Half Measures

December 3, 2015

Earlier this week, I wrote a little something something about the “incrementalism” of Mayor Tory, as mostly supporters of his might call it. babysteps“Small, tangible actions that add up over time to real progress,” according to Siri Agrell, director of strategic initiatives in the mayor’s office.

Yesterday, in his State of the City speech at the Economic Club of Canada, Mayor Tory unleashed some of that incrementalling with a surprise announcement of a .5% Capital Building Fund levy to be added to our municipal tax bills beginning in 2017. Additional money that will be dedicated to alleviating some of our much needed capital infrastructure in transit and housing. Capital investment, currently unfunded to the tune of $20 billion or so, portrayed as a menacing iceberg in City Manager Peter Wallace’s powerful presentation to the Executive Committee on Tuesday.

Woah!

Could it be, might it be this mayor finally gets it? The news from the new city manager that the city is, in fact, revenue starved got through his low-tax mantra haze? capitalicebergFrequent critics of the mayor, Metro’s Matt Elliott and the Toronto Star’s Edward Keenan, folks I rarely have policy issue beefs with, were more than cautiously optimistic about Mayor Tory’s seeming about-face. A new era of forward-thinking might just have been ushered in at City Hall.

I don’t know, though. Call me skeptical.

Incrementalism or a half measure?

In presenting staff’s 2016 budget, the city manager forcefully opened the door to a much needed, larger discussion about how Toronto funds the kind of city it wants. Let’s talk first about the things we want to do, want to build and then proceed to the way we plan on paying for it. For too long, it’s been done the other way around. Here’s what we’re going to spend and here’s what we’re going to spend it on. (Steve Munro does a much more thorough job explaining the process than I could.) emptypocketsMoney for our civic aspirations has remained in short supply.

To my mind, rather than seizing the opportunity presented to him to lead that vital conversation, Mayor Tory’s sudden jerk in the right direction, nipped it in the bud. See? I listen. I respond. I am doing something.

But just how much exactly is he doing by floating this .5% capital building fund levy? Concluding a lengthy Twitter essay (yes, such a thing does exist), Councillor Gord Perks suggested that at its height in 2022, after a 5 year roll out, the levy will bring in about $65 million a year. “The $65 miillion tax increase proposed by @JohnTory will only cover 1/20th or 5% of our unfunded capital.”

Is that somehow supposed to show the other levels of government that the city has finally put on its adult breeches and is prepared to pony up and pay its way? Here’s a nickel on the dollar. We’re good?

Underwhelming, I’d call it. Mostly for show. It’s hard to imagine it really addressing the city manager’s call for a serious discussion.

While applauding the mayor for proposing the levy, Sheila Bock of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives urged council to think bigger, revisit the revenue toolbox it has at its disposal. comingupshort“These untapped powers provide the city with a menu of options that could raise more than $400 million annually,” she wrote. Remember that Vehicle Registration Tax that got repealed a few years back? Generated about roughly the same annual amount as the mayor’s levy will in 2022.

Too rich for Mayor Tory’s taste, it seems. Little steps instead. Walk before running. “Small, tangible actions,” like his director of strategic initiatives might call them.

Or, as some of us less persuaded might see it, blunting any chance at forward progress or real change. The fact that the mayor vigorously denied the levy was actually a property tax increase in order to keep his campaign pledge of maintaining property taxes at or below the rate of inflation suggests that he’s not really prepared to take on the hobgoblin of misguided, small-minded Fordian penny-pinching ways at city council. babyfalldownHis initial attempt at implying his levy was simply replacing the Scarborough subway tax that was set to end in 2017 (spoiler alert: It isn’t) also doesn’t augur well for the strength of his convictions on revenue generation.

So yeah, I continue to see the glass half empty in terms of Mayor Tory’s motives with this move, half empty like the gesture it is, a mere token. Should he be applauded for giving the impression of being almost, kinda decisive? I don’t know. It’s been pretty much his approach to governance since day 1. Nothing about this strikes me as new or encouraging. A small step when what’s required is a big, bold leap.

unconvincedly submitted by Cityslikr