“Propaganda” isn’t a word to be used lightly in 2019. Deliberate misinformation is a real threat. Canadians know it, which is why we’re already worrying about how social-media manipulations might damage the integrity of the fall federal election, as has already happened worldwide.
To make a comparison between calculated truth-twisting and acceptable political disagreements would be irresponsible. Yet it’s what Toronto Mayor John Tory did on Monday. As his executive committee hammered out a final budget proposal before Thursday’s council session to approve it, the mayor mentioned the need to counter “the propaganda that’s out there” about TTC funding.
Budget committee head Gary Crawford took the baton, calling unspecified criticism of his budget “propaganda” during the same meeting. Afterward, when reporters questioned him about using such a loaded term in an era of frighteningly fake news, he didn’t name the person or outlet he found objectionable.
Since the mayor himself brought up the issue of truth, let’s consider which narratives about Toronto’s financial situation seem most manufactured. Mr. Crawford and Mr. Tory have been maintaining that it’s possible to fulfill two election promises at the same time: one, to keep any property-tax raise at (or below) the rate of inflation; while two, maintaining city services at current levels. For months, many councillors, researchers and citizens have disagreed.
The budget being touted as balanced has $79-million in unaccounted-for costs. That includes $45-million for shelters, which hopefully the feds will cough up, and $10-million in undefined “efficiencies” (if ever a word seemed like propaganda …).
It also includes $24-million in undefined cuts to the TTC budget, Toronto’s second largest expense, even as fares go up. Those reductions are meant to come from the bureaucratic side of the commission: staff have annotated the suggestions about where the money could come from with comments such as “not … sustainable for future years,” or “difficult to achieve."
The cuts are crucial, though, to the stability of the budget, which adds about the same amount in Band-Aids for the shambling system. And many big problems remain unaddressed, such as the Scarborough RT (I grew up in Milliken, and will never call it Line 3), which is a deafening, dangerous mess. Closings this winter doubled the commutes of some poor souls, and there’s no real plan for how to move tens of thousands of people after its imminent, permanent shutdown. As a Scarborough councillor, Mr. Crawford should be figuring out how to infuse the TTC with serious cash, not nickel-and-diming it.
Looking away from that $79-million hole, police officers (unlike other city workers) are getting five years of raises at or above inflation. So Toronto’s heftiest expense, the police-services budget, is being hiked by $30-million. Council approved that knowing a major source of non-property tax revenue, the land transfer tax, is shrinking. Last year, it was almost $100-million less than projected.
Meanwhile, the city’s own numbers show that population is growing faster than operating income, meaning that budget allowance per Torontonian has been decreasing for years. There’s already about $200 less per capita annually than in 2010.
Not to mention that it’s not entirely accurate that the proposed overall increase in the city’s property tax base matches inflation. The suggested increase to residential property tax is 2.55 per cent, which also includes increases to garbage and water fees. Inflation is currently pegged at 2.1 per cent.
But policy dictates that increases to the business, multiresidential and industrial rates be lower than those for individual residential properties. That means the total increase in the city’s property tax revenue will be only 1.8 per cent.
So, despite tens of millions of dollars unaccounted for, bigger bills and shrinking revenue, the budget committee is promising no reduction in services. Tell that to the thousands of residents who were put on waiting lists during Wednesday morning’s registration for city-run recreational activities.
In order not to raise property taxes past inflation, the mayor will be reducing or reneging on – sorry, delaying – a slew of commitments made in last year’s budget. That includes millions promised to libraries; crucial climate-change strategies and 17,500 new recreation spaces. Obsessing over his property-tax promise means breaking a bunch of others.
When he was first elected, Mr. Tory looked like a progressive conservative, one that was budget-minded in the old-fashioned way: things cost money, so figure out how to earn it. He proposed road tolls to fund transit improvement, and was shot down by the short-sighted (and unsuccessful) electoral calculations of former premier Kathleen Wynne.
Now, rather than reinvigorate his civic imagination, the mayor is using inflammatory language as a smokescreen. But "propaganda” is not, as Mr. Crawford tried to say, general “opinions and commentary” about financial decisions that intimately affect each of Toronto’s 2.7 million citizens. It’s a word reserved for oligarchies, closed systems of power that demonize those who have differing opinions.
Torontonians have every right – even a responsibility – to consider an increase to property taxes more in line with our costs. For many of us, it seems the only realistic solution to staunching the wounds of a city that we can clearly see crumbling.