Mayor Rob Ford’s efforts to delay debate on new fees and taxes to pay for transit has him on a collision course with councillors who say they have enough votes to force the issue forward – either at a special meeting or the next regular session of council.
The mayor has been clear he is against plans by the provincial Liberal government to use new fees or taxes to fund transit expansion, saying efforts to economize need to come first. On Tuesday, he took that argument one step further, setting the stage for the new fees to become an issue in a possible spring provincial election – one in which his brother already has promised to run as a Tory candidate. Failing that, the mayor’s chief of staff vowed to make transit funding a centrepiece of Mr. Ford’s bid for a second term as mayor.
“We don’t even know if we are going to have the same government in place in a month’s time” Mr. Ford told members of his executive committee, referring to a possible no-confidence budget vote in the minority Liberal government.
“If the province wants to move ahead and be heroes and implement taxes – go right ahead,” Mr. Ford said, characterizing the provincial funding discussion as “completely ass-backwards.”
“Let’s get every level of government in line and efficient and running like a well-oiled machine, then you can go to the taxpayers and say, ‘You know what, we have tightened up every single screw on this car, there is no more tightening up.’ Folks, we are far from that,” Mr. Ford said.
But the 6-4 vote to defer the transit funding discussion until May 28 – one day after the provincial transit agency Metrolinx makes its recommendations on revenue tools – was quickly challenged by councillors who said it is vital Toronto weigh in.
“This isn’t about taxes yes or no, this is about protecting the interests of the city and you don’t do that through inaction.” said Councillor Adam Vaughan who spent the afternoon gathering support from his council colleagues.
“There are plans to take action to govern this city,” he said. “If the mayor and the executive committee refuse to govern Toronto, council must.”
Mr. Vaughan said he has enough support to call a special meeting, which requires the support of a 23 councillors, or to put the item on the next council agenda, which needs the support of two-thirds of members present in the chamber.
That support includes executive committee member Jaye Robinson, who along with Denzil Minnan-Wong, Peter Milczyn and Paul Ainslie voted against Mr. Ford’s motion to defer.
“If Toronto’s voice wants to be heard on this issue, we need to vote on it,” Ms. Robinson said. “We need to step up. This is our opportunity,” she said.
Provincial Transportation Minister Glen Murray reacted to the vote in a statement late Tuesday, saying, “It is disappointing that city council will not be able to debate how to pay for transit projects in their community.”
Metrolinx is legally mandated to give the province its advice for funding transit by June 1, an investment strategy that will have been formally approved by the regional transit agency’s board at their meeting on May 27.
A spokeswoman for Metrolinx said that input received after May 27 would be “listened to” by staff but could not be included in the strategy.
“The May 27 [meeting] is the only date that the board is going to be reviewing the recommendations in the investment strategy,” Vanessa Thomas said Tuesday.
She added that it was “not an option” to call a special meeting subsequently to consider later arriving information.
A staff report recommends Toronto back four new sources of revenue in the short term – development charges, a fuel tax, a parking levy and a sales tax – and tolls and a vehicle registration tax once major investments in transit have been made.
The mayor’s chief of staff, Mark Towhey, said he is “kind of excited,” by the prospect of a special meeting to debate the new revenue tools. “If councillors want to sign a petition to call a special meeting to raise taxes on the back of citizens who can’t afford them, that will be the first campaign poster for the mayor’s 2014 campaign,” he said.