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John Tory mulls new taxes and asset sales in Toronto – but not right now

John Tory says he is ready to be bold, but, at least for now, he is being bold very, very carefully.

The mayor gave a speech on Wednesday to the board of trade. He told his lunchtime audience that Toronto finds itself at a special moment in time. The city is thriving and poised to do great things, but it needs to invest. To cope with soaring growth and build for the future, city hall is preparing to spend billions on everything from transit to housing to poverty reduction. It has to find a way to pay for all this, and the mayor says he is looking at a range of options, including introducing new "revenue tools" and selling city assets.

Refusing even to consider those options, he said, would not be responsible. "I think it is time for us, as a city, to be bold."

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The risks are obvious. Mr. Tory need only look up University Avenue to Queen's Park. Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne is taking heat for deciding to sell off chunks of the electricity utility Hydro One. On top of that, and mixed up with it, she faces public anger over rising power rates. She was booed at a plowing match on Tuesday, despite her efforts to calm the public with a billion-dollar-a-year rebate.

No wonder Mr. Tory is moving ahead gingerly. In his board of trade speech he said his options for raising money include "unlocking the value" in Toronto Hydro, but only while keeping it in "public hands." The bit about public hands is signalling that even if city hall went ahead with a partial sell-off, it would retain control. That is meant to address concerns, often raised by trade unions and others, about giving over the power system to private interests. True to form, the Society of Energy Professionals said after the speech that "selling off any part of Toronto's electricity system is sheer madness."

On revenue tools, as well, the mayor is inching toward a decision like a man edging along the ledge of a skyscraper. City staff have put together reams of reports on the options, from sin taxes to sales taxes to development levies. Mr. Tory insists that, very soon, he will decide which of them he will champion. To address the city's rising costs, he told the board of trade, "I'm going to be honest about what is necessary." But not quite yet.

His caution is understandable. He is up for re-election in 2018. He feels the hot breath of Doug Ford and the rest of Ford Nation on the back of his neck. The latest Ford on city council, Michael, has roasted Mr. Tory for even thinking about new taxes.

They would be sure to go after him for changing his tune, and with good reason. He was quiet about revenue tools when he was running for office in 2014. Back then, running against Rob then Doug Ford, he was keen on protecting the overburdened taxpayer. When another candidate, Karen Stintz, proposed raising money for public transit expansion by leasing Toronto Hydro or selling part of the utility, Mr. Tory responded that "As a businessman, I'm very wary of asset fire sales." Expect his critics to throw that back in his face if he commits himself.

Sooner or later, though, Mr. Tory will have to show his cards. Toronto has billions of necessary projects and deferred maintenance to pay for. As he told the board of trade, Toronto can't keep relying on short-term fixes. It is time to get serious about how the city is going to pay for all its needs.

Selling part of Hydro isn't madness. It's just common sense. It's the most attractive asset, for investors, that city hall has on its books. Hydro needs investment so that it can bring its aging equipment up to scratch. There is no special reason a public company should deliver the electricity to light our houses. Private companies send us the gas to warm them and no one thinks twice. Regulators monitor the price regardless.

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Bringing in more revenue makes sense, too. A parking tax has merit in a city that is trying to encourage the use of public transit and a country that is trying to reduce greenhouse gases. Road tolls are a good idea for the same reasons. Hotel taxes are imposed by many North American cities to help pay for local needs.

Mr. Tory has a strong case to argue. Whatever the risks, he should not shy from making it.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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