Mayor Rob Ford’s push for a downtown casino is in jeopardy even before it reaches a council vote, with some members of his executive committee saying they cannot approve the plan next week without a firm number from the province on the city’s annual take of gambling revenue.
The executive committee meets next Monday and Tuesday for a special meeting to hear from the public and consider a casino report released earlier this week by the city manager. The hefty report totals 83 pages, plus seven appendices, but is missing one critical piece of information – how much the city will get from the province to host a downtown casino complex. Without that number, councillors Jaye Robinson, Peter Milczyn and Paul Ainslie, members of the 13-member committee, say they cannot vote yes to a casino plan. Others are suggesting they could give a qualified yes to a casino, provided the committee’s endorsement includes a threshold for what the city would collect each year.
Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, another executive member, has said he does not support a new casino on moral grounds. Together with councillors Milczyn, Robinson and Ainslie, that makes four no votes, given the OLG does not release its funding formula early.
Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday has plans to be away next week, leaving the mayor with three expected yes votes and three others who have expressed concerns about hosting fees – councillors Michael Thompson, David Shiner and Gary Crawford. Councillor Cesar Palacio is waiting to consult with residents this week before stating a position.
“It is not a slam-dunk at executive committee,” observed Mr. Milczyn, who said he would like the vote deferred until later this month when Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. is expected to release a revised hosting fee formula for all municipalities.
Ms. Robinson said she cannot vote without that number. “There are a few of us that are really struggling,” she said. “There are a number of people on executive that don’t feel confident of the details.”
Mr. Ainslie is one of them. “If we don’t know the hosting fee, I couldn’t support it,” he said.
The division in the mayor’s own executive committee comes despite Mr. Ford’s attempts to rally support for the casino plan earlier this week with an open letter and a news conference where he highlighted the jobs, money and expanded convention space a downtown casino would bring. His vote is “absolutely yes,” he said.
Mr. Thompson, chair of the city’s economic development committee, said he will support the casino plan at executive with the added condition that the city not settle for a hosting fee below the $111-million to $148-million range in the city manager’s report. That is based on an unprecedented 50-50 split of gambling revenue between the city and the province. OLG earlier this year said Toronto can expect to collect between $50-million and $100-million – figures that were called into question after the Premier Kathleen Wynne told the lottery agency Toronto cannot get a special deal.
OLG’s modernization plans are being scrutinized by the province’s Auditor-General following a vote Wednesday at Queen’s Park calling for a review of hosting fees and whether any “one-off” deals are being negotiated. The auditor will also look at the cancellation of the slots-at-racetracks program and if OLG did enough to determine whether new casinos are welcome in communities.
Against this uncertainty, some members of the mayor’s executive say they are puzzled by the timing of the special executive meeting, called with little notice. “Where is the fire?” asked Ms. Robinson. She said momentum appears to be building for the no side, but questions why after months of discussion, the debate is being rushed to executive.
Mr. Crawford also wonders about the timing, saying he “could see himself going in that direction,” when asked about deferring a decision, adding he will not support a plan that brings the city less than $100-million annually.
Former mayor David Miller added his voice to those opposed on Wednesday, telling The Globe and Mail “Toronto’s better than that.”
He said a casino will cannibalize surrounding businesses. “One of Toronto’s great gifts is we have small-business strips that are really successful,” he said. “Anybody within striking distance of the casino will really be hurt.”