Toronto Mayor John Tory wasted little time turning his attention to his brand-new challenger, Jennifer Keesmaat, on Wednesday, pledging to keep property tax hikes low if re-elected when the city goes to the polls October 22, and targeting her musings about “secession” for Toronto.
At a campaign event in Scarborough, Mr. Tory repeated his 2014 promise to keep property-tax rate hikes at or below inflation. It’s a commitment meant to strike a contrast with Ms. Keesmaat, the city’s former chief planner who announced her mayoral run on Friday. She is being backed by a number of left-leaning councillors who have called for higher tax increases to better fund city services.
“In October, the voters are going to have a choice,” Mr. Tory said. “Do they want a mayor who will continue to keep property taxes low and has shown the ability to do that while still making investments in key city services, improving them and enhancing them? Or do they want their property taxes to soar?”
Asked about Ms. Keesmaat’s last-minute entry into the race, Mr. Tory welcomed her but was quick to bring up her comments on Twitter last week calling for Toronto’s “secession.”
“I heard this week about this idea of Toronto seceding from Ontario, and I thought to myself, well, it just sounded like a ridiculous idea,” Mr. Tory said. “And then I read that my opponent slept on it overnight and came forward the next morning and said, ‘Yeah, I have slept on it, and it’s still a good idea.’ ”
On CP24 this week, Ms. Keesmaat said her tweet about secession came in frustration over Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s move to slash Toronto’s city council almost in half, and was “not a policy statement.”
In an e-mailed statement from her campaign, she did not directly address the issue of a tax-rate cap, but promised to unveil a “bold vision” and a fiscal plan: “As Chief City Planner, I found innovative solutions to problems that didn’t increase the burden on regular people, like getting developers to pay their fair share to invest in better planning to build a better city.”
Sources say Ms. Keesmaat’s bid for mayor is still taking shape, with interviews being conducted with possible campaign managers this week. The team, sources say, will likely be a broad coalition, with Liberal and NDP strategists, as well as some Progressive Conservatives and community leaders without party ties.
The 25 signatures on Ms. Keesmaat’s nomination papers, filed just hours before the deadline last Friday, suggest the last-minute nature of her decision. They are all dated that day, and the list includes several NDP or left-leaning city councillors who were at city hall that day for council’s meeting: Sarah Doucette, Mike Layton, Gord Perks, Joe Mihevc, Kristyn Wong-Tam and Joe Cressy.
Mr. Tory, whose campaign said last month it had already raised $1-million, clearly has a head start. But former Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president and CEO Richard Peddie, an outspoken critic of Mr. Tory who even contemplated his own mayoral bid, says he believes Ms. Keesmaat can catch up. After long urging her to run, he says he is now contacting more than 300 potential large donors to back her campaign.
Taking questions from reporters, Mr. Tory dismissed the notion that his low property-tax hike hamstrings the city’s finances. He said the city had been able to find what he called “efficiencies” to free up money for free public transit for children and discounted fare passes for people on social assistance, among other programs. And he pointed to billions in new money from the provincial and federal governments, primarily for public transit, secured during his term.
Asked in February, right after the 2018 budget was passed, Mr. Tory would not commit to capping future property tax hikes. But he later trumpeted the low increases in a fundraising e-mail, suggesting his campaign was going to repeat his 2014 pledge.
Some of Mr. Tory’s left-leaning critics on council, calling for larger hikes, point out that Toronto’s rates are the lowest in the Greater Toronto Area. According to city numbers, when inflation and population growth are factored in, property taxes per capita have gone down in recent years.
And Toronto’s previous city manager, Peter Wallace, regularly warned that the city’s finances relied too heavily on its land-transfer tax. He said a real estate market slump could mean higher property tax hikes or service cuts.
Mr. Tory’s new pledge to cap tax hikes also comes after months of discussion around Toronto’s strained homeless-shelter system, and the mayor’s demands that Ottawa cover the costs of sheltering thousands of refugee claimants.