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.

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Roadies

April 12, 2013

Public Works and Infrastructure Committee.

Public works; private moments.publicworks

Apropos of nothing. Felt it had to be said. Movie tagline smooth.

Aside from the Budget Committee, Public Works and Infrastructure may be the most important committee at City Hall*. This is where big decisions about big stuff get made. Transportation and streetscapes. The delivery of water and the collection of waste. None of it necessarily pretty but all of it absolutely vital. Properly done, public works and infrastructure is the difference between a successful, well run city and one that is neither of those things.

“The Public Works and Infrastructure Committee’s primary focus is on infrastructure, with a mandate to monitor, and make recommendations on Toronto’s infrastructure needs and services.”

Public Works and Infrastructure offers up politicians and municipal civil servants the opportunity for greatness and lasting contributions to the city they serve long after they’re dead and gone. bloorstreetaquaductRead John Lorinc’s Globe and Mail article from last year about R.C. Harris, Toronto’s long serving Public Works Commissioner from 1912-45, and marvel at what can be done with some vision and fortitude. The R.C. Harris Water-Treatment Plant and Bloor Street Viaduct are the obvious example but as Lorinc points out:

Harris..left his civic fingerprints all over Toronto, building hundreds of kilometres of sidewalks, sewers, paved roads, streetcar tracks, public baths and washrooms, landmark bridges and even the precursor plans to the GO commuter rail network.

Of course, Harris wasn’t a politician and subject to the whims of the electorate. In fact, his contributions may’ve been the product of his time, impossible to duplicate outside of those particular circumstances. “…it’s unlikely a towering and outspoken figure like Mr. Harris…,” Lorinc quoting Professor Steven Mannell in his article, “would thrive in public service today, given years of political attacks on civil servants at all three levels of government.”

While I hardly mean to equate R.C. Harris with the ex-TTC CEO Gary Webster, it’s useful in underlining Professor Mannell’s point.  rcharriswtpMr. Webster expressed an opinion about transit options our mayor disagreed with, and Mr. Webster was ousted. In such a politically volatile environment – a toxic mix of ‘parsimonious politicians’ elected on ‘narrow mandates’ to paraphrase Professor Mannell , and our dimly held view of bureaucrats —  it’s hard to see how anything gets built, let alone anything on the grand scale that R.C. Harris imagined.

In fact, it could be argued that getting things built is the exact opposite goal of our current Public Works and Infrastructure big cheese, committee chair Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong.  Unless it has something to do with road maintenance, he might be better referred to as Cap’n Tear Up. Jarvis bike lanes, gone, expensively re-replaced by that reversible 5th lane. Proposed Fort York pedestrian bridge scaled back for being too fancy. Scrambled intersections? I don’t know. hulksmashWe need to look at those just in case cars are having to wait too long at red lights.

And that Gardiner Expressway Environmental Assessment ordered up to examine the various options for the eastern portion of the roadway? Mysteriously disappeared upon the councillor’s appointment as PWIC chair, only to be revived last year when over half a billion dollars was budgeted for the Gardiner revitalization starting with its eastern portion. Wait? What did the EA recommend? What do you mean, what EA? Where the hell did the EA go? Den-ZILLLLL!

Like the administration it represents, the current Public Works and Infrastructure Committee reflects its mandate by doing the exact opposite of what it should be doing. Tearing down instead of building up (unless, of course, we’re referring to roads). Looking back instead looking forward. Status quo instead of adaptation.

Or as Rowan Caister so succinctly put it: …money that we could spend on public space and innovative infrastructure is being clawed back in order to dismantle inexpensive infrastructure (Jarvis) and keep expensive infrastructure on life support (Gardiner).

At Wednesday’s meeting the committee chair and one of the newest members, Councillor Michelle Berardinetti, both indulged their colleagues by voting to receive the report update on the Gardiner EA while knowing full well what the outcome must/will be. There will/must not be any removal of any part of the Gardiner. sewersDrivers depend on it. Any alternative will result in chaos.

As it was and has been, so it shall always be.

It isn’t the motto a Public Works and Infrastructure committee should try to uphold. Cities flounder when they do. That’s just how important this committee is to our well-being. We need to treat with the respect and attention it deserves.

*  *  *

(*Not including the Executive Committee which is made up of the Mayor, Deputy Mayor, Chairs of the 7 Standing Committees and 4 at-large members.)

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