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Konrad Yakabuski: Controlling compensation costs and rightsizing the police and fire departments should be a priority for Toronto’s next mayor. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Konrad Yakabuski: Controlling compensation costs and rightsizing the police and fire departments should be a priority for Toronto’s next mayor. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Konrad Yakabuski

What’s scarier: raccoons or the police and firefighters unions? Add to ...

The city of Toronto is bursting at the seams from a population explosion. Because they don’t know any better, many of these new residents are resorting to squatting and looting. They brazenly dispossess homeowners of their property and make them fear for their safety.

Even the city’s world-famous mayor, who can usually hold his weight with anyone, is flustered by them. “They’re brave and they just sit and stare right at you,” Rob Ford says.

Councillor David Shiner has asked city staff to find ways to stop the unruly invaders. “There is an increasing population and they are out there and they are getting more aggressive,” he warns.

This is what happens when you’re the centre of the universe. Everyone and his dog wants to live there. Even raccoons, apparently.

Toronto’s manager of animal services denies that the raccoon population is exploding. But what would she know? She’s only got hard numbers. Mr. Shiner has anecdotal evidence. So what if it’s mostly passed on by well-heeled constituents who live near his Ward 24’s abundant ravines?

Raccoons are not the only hot topic in Toronto these days that exposes the dichotomy between perception and reality. The city’s finances are either tickety-boo or in terrible shape, depending on who’s talking. Property taxes are either through the roof or unsustainably low.

Mr. Ford, who is seeking re-election on Oct. 27, insists that he has brought the city back from the “fiscal cliff” on which it teetered when he took over. The city manager says there never was a cliff. Mr. Ford insists that there’s still fat to cut from the budget. His hand-picked budget chief disagrees.

The Keynesians on council were delighted last week when a report from the University of Toronto’s Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance concluded that Toronto “does not have a spending problem.” It noted that residential property taxes are low, compared with other Ontario cities, and that Toronto’s debt load is “relatively modest and manageable.”

But that does not mean that the next city council has a free pass to tax and spend. The report notes that property tax revenues per household dropped by 15 per cent from 2001 to 2012, when controlling for inflation and population growth. But the city’s condo explosion means that household size has got smaller, so it only follows that the average tax load would too.

What’s more, property tax rates on commercial and industrial real estate, as well as on rental apartments, are three times those paid by homeowners. The ratio is set to fall to 2.5 times some time after 2020. But it remains that business owners and apartment dwellers (who vote less and usually earn less than homeowners) bear a disproportionate share of the tax burden.

No election candidate wants to raise that inconvenient truth and risk the wrath of the rich in Rosedale, the upper middle class of Willowdale or the yuppies of Riverdale. Mr. Ford is promising to keep residential property tax increases below the rate of inflation. His two main rivals, radio host John Tory and former New Democratic MP Olivia Chow, vow that increases will not exceed inflation.

Nor have any of the front-runners broached the elephant in the room – the fact that salaries and benefits of police officers, firefighters and other unionized employees are sucking up too much of the budget, crowding out expenditures on family and community services.

Compensation costs now account for half of the city’s $11-billion operating budget, up from 42 per cent in 2003. Per capita policing costs in Toronto were $376 in 2012, compared with a median of $290 across Ontario cities, even though Toronto police handle fewer than average Criminal Code incidents.

When they’re not idle, Toronto firefighters spend more time duplicating ambulances than fighting blazes. They work seven 24-hour shifts a month. Each shift includes six hours of rest time. The city closed one fire station and eliminated four trucks this year, but the fire budget went up because of $11.2-million in salary increases for firefighters.

Controlling compensation costs and rightsizing the police and fire departments should be a priority for Toronto’s next mayor. But no leading candidate is talking about it. David Soknacki, who is far down at fourth in the polls, is the only one who has raised the issue.

There’s a reason for the the front-runners’ silence. They’re scared stiff of the police and firefighter unions.

After all, the unions make the raccoons look like pussycats.

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Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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