It’s inconceivable to me that this discussion still has to happen, that a reporter for a local news station feels compelled to shoot a segment on such an obvious topic. Toronto needs a property tax hike to pay for crumbling infrastructure. Yet, there it is.
As the video shows, a wall of bricks showers down from a community housing building, concrete chunks off a major thoroughfare, subway closures occur frequently due to fires and floods, water mains rupture, roads sinkhole. Splice the visuals together with appropriate smash cuts and you’re left with the impression of a crumbling city, apocalypse now. Toronto. Shit.
Everybody’s got an opinion about why this situation has come to be. A bloated, fat cat bureaucracy, gorging itself on big fat bonuses while the most vulnerable residents live in slum-like conditions. Out-of-control spending on public works projects, over-budget, heavily delayed. Nathan Phillips Square revitalization. The Yonge-University-Spadina subway extension. Pick your favourite bugaboo. Pink umbrellas and boulders from northern Ontario.
None of these complaints are wrong, necessarily — except for the pink umbrellas and rocks down at Sugar Beach which only reveals a myopic inattention to the bigger picture. Public spending should be heavily scrutinized. Misspending and misappropriation only heightens an already suspicious belief out there in the public sector. It’s a negative feedback loop, feeding into an always ready to pounce anti-government sentiment.
Yet, do the math and in the scheme of things, added all together, none of these projects or particular bones to pick will make even a dent on the infrastructure needs this city faces. Sure, every little bit counts but every little bit is just that, a little bit, and they don’t count for much, maybe millions when we’re taking billions. We face a far deeper crisis than the easy nickel and dime solutions offered up by the apostles of outrage. We’ve grown content living on the cheap, and living off the hard decisions and sense of community obligation by previous generations.
Amidst all the tales of infrastructure decline and dissolution in Avery Haines’ news segment came the stark fact that we’re paying, in real inflationary adjusted dollars, less in property taxes now than we did back in 2000. That’s right. Less. In 2000, 3 years after amalgamation, 3 years in which there was a property tax rate freeze. We’re still paying less than that.
Toronto residents pay less in property taxes than many of the GTA’s other municipalities, in some cases significantly less. This is not particularly news to anyone disinclined to think any property tax is too much property tax. During this year’s budget debate Councillor Gord Perks wrote in the Toronto Star that owing to inflation, this city has effectively cut property taxes by 12.4% since amalgamation. Inflation keeps inflating. City council keeps on not keeping up to it. Even all of those ‘through the roof’ over-the-rate-of-inflation property tax rate increases by the profligate David Miller couldn’t help the city’s coffers keep pace.
And Boom! goes the Gardiner. Boom! the brick façade of a TCHC building. Gush! goes the water spout from the busted water main.
And our new-ish mayor, John Tory, shrugs. He was elected by the voters of Toronto to keep property taxes below the rate of inflation. Why? Because he told them anything more than that would be unnecessary. Plenty of money in the efficiency banana stand, I guess.
“The property taxpayers of Toronto should not be asked to bear those expenses and investments on their own,” Tory said yesterday. “The property tax was never meant to do that.” The mayor’s not wrong. In referring to downloaded social costs like housing and major infrastructure investment in things like public transit, municipalities with their limited revenue gathering base largely on property taxes aren’t supposed to be expected to pay for those big ticket items. Here in Toronto, up until 1995, the provincial government even paid for half of the TTC’s annual operating costs. In 2015, the city is putting nearly $480 million up for that cost. That’s almost one-quarter of a billion dollars that should, in a properly function system, be coming from Queen’s Park. Multiply that by 20 years and, yeah, no wonder our transit system is barely limping into the future, let alone all the other infrastructure needs the city has.
So we can get all pissed off about city council’s quick decision to step up with $90 million to cover shortfalls with the Spadina subway extension, as Ari Goldkind does today in the Star, but it misses the larger debate. The city shouldn’t be paying for any part of a major transit build. It shouldn’t be contributing anything to the Union-Pearson airport link. Why are we putting up money to renovate a regional transportation route like the Gardiner Expressway?
The province has walked away from its traditional obligations, leaving cities to pick up the slack. That’s what we should really be angry about. That’s the fight we need to be engaged in.
But then we allow the province (along with the federal government to a lesser extent) off the hook, we provide them with their one bit of buckshot of ammunition when we campaign and govern on under-taxation. We’ve given you these revenue tools to deal with the added responsibilities, the province tells Toronto. Why not use them instead of always coming to us for money?
Like it or not, that’s where we’re at. By standing idly by, talking about moral and business cases for more investment by the senior levels of government, while deliberately chocking off your own sources of revenue even those not part of the property tax base, is simply being an accomplice to the crumbling of the city. You know there are ways to help, at least, bolster the state of disrepair. They won’t be immediately popular (made even less so by irresponsible campaign pledges that helped get you elected). The alternative, however, is untenable. Unless, of course, you’re comfortable overseeing a city that will continue to decline.
— repeatedly submitted by Cityslikr