Mayor John Tory’s critics on council will take aim at his proposed budget on Thursday, with some demanding higher property-tax hikes to generate cash to improve city services such as public transit, snowplowing and child care.
Mr. Tory and his supporters say the budget’s 2.55-per-cent hike to residential property-tax rates keeps his election promise of limiting increases to the rate of inflation. Statistics Canada pegged inflation at 2.5 per cent last October, when city finance staff began preparing the budget.
But Toronto property taxpayers will also once again be asked to fork over an additional 0.5-per-cent city-building levy for infrastructure, bringing the total tax increase for 2019 to 3.05 per cent. On the average property worth $665,000, the city says this year’s tax bill would come to $3,020 – a $104 increase. But the budget also calls for increases to water rates and fees for curbside garbage collection, as well as a 10-cent transit-fare hike.
The mayor says his approach is a sensible, centrist one that has allowed the city to increase funding to key services, including the Toronto Transit Commission, while keeping taxes low.
“I believe that my job, the budget chief’s job, the city council’s job in fact, is to achieve a balance between … those who would say they question the legitimacy of … government itself and … and those who would say, let’s just spend and tax no matter what the numbers are,” Mr. Tory said this week, before his hand-picked executive committee approved the budget.
While the mayor’s majority is expected to pass the budget largely unchanged, some on council’s left wing say Mr. Tory’s insistence on keeping property taxes low is seeing the city’s services fray. Property-tax rates around the Greater Toronto Area are much higher, they point out. And adding uncertainty to city’s books is its reliance on its land-transfer tax on real estate transactions, which brought in $80-million less than expected last year amid the wobbling property market.
Critics point to other holes in the proposed $13.56-billion operating budget, which must be balanced by law. The city is still waiting on the federal government to write it a $45-million cheque to cover the increased costs it says its shelter system faces due to an influx of refugee claimants, despite assurances months ago that more aid from Ottawa was forthcoming. (The federal government is to unveil its own budget March 19.)
There are also $24-million worth of unspecified “efficiencies” or cuts that still need to be found at the TTC and $10-million expected to be drawn from the city’s non-union staff.
“This is an unbalanced budget,” city councillor Mike Layton said this week, adding that he would support motions for small tax increases in order to improve services. “We are talking about a deep budget hole. … We have never before seen just such a big hole and assumptions that another government is going to come and balance the books for us.”
Mr. Tory’s budget chief, councillor Gary Crawford, said if the $45-million does not materialize from Ottawa, Toronto will have to draw on its reserve funds in order to cover the costs itself – a practice the city has used in the past that only makes the following year’s books harder to balance.
Marie-Emmanuelle Cadieux, a spokeswoman for Bill Blair, the former Toronto Police chief who is now the federal Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction, pointed to the $26-million Ottawa has previously given the city for refugee costs. But she said the Ontario government, which last summer refused to cover any cost for what it said were illegal border crossers, needed to “return to the table and work toward a cost-sharing agreement.”