The Simple Truth

June 23, 2016

For the second time in about five years, the audit/advisory/consultant thingie, KPMG, was asked to answer the burning question: Does Toronto have a spending or revenue problem? tellmewhatiwanttohearFor the second time in five years, KPMG has reported back: All things considered, there’s more of a revenue problem at work than spending. The city’s pretty tightly run. To avoid seriously cutting essential and even mandated services and programs, City Hall should look at accessing increased revenues.

Oddly though, what many of our elected local representatives, including Mayor John Tory have heard and concluded is: Right. Just like I thought. We need to cut spending. Tighten our belts. To the efficiency-mobile, Batman!

Some urban legends die hard, it seems, if at all, when they run contrary to the political ideology of right wing, small government politicians. There is always more fat to be trimmed, gravy to be drained, excess to excise before we can start talking about revenue. We must learn to live within our means. There’s always money in the banana stand.

This sentiment is so strong with enough of our city council that it’s more than a little surprising that KPMG was called upon to deliver a revenue tools report at all.deaf It was and it did, the City of Toronto Revenue Options Study coming out earlier this week. A boatload of suggestions for raising revenue, some immediately in the city’s purview, others it would have to get provincial permission to implement.

I want to focus on one section of the report, 17, pages 165-170. (A PDF I cannot figure out for the life of me how to load up on this page here, so you’ll just have to follow along via this link). Property Tax Analysis.

This is another shibboleth our mayor and his council allies, and the administration before it, and pretty much every small-minded member of council since at least amalgamation, has taken and spouted as gospel truth. We pay too much in property taxes, dammit! Homeowners (as if it’s just those owning their homes pay property taxes) are already stretched to the max. They cannot afford any more hikes in their property taxes. Seniors will be chased out into the streets…

Similarly, the information presented above suggests that residential property tax rates levied by the City of Toronto and the implied burden on households, expressed both in dollar terms and as a percentage of household income, are lower than those in the majority of other GTHA municipalities. This indicates that there may be an opportunity to increase property tax rates and still maintain burdens that are below the average of the municipalities reviewed, while also considering that Toronto is the only city in the sample that also applies MLTT.

What’s that, you say? By almost any measure, Toronto’s property tax rates “are lower than those in the majority of other GTHA municipalities”? That simply can’t be. If it were, our local politicians wouldn’t be pretending otherwise. “This indicates that there may be an opportunity to increase property tax rates and still maintain burdens that are below the average of the municipalities…” youdontsay1So, why all this ‘at or below the rate of inflation’ insistence Mayor Tory’s pursuing?

Now, I get all the property tax caveats. It’s not a tax that accurately reflects or benefits from current economic realities. The city is too dependent on it and needs to diversify its revenue sources more. There are people who are house rich but cash poor, and property tax increases could jeopardize their ability to own. Toronto does have access to another form of property taxation, the Municipal Land Transfer tax, that other municipalities don’t.

All these can be addressed but the point I’m trying to make here is this determined pursuit of at or below the rate of inflation property tax rate increase simply does not measure up to reality. parrotToronto property tax payers are not already overburdened like the mayor claims, just like his predecessor had trumpeted. As Matt Elliott pointed out last month after City Manager Peter Wallace’s Long Term Financial Report came out, “Since 2010, when adjusted for inflation, the city’s overall take from property taxes has gone down by 4.8%. Homeowners have gotten a break.”

Property taxes have contributed less to the city’s budget over the past 6 years, and even keeping rate hikes at the rate of inflation will further reduce them since costs will inevitably rise higher than that. 5%, I believe the city manager told the budget committee yesterday in its initial meeting about the 2017 budget. If so, other sources of revenue will be needed to help balance the operating budget or further cuts to spending which is already down in terms of per capita numbers since 2010, as Elliott also pointed out.

Arrows heading in a different direction than the one Mayor Tory wants us to believe.

There will be new revenue tools introduced, though very likely not in time for the 2017 budget. texaschainsawmassacreThe mayor, however, has made a point of saying for capital spending which explains his spate of transit announcements this week. Softening the public up for new taxes or fees, dedicated to building all this new stuff the city wants and needs while the operating budget will continue to be squeezed.

Or, as Councillor Mike Layton quoted the city manager telling the budget committee, heading toward “direct austerity” and “smaller government”.

As the KPMG revenue options study suggests, that will be a choice Mayor Tory and his council allies will make not one made out of necessity.

factually submitted by Cityslikr


Blind Spot

June 16, 2016

Here’s how it starts.

On Monday’s edition of the CBC’s The Current, carsofthefuturethe show’s host Anna Maria Tremonti was talking to the president of General Motors Canada about technology, innovation and the future of transportation. It essentially went like this:

Cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars. E-bikes (manufactured by GM natch). Cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars. Multi-modality. Cars, e-bikes, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars.

With self-driving cars, our future roads will look pretty much like our current roads. Filled with cars. In a 24 minute segment, public transportation wasn’t mentioned once. Unsurprisingly, at least from GM’s standpoint, as it looks to shore up its share of the electric and, ultimately, autonomous vehicle market. The nature of car ownership may change, with more of an emphasis on ‘sharing’ ownership. carsofthefuture1But car ownership there will be and General Motors wants to be a major part of that.

There continues to be very little talk, though, of autonomous vehicles and public transit which, one would think might be a relatively hot topic of conversation. Setting aside a discussion about the loss of yet another sector of well-paying jobs, since labour costs are the prime driver of public transit operating budgets, you’d think municipal governments all over the place would be salivating over the possibility of self-driving buses, streetcars, trolleys, trams. Just like the move toward automated subway systems. Not only cheaper to run but also better in terms of route management and increased frequency, owing to the absence of messy human imperfectness.

Yet, it’s still largely all about the new technology and cars. Cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars, cars.

Almost simultaneously with The Current interview on Monday, the city and Mayor Tory announced its road safety plan to… and I’ve been waiting pretty much my entire writing life to use this phrase in a sentence… carsofthefuture2universal opprobrium. “Very unambitious,” the Globe and Mail’s Transportation writer, Oliver Moore called it. Where other cities around the world have adopted the Swedish concept of Vision Zero, essentially a target of no traffic deaths with aggressive time lines and money to pursue it, our mayor championed the idea of reducing traffic fatalities by 20% over the next decade. A target “smaller than many of the normal [traffic fatality] fluctuations from year to year,” Moore pointed out.

“Very unambitious,” is a nice way of putting it.

As for money budgeted to achieve this modest target? Equally modest. $40 million extra over the next 5 years. Cities like New York? “An additional $115 million this year alone.” San Francisco? $70 million in the next 2 years.

Mayor Tory made the appearance of scrambling backward on the road safety plan on Tuesday when he told Metro Morning’s Matt Galloway on Tuesday that it was a ‘mistake’, a ‘communications mistake’ not to make it clear that he and the city had every intention of aiming for the Vision Zero standard of 0 road deaths. “The objective is to get to zero as quickly as possible without trying to put a time frame on this” Not really the “aggressive” approach to traffic safety Vision Zero calls for but very much the Mayor Tory way on policy issues he agrees with in theory. carsofthefuture3Why shoot for the moon when, really, the appearance of doing something is what’s called for?

As he was performing his radio mea culpa, the mayor’s traffic congestion enforcement blitz was underway and, wouldn’t you know it? It was the pedestrians’ fault all along! Not obeying the rules of road and following traffic lights that were set up to keep them in the proper place. Huddled together on the curb, waiting for their brief window of opportunity to scurry across the street and be one their way. Yep. If pedestrians would just follow the laws and traffic lights, cars would be free to do what they were designed and built to do, what cities have designed and built their infrastructure around. The domination by private automobiles of the public space that are our roads and streets. The terrorizing of other road and street users into submission.

The conclusion of this dynamic is perfectly logical.carsofthefuture4

Such pampered entitlement and obvious preferential treatment of car drivers leads to a contempt of anyone else not behind the wheel of a motorized vehicle. A fraternity of the self-righteous and self-important. A confederacy of disregard.

As a matter of fact, I do own the road. We’ve all seen the bumper stickers. Don’t like my driving? Call 1-800-EAT-SHIT.

And if somebody dies, we’ll call it an accident. Of course, it was an accident. No one would mean to jump a curb with their car and kill somebody. It’s more of a faulty assessment of the possible outcomes to bad, split-second decisions made to get just one car length further forward.

Damage done, death inflicted, it usually ends the only way it possibly could. A fine. Demerit points. Probably a bump in insurance rates. But no jail time. No talk of a life time ban for blatant indifference or lethal inattention to anyone else on the road. carsofthefuture5Fatalities merely chalked up to going about your daily business in the big city.

Hopefully, sometime in the near future, if certain carmakers are to be believed, technology will save us from our indifference to the death and killing in our streets. Fingers crossed. Nothing to be sneezed at, for sure. It’s just, by the sound of things, it won’t make a dent in how we prioritize our transportation hierarchy. Cars, first and foremost. Cars, now and forever.

carfully submitted by Cityslikr


The Gold Line

March 18, 2016

It ain’t easy, building public transit in the automobile age we live in. Demands are greater. Expectations higher. proveitPurse strings much tighter to pry open.

Cars are the status quo. The status quo gets a wider pass when it comes to building, rebuilding and over-building all the infrastructure necessary to maintain its primacy. Look at Toronto lately. Want to speed up repairs on the Gardiner Expressway? Money found. Done. A billion dollars more may also be spent keeping another section of that highway elevated just right. Done, and done.

Here in Los Angeles, the local public transit builder and provider, Metro, seems overly concerned about holding drivers’ hands, assuring them that they’re driving interests are being looked after too. “Metro eases traffic by tackling bottlenecks.” “Metro eases traffic with more options for drivers.” “Metro funds $430 million worth of local improvement projects each year, from signal synchronization to filling potholes and repaving roads.”

Yet every transit decision made – subway or LRT, rail or bus, this alignment or that – seems microscopically scrutinized in comparison. Success of whatever claims are made for public transit must be immediate and absolute. therethereAn empty bus spotted running its route is seen as a failure. An empty freeway or parking lot? Not so much.

My friend Ned and I rode the Gold Line yesterday, from end-to-end, Atlantic station in the central-east, around, up and out to the newest terminus, APU/Citrus College in the more north-east. The line just opened up a new, “6 stations, 5 cities”, 11.5 mile extension into the foothill communities of the San Gabriel Mountains to much anticipation and mixed reviews. Boon or blunder/One has to wonder?, the tormented transit poets asks.

“Politics brought the Gold Line into existence,” rail enthusiast Ethan N. Elkind wrote in the Los Angeles Times this week, not at all favourably.

Better mass transit is necessary across the region. But not every part of the county has the population to support rail. In the case of the Gold Line, we’ve brought expensive train technology to a generally low-density area that could be more economically served by bus rapid transit or commuter buses running in the right-of-way.

In the LA Weekly over the past week or so, Gene Maddaus has been writing extensively about the transit future of Los Angeles, exploring the complicated politics of it. Will More Transit Actually Ease L.A.’s Traffic? he asks in one article. goldline2On the Gold Line yesterday, running alongside the packed 210 freeway for a bit, it’s hard to respond to Mr. Maddaus’s question in the affirmative. We’re building all this and traffic’s still bad? Not to mention that earlier this year, it was reported that transit ridership numbers were down. We’re building all this and people aren’t using it?

All these questions and concerns are legitimate and should be asked and not shrugged off. The 6 new stations on the Gold Line certainly do feel more like a commuter rail service. All stopped right next to parking lots. There was little sign of much street life around any of the stations (albeit, just from my view aboard the train). When we arrived at the last stop, we got out to get a coffee. goldlineINot seeing anything in the immediate vicinity, Ned asked a woman who had just parked her car and was heading to the Metro to get to the Kings game downtown (one less car on the road which is not insignificant) if there was a nearby coffee shop we could get to. “Walking?!” she responded, as incredulously as that. Not easily. Not quickly.

Should this LRT have been a bus lane instead? Maybe. But we all know the politics of that. Buses engender little love or respect. Buses in their own dedicated bus lane can draw the ire of drivers.

That isn’t meant to negate the argument. It’s just that the rigorousness applied to building and paying for public transit is rarely brought to bear when it comes to other forms of transportation, and by other forms of transportation, natch, I mean the private automobile. Conventional wisdom seems to already be that self-driving cars will relieve us all of our congestion woes. trafficcongestionHow do we know that to be a fact any more than we know the Gold Line should’ve been a bus route instead of an LRT?

In discussing the upcoming ballot initiative to raise $120 billion for new transportation projects, former Los Angeles County supervisor, Zev Yaroslavsky said, “Everything’s gotta go perfectly for Metro politically” for the measure to win. Perfectly. On a measure that includes, according to the LA Times Transportation and Mobility writer, Laura J. Nelson, nearly 20% of the proposed money would go to highway construction and enhancements. Where 80% of the 18.4 cents federal gas tax still goes into roads.

Billions of dollars being spent to build, expand and enhance roads and freeways when we know, categorically, that doing that only serves to increase driving numbers, cars on the road, congestion. stubbornBut when it comes to public transit? It’s gotta be perfect.

We need to change the terms of this debate. Driving cannot be the default mobility mode around which everything else must function. It will be an uphill battle. It will not happen overnight. That’s the thing about the status quo. It’s dug in deep. Dislodging it will take a lot more effort than it should.

confoundedly submitted by Cityslikr


Stumbling Toward Progress

January 22, 2016

Wow!

And what a week it was.whirlwind

Under the steady, competent and business-like stewardship of John Tory, this kind of wild ride at City Hall was supposed to be a thing of the past. Granted, not your garden variety, crack-fueled, more-than-enough-to-eat-at-home sort of melodrama we’ve previously witnessed. Purely political, up and down the daily calendar. But still.

It all began with a fairly standard bit of annual budgeting that’s happened for the past few years. Ix-nay he-tay alk-tay bout-ay ew-na evenue-ray. Pilfer reserve funds. Continue to squeeze a little harder on the stone in the hopes of getting blood this time around. Circle three times, click you heels twice. Declare the budget balanced in the fairest, most reasonable, prudent manner possible.

Then it started to rain staff reports and the going got crazy.

SmartTrack. Redrawn options for the Gardiner East hybrid. The Scarborough subway extension. New numbers and projections. countNew configurations. New realities. New respect for expert staff advice, depending on the project, of course. Proposed compromises that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars more than the original plans. Fewer subways. More LRTs. More developable waterfront land. Tighter turn radii.

Somewhere in the midst of all that doubling and tripling back mayhem, the man who should be chief of police leveled a broadside against his organization, demanding fundamental reform of the way it goes about its policing business. He then went silent or was silenced. The head of the Police Services Association responded with a public pout. The former reform-minded chair of the Police Services Board filed a complaint against the actual chief of police and the Police Services Board for not clarifying statements the police chief made during a year end interview questioning the accuracy of statements the former TPSB chair made about implementation of proposed reforms. joustingWe then learned the police were deploying some 50 combat ready assault rifles for front line officers as tools of de-escalation and in no way was militarizing policing in the city.

Mayor Tory deemed it all to be reasonable. Nothing to be alarmed at. As you were.

You could look at all this and conclude that it was simply the result of an industrious administration dealing with the inevitable array of issues that come from governing a growing and busy metropolis. Shit happens, am I right? Roll up your sleeves and get down into the goo. This city isn’t going to run itself.

But it doesn’t feel like that at all to me. At week’s end, it kind of feels like a reckoning. Bills have come due and need to be paid.

The mayor’s refusal to have a serious discussion about proper revenue streams, holding tight onto his campaign promise of keeping property tax rate hikes to at or below the rate of inflation, continues to hamstring the city for yet another year in dealing with a wall of serious fiscal matters, both on the capital and operating sides of the ledger. madscrambleIt’s even more ridiculous in light of how he’s backtracked on other hare-brained campaign promises, mostly revolving around public transit. He’s insisting on putting off a tax and spend conversation that will only get more difficult the closer we get to another election.

On the policing front, the mayor took his spot on the board rather than designate a council colleague in his place. So he was right there, hands on, to change the culture both on the board and in the services itself. A shot at serious reform, which he keeps talking about, within reach. A new, forward thinking chief waiting in the wings, reports and recommendations for implementation of change on the table in front of him.

But he blinked, retreated, embraced the status quo. More business as usual.

Where there is some brightness, some hope for more positive outcomes is on transit, a file the mayor, and as a candidate before that, made even more problematic and difficult to negotiate, layering on additional fanciful talk and plans in his bid for the job. headlesschickenBut he’s backtracked on SmartTrack. He’s rethought his once adamant support of the Scarborough subway extension. Having joined the crowd in politicizing transit planning, he’s now attempted to hand it back, tattered and somewhat worse for wear, to those who actually know a thing or two about transit planning.

The retreat comes with some potentially good results. The city could end up with an Eglinton Crosstown running from Pearson airport right through to the Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto. We might build fewer subways in Scarborough and more LRTs. So much new transit could be in the offing that we as a city will have no choice to not only talk about new revenue sources but to actually implement some in order to help pay for and operate it.

This comes, unsurprisingly, with a whole boatload of caveats. The new SmartTrack mock up is still so dependent on unknown variables like capacity and fare pricing as to remain highly theoretical, and yet, is something of a linchpin for the new proposed Scarborough subway alignment to work properly. chaseyourowntailIs $2 billion (or more) for one subway station too steep a price to pay to try and ensure a non-fractious majority of city council buy in? All the delays and false starts have pushed timelines further and further down the road, past upcoming elections cycles, leaving most of today’s proposed projects susceptible to future political interference, still just lines on a map.

Unlike the budget process and the policing news, however, I don’t see this week’s transit resets as steps back or no steps taken at all. At least in the light of recent transit upheavals in Toronto, what’s occurred over the past few days is something akin to progress. If not forward momentum, let’s call it forward motion.

It shouldn’t have to be this fucking hard, and I will not absolve Mayor Tory of any blame for contributing to the ongoing difficulty. fingerscrossed1If he had’ve met the parochial chest-beating of the Ford’s head on, and not derided and sneered at his opponents who did so, none of this would’ve been necessary. We wouldn’t have lost so much time and money while he and his team pretended SmartTrack was actually a thing, that the Scarborough subway had any legitimacy whatsoever.

But, there it is, and here we are.

Try as I might to wrap this up on an optimistic note, I can’t bring myself to do it unless you consider It’s Not All Bad News upbeat. In the flurry that was this week, there may be some cause to be hopeful. Maybe. When it could be worse is not good enough, it will have to do.

Open ended. That’s all I’ve got.

unfinishedly submitted by Cityslikr


Our Ongoing Taxing Problem

January 8, 2016

Let’s start with the caveats.caveat

An over-reliance on property taxes as the main source of revenue is not ideal especially for a city the size and scope of Toronto where the services it provides to residents and businesses go beyond the traditional municipal mandate of picking up garbage and keeping the streets safe and clean. This year, once again, nearly 40% of the city’s revenue for its operating budget is coming from property taxes. Read David Hains’ Torontoist property tax explainer from a couple years ago to see just how unwieldy and politically problematic (if reliable) property taxes are.

Secondly, there is no question that the two senior levels of government at Queen’s Park and in Ottawa need to seriously reach deeper into their pockets and start helping out the city more on issues and policies that work at regional and national levels. handitoverHousing newcomers who disproportionately and unsurprisingly begin their new lives in the bigger cities where more opportunities present themselves. Or, properly funding a transit system that carries a good chunk of non-residents to and from their destinations in the city. I mean, imagine if the provincial Liberal government had made good on its promise to re-establish funding half the TTC’s annual operating budget back in 2003, the hundreds of millions of dollars (billions even?) that could’ve gone into, say, the state of good repair backlog?

That said, we need to stop thinking of ourselves as over-taxed here in Toronto. Any way you cut it, our property tax rates in this city in no way should be considered exorbitant, not even close. Not in terms of rates, direct comparisons with other GTA municipalities, as a percentage of household incomes, with the inclusion of the Land Transfer Tax and waste collection costs (pages 104-107). taxburdenEven considering the perhaps more tangible concept of property taxes per capita (which Joe Drew and Rowan Caister did back in 2013) which puts Toronto above the GTA average doesn’t show anything resembling the significant spike some of are anti-tax types would like to portray.

Toronto simply is not groaning under the weight of onerous property taxes. There isn’t any sort of argument to be made for annual property tax rate increases below the rate of inflation. None. It’s simply political gold, pandering, in other words.

Mayor John Tory knows this. That’s why he’s tossed up his .5% City Building Levy proposal. Coming from the property tax base, like the Scarborough subway levy, it’s just a differently named property tax rate increase.shellgame1

An argument could be made about relieving the pressure from the property tax base as such a vital revenue base. City Manager Peter Wallace has been deftly doing just that in his 2016 budget presentations by pointing out the importance of the Land Transfer Tax in balancing the budget to date. Maybe city council needs to look at diversifying where its revenue comes from. It has the power to do so (unlike other municipalities in the province). It just lacks the will.

Sheila Block at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives pitched a couple revenue ideas the other day. Reinstating the Vehicle Registration Tax plus implementing surcharges on private, non-residential parking spots – think the Eaton’s Centre or Yorkdale Mall — throughout the city would bring in an estimated combined $240 million a year. If my math is correct, that’s equal to just over a 9% property tax rate increase.

But Sheila Block and others say the same thing every year, offer up ideas and suggestions on how to help fund the stuff the city needs and expects. notlisteningAnd every year, at least for the past 5 years, a majority of our city councillors shrug and scream TAXES! before insisting there’s just more efficiencies to find, more belt tightening to be done, and we’ll be fine.

Just this morning it was reported that somewhere but not the mayor where, a serious discussion is being had about selling off some of Toronto Hydro for cash to help pay for some of our capital expenditures. Burning the furniture to pay for a roof repair. What alternative do we have? We already pay too much in taxes. That well’s dry.

It isn’t regardless of how many people say it and how many times it’s said. It’s just politically expedient to keep that idea alive. drowninginknowledgeCan you imagine going out on the campaign trail, knocking on doors, looking for support and telling people they don’t pay enough to the city in taxes and that they’re just cheap, free-loading bastards to think they do?

Appealing to our Toronto Sun-fueled sense of grievance and outrage is much easier. Turns out, however, it doesn’t pay the bills. To do that, we have to change how we talk about revenue, spending and exactly why that subway car is too jammed packed to get on. Again. That’s a conversation that begins with, As a matter of fact, no, the taxes we pay in Toronto aren’t extreme or overly burdensome.

repetitively submitted by Cityslikr


This Is Not A New Message

December 4, 2015

Just in case you were wondering, I am indeed acutely aware of my increasingly out there position on the Mayor Tory crank scale. Where others detect glimpses of positive in his governance approach, I see lapses of courage and conviction. Well, at least it’s something leadership now passes for a welcome breath of fresh air. It Could Be Worse, Our Strength.

But honestly, I look at this…

johntoryvision

… and think, Are you fucking kidding me?

That picture and headline (taken from a news article) strikes me as more depressing and discouraging than anything I saw during the Ford administration. Yeah, seriously. You could take comfort, albeit a cold kind, during the Ford years, warmed by the knowledge that the darks days couldn’t last. Wobbly almost from the outset through the weight of sheer incompetence and personal demons, it had to eventually, and fairly quickly as it turned out, come crashing down. Shocking for sure but kind of like an unsuccessful siege. Damage inflicted but the fundamentals left intact, relatively sound.bloodied

Perhaps the worst outcome of the Ford mayoralty is that now, a full year out from its official end, we as a city reward any politics that aren’t crack and booze fueled. We grant anything as ‘vision’ that isn’t… a-hem, a-hem… blurred. Doing the right thing means not doing the wrong thing.

Mayor Tory’s proposed .5% Capital Building Fund levy is the wrong thing going generally in the right direction. But times being what they are here in Toronto, the Ford spectre still looming large, we call such an announcement visionary. ‘Modest’. ‘Sensible’. ‘Workable’. ‘Unsexy’. Even, incredibly, ‘a new vision’.

After writing about this yesterday, I sat down and re-watched City Manager Peter Wallace’s budget pre-presentation, let’s call it, to Executive Committee this week. I urge everyone to take 30 minutes or so and give it a look. It’s clear, easy to follow and very direct about what we have to do (and what won’t really work) in order to develop a sustainable fiscal plan (especially on the capital side of the ledger) going forward.

I want to focus on this one slide. (Lifted right from Steve Munro as I’m too much of a technical knucklehead to figure out how to convert a PDF to JPEG. Thanks, Steve!)

stateofcityfinanceschart

While it is true that, since 2000, Toronto’s property tax rate increases have been kept to below the rate of inflation, all property taxes have not been treated equally. In order to bring certain business and ‘non-residential’ property taxes (including some very residential apartment buildings) more in line with other GTA municipalities, in the spirit of competitiveness, the Miller administration set in motion a re-jigging of the ratio between residential and non-residential rates. wonkyIt’s a process that’s still going on but, in effect, it’s meant that any property tax increase over the last decade or so has been felt more heavily on the residential side.

Now, while I still believe that for the services we receive and demand from the city, Toronto homeowners are getting a pretty sweet deal on their property taxes, the dynamic as shown in the above slide from the city manager provides a picture of why they may be feeling a little squeezed. Since about 2005, residential property tax rate have gone up above the rate of inflation. In a surprising bit of information, and running contrary to the Ford narrative of respecting the taxpayers, the city manager pointed out that over the past 4 years, residential property tax hikes have gone up at an increasing rate!

So, homeowners, those vaunted hardworking tax payers, have not been wrong in feeling that they’ve been squeezed, certainly in terms of their property taxes.

Listening to this, reading through the prepared documents, what is Mayor Tory’s response? To increase property tax rates by an additional .5% above whatever annual bump will happen. fingerscrossedbehindbackHe and his supporters can call it a levy. They can try to pretend it’s something it isn’t. But it’s a property tax increase.

I don’t think it’s accidental that throughout the Executive Committee presentation, the city manager continued to point in the direction of the Land Transfer Tax. He called it a lifesaver, and that without it, the city would’ve been forced to face the financial wringer sooner. Lookit it, people. Lookit this source of revenue. Controversial? For some. Sustainable? Probably not, and certainly not at the level it’s been at during our housing market boom. But lookit it. You see what the city manager sees? It’s not the property tax.

This is why Mayor Tory should not be applauded for his announcement. An additional property tax isn’t in any way, shape or form ‘a new vision’. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Even Rob Ford was in favour of increasing the property tax to help fund his Scarborough subway vision.

Mayor Tory was presented with an opportunity for a wider conversation about revenue tools and he chose to ignore it. charliebrownInstead, he simply continued to pile on the property tax base, and at a rate that, in the end, won’t even make much of a dent in the capital state of good repair backlog let alone build anything much new. And if one nickel comes out of this fund for SmartTrack… ?

When we come up short again — and the proposed implementation date of this Tory tax in 2017 means we’re already short in 2016 – and another round of discussions about revenue tools raises its head, people will be indignant. We are being nickel and dimed to death! What about that .5% levy, they’ll ask. Where did all that money go?

At best, this should be seen as a sideways move, a side-step, another dodge by a politician unwilling to face up to reality. Yet, for Mayor Tory, it’s like he’s invented the wheel. It’s not much (modest) but it’s better than nothing (workable). This is exactly what exceeding exceedingly low expectations looks like.

crankily submitted by Cityslikr

 


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