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Toronto mayoral candidates Josh Matlow, left to right, Olivia Chow, Mitzie Hunter, Brad Bradford, Mark Saunders and Ana Bailao take the stage at a mayoral debate in Scarborough, Ont. on Wednesday, May 24, 2023.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

The leading candidates in Toronto’s mayoral by-election sparred over major issues of affordability, public safety, housing and homelessness during a rowdy televised debate Thursday evening, less than two weeks before the June 26 vote.

Seven of the highest-polling candidates squared off during a two-hour debate hosted by CP24 and Newstalk 1010 that was chaotic at times, with candidates frequently talking over each other and attacking their opponents’ plans.

The moderators, CP24′s Leena Latafat and Newstalk 1010′s John Moore, repeatedly pleaded with the candidates to let each other speak and threatened to shut off microphones several times during a debate with frequent “free-for-all” segments that encouraged a crowded stage of opponents to compete for airtime.

The by-election was called to replace former mayor John Tory, who resigned earlier this year after he acknowledged having an affair with a staffer in his office. The campaign officially started at the beginning of May and has since attracted 102 candidates. Advanced voting ended earlier this week.

The candidates at Thursday’s debate were quick to take aim at former NDP MP and ex-city councillor Olivia Chow – who has been leading in the polls throughout the campaign – on her plans for property taxes. Ms. Chow hasn’t committed to a specific amount, but said she supports a “modest” increase. The other main candidates have offered figures for property-tax increases or committed to keeping increases at or below the rate of inflation.

Josh Matlow, a current city councillor, plans to raise property taxes 2 percentage points above the rate of inflation each year with revenues going toward improving city services such as garbage collection and snow clearing.

Toronto’s next mayor will inherit large budget shortfalls and no clear way to plug them

The city is facing a budget shortfall of $1.5-billion this year and has limited tools to make up the difference in the face of reduced transit revenues that have yet to fully recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Toronto’s 2023 budget raised taxes by 5.5 per cent, the highest since amalgamation.

Mitzie Hunter, a former Liberal MPP, has pledged to raise property taxes by 6 per cent annually but limit that increase to 3 per cent for households with an income of less than $80,000. Former councillor Ana Bailão, former police chief Mark Saunders, current councillor Brad Bradford and columnist Anthony Furey have said they would keep increases at or below the rate of inflation as residents cope with affordability challenges.

Ms. Chow’s opponents have argued that her plans, including building more city-owned housing and offering rent supplements, would cost a significant amount of money and require a property-tax increase of more than 20 per cent without another source of funding. Ms. Chow has promised to impose a new tax on homes valued at more than $3-million and increase the city’s vacant home tax to 3 per cent from 1 per cent.

Mr. Saunders referred to Ms. Chow as a “fantastic verbal figure skater” for not directly answering questions posed to her by the other candidates on her plans for property taxes or police funding.

“The absence of people saying things should be of grave concern to you when you’re not hearing what you’re going to be paying for taxes,” Mr. Saunders said of Ms. Chow.

Mr. Bradford took another shot, saying that avoiding answering direct questions is “not leadership.”

On the topic of public safety, Ms. Chow said she wouldn’t defund the police, but argued that there are mental health-related calls that would be better responded to by crisis support workers and that resources need to be redirected.

Ms. Bailão, who also frequently took aim at Ms. Chow for not directly answering questions, said she supports a strong neighbourhood policing program and vowed to continue investments to improve 9-1-1 response times.

Mr. Matlow said he would cap the police budget at its current level of $1.16-billion for three years and redirect inflationary increases, pegged at $115-million, to community programs intended to address root causes of crime.

The event Thursday was the first televised debate to feature Mr. Furey, whose support has increased recently in public-opinion polls. Mr. Furey said he would add 500 front-line police officers and promised to shut down the city’s supervised drug-consumption sites.

He also targeted bike lanes, charging that they’re “driving people bonkers.” Earlier in the day, city council approved almost nine kilometres of new bike lanes as part of a larger plan to expand the network across the city.

Ms. Hunter said she supports increasing security presence on the transit system, but also said that resources need to be directed to address the mental health and addictions crisis in the city.

“People need more mental health and wellness support in this city,” she said. “This is playing out on our streets and we can’t afford to be at a breaking point.”

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