have a proper federal/provincial funding envelope for its transit network. You simply can't build and run a decent transit system on property tax and fares. It's just not possible.

I'd like to see Miller ask for a half-billion dollar cut from the Public Works road maintenance budget. Then you'll see the public rise up in outrage.

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By Tom (registered) | Posted July 22, 2007 at 16:04:46

In the words of noted TTC lobbyist Steve Munro, this brou-ha-ha, at least at this stage, is "Much Ado About Very Little." For the time being, anyway, this is politicking aimed at turning up the pressure on those councillors that voted against his tax hikes and trying to scare the province into bailing them out. Judging by Sorbara's comments, that isn't happening, so I guess we'll just have to see who moves next.

Miller, Giambrone et al have been as loud and public about the TTC cuts as they have precisely because they illustrate the scale of the funding shortfalls as dramatically as possible. The very fact that public transit has the resonance that it does in Toronto is heartening, if anything. Ordinary Torontonians, even those out in darkest suburbia, do think of TTC service when they mentally list off the things provided for by the city, and it does get people talking. Compare that to our situation here, where the HSR is virtually an afterthought in the city's budgeting process and debates about fare-vs-service appear in the Spectator, what, twice a year at best?

Ben, I think, is buying the hyperbole a little bit too wholeheartedly if he's saying the plan is to "dismantle" the Sheppard Subway. The proposal on the table is to lock the doors and turn off the lights. Sheppard is an odd creature: the hardcore transitheads in Toronto loathe it, by and large, precisely because it cost so much and thus far has failed to grow ridership to anywhere near large enough to justify subway-grade capacity. IIRC, 40,000 people take it every day, which in subway terms is an embarassing trickle. Now, not to confuse the sunk capital costs with the ongoing operating costs, but I gather that on a pure cost-benefit level, the Sheppard line is objectively speaking pretty much bottom of the table. You can snip and prune bus routes here and there and recoup some savings gradually, or you can go big-bang on Sheppard and get back the $10 million a year it apparently doesn't make back in fares.

Also, Ryan, I don't think this is really a post-amalgamation urban-suburban issue, either. The TTC was previously a creature tied to the Metro Toronto regional structures, and it's always been reliant on keeping the suburban councillors feeling like they're getting value for money. Again, I'd take those political waters over ours anyday--we, god bless us, have a cast of characters that includes a city councillor who votes against transit every opportunity she gets, despite the fact that her ward is neither served by transit, nor do her constituents pay for it.

I agree that "You simply can't build and run a decent transit system on property tax and fares. It's just not possible." But this isn't so much a question of whether there needs to be more revenue streams than just those ones, but who those revenue streams should be plugged into.

I think most of us would agree that people outside of Toronto do benefit, to an extent, on the continued operation of a high-quality transit system there. It's hard to get a perfect measure on what sort of an inflow of cash is reasonable, though. On at least the capital side, the province has been pretty good about putting up the money for improvements... hopefully MoveOntario 2020 or something like it will go ahead with the proposed 66-33 prov-fed funding split and the tax base in places like Oakville and London and Sudbury will help pay for tracks in Toronto and Hamilton that many of the funders will never ride on.

But with that in mind, is it really fair for Toronto city councillors to intentionally keep their taxes low and cry for the provincial treasury (ie, the tax dollars of non-Torontonians) to cover the costs of operating the TTC? The City of Toronto Act gave Toronto city council the power to gather that revenue from inside their own city... Hamilton can't, for instance, even consider levying new land-transfer taxes or vehicle registration taxes to pay for the HSR (not that, sadly, I could see them doing it). That a section of the council would rather waive those powers and try to get "free" money from other taxpayers is really irritating to me.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted July 22, 2007 at 18:53:45

Tom,

Some excellent points. I've just got a couple of comments.

"I don't think this is really a post-amalgamation urban-suburban issue, either."

Well, there are at least a couple of issues:

  1. The funding envelope for the TTC, which precedes amalgamation; and
  2. The city's new powers to generate revenue, which the suburban councillors oppose exercising.

"That a section of the council would rather waive those powers and try to get "free" money from other taxpayers is really irritating to me"

The councillors waiving their new powers are not the ones, generally, who are trying to increase funding for transit. They're the ones like Rob Ford who live in car-dominant suburbs and frankly don't care about transit.

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By Rusty (registered) - website | Posted July 23, 2007 at 10:56:50

Tom, Ryan, good points. Just want to elaborate on a few areas:

  1. I wonder, to what extent, the fiscal problems in Toronto (and to a lesser extent Hamilton too) are not dire? A half billion shortfall seems pretty dire to me. Apparently $270 out of my annual $2, 700 property tax bill goes to just financing the debt. At what point is Toronto, and other municipalities in the same state, going to deal with this?
  2. Some commentators in Toronto, most recently Chris Hume in his column today, are suggesting the veto of the land transfer tax grab was foolish. I fail to see why this was a ‘wise’ proposal. Our tax system is already largely designed to take money from those who are least likely to complain and in a manner which makes it hard for us to protest or ‘see it coming’. And the tax taken is in no way directly linked to any specific service. Capital gains, land-transfers, income tax deducted at source, all of these are tax levies which are in no way linked to the services provided. And all of these are taxes taken in a way that is designed to be as ‘painless’ as possible. I’m sick of these kind of taxes! Would we pay for our vacations, our food, or our other purchases in this manner? If the whole idea of financing our municipal services is based on this same tax levy approach then I’m against it. We need to start structuring our taxes in a way that linlks them to services so that we can see the value of our ‘investment’. A general pot and income based taxes are, or course, needed – you can’t link everything – but trying to tax is when we ‘are not looking’ is a bullshit approach.
  3. There is now talk of Toronto councilors building a right wing base to create an official opposition (to Miller)… We’ll see if this transpires. Whatever happened to a council working together to forma coalition of ideas for the benefit of the entire community…?
  4. As for the transit discussion, the question appears to be, ‘should non-Torontonians pay for the TTC?’ My answer is ‘yes’. The whole country benefits when cities are productive. A productive city creates wealth for everyone. Federal and provincial money should, therefore, be directed into cities to enable citizens to be as productive as possible.

Cheers

Ben

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By pat (anonymous) | Posted July 24, 2007 at 13:37:40

I'm all for the road tolls!!

road tolls all the way.

bikers would be less frantic for bike lanes.

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By kgb (anonymous) | Posted July 25, 2007 at 20:17:03

why not bring back zone fares on the TTC--- thats a pay as you go principle that works...and while you're at it.. perhaps the outlying regions might chip in for Toronto road costs...

better still...

why dont we turn the clock back to the old way of doing things....

and hold the Mayor accountable. Its his dream, his vision and NOW our nightmare....

Merry Christmas, Mr Miller!

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By CaptainMark (anonymous) | Posted August 10, 2007 at 10:33:59

I have been listening to David Miller cry poor for some time now but don't trust his excuses so I looked at the budget numbers publicly available for myself. What I notice is that when Miller took office the budget was balanced. Since then the budget has increased from 6.4 to 7.8 billion. That is aprox. double the rate of inflation. The last budget increase before he took office was 1.2 percent. IF the budget increases were held to the rate of inflation we would not have the shortfall we have now. He has also drained most of the reserves during the past 4 years and received a $500 million handout. I also don't buy the downloading as being the main reason since the mojority of the downloaded costs were all in effect before he took office (based on public information). My concern is where did all the extra money go that he has been spending. That's where I would start looking.

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By rusty (registered) - website | Posted August 10, 2007 at 16:03:10

I agree CaptainMark. Not many observers have picked up on the massive spending increases presided over by Miller.

Miller is arguing that at least the current 'crisis' is getting people talking about the issue and examining it again. But I too find it frustrating that the whole story is not being told. Right now it's all about cuts and the sentiment 'if we want it we have to pay for it' seems to be holding sway.

Why do private firms providing municipal services have to pay union rates? Why have road tolls not been considered? How is the province able to sidestep this issue so easily and why does John Tory not make more capital out of this?!

So many questions...It's a very strange situation...

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