It is tempting to let John Tory off the hook for proposing a new tax that was not part of his program when he was running for mayor only last year. Perhaps voters will. He told a lunchtime gathering on Wednesday that Torontonians would pay 0.5 per cent more on their property taxes each year for five years beginning in 2017. When he came to the end of his speech, the audience applauded warmly.
Mr. Tory is a solid citizen who has brought back order and decency to city hall after the crazy years. He promises that he won't fritter away the extra money. Instead, it will go into a dedicated fund to pay for better housing and transit, both of them urgently needed. The city's top civil servant said just this week that Toronto is struggling to find the income to pay for many important city-building projects. So why make a fuss if the mayor wants to bring in a "modest levy" – not a tax, mind, just a levy – to pay for things the city really needs?
The reason is simple enough: We want our political leaders to be believed. Otherwise they can't rally the public support that they need for any important action.
Mr. Tory said over and over during the election campaign that he would keep property tax increases at or below the rate of inflation. He said it so often it became a mantra. What happens to that pledge now? His special levy is just a property tax increase by another name. It will appear as a separate item, but it still raises the amount you pay to city hall.
The tax isn't quite as modest as he suggests, either. Mr. Tory told his lunchtime audience that for $13 – "less than a trip to the movies" – homeowners will be helping city hall collect tens of millions of dollars every year for its city-building fund. But the tax increase will be levied each year for five years, so $13 is just the hike to the average property tax bill in the first year. In the second year, it rises to roughly $26, in the third to $39, in the fourth to $52 and in the fifth to $65 or so. The increases stop then, but the taxpayer keeps paying that extra amount each year. And all of this comes on top of an earlier levy to pay for the Scarborough subway.
Now, you could argue that $65 a year is a reasonable amount to ask homeowners to pay in return for vital improvements to the city's transit network and housing stock. But that's the point: Mr. Tory didn't ask.
When he was running, he steered a mile clear of any talk of new tolls, taxes, dedicated levies or "revenue tools" that would increase the burden on ordinary taxpayers. In fact, he promised to pay for his biggest campaign promise, the SmartTrack rail system, without charging the property taxpayer even a nickel more. The money would come from the alchemy of tax-increment financing instead.
Mr. Tory, remember, was running against that self-described champion of the taxpayer, Rob Ford, and when Mr. Ford dropped out due to illness, his brother Doug. The Fords said that without them around, it would be tax, tax, tax, spend, spend, spend all over again. So, protecting his flank, Mr. Tory promised he, too, would be fierce about curbing waste and limiting tax increases.
His defenders will say that he should be forgiven for his new tax. We can't expect politicians to actually run for office on a tax increase, they will argue. And it would be sheer madness to expect them to keep every promise they make in the heat of an election campaign. But the effect of those arguments is to encourage politicians to fib, fudge and fake their way into office. Can we trust a leader who says one thing when running for office and does another when safely elected? Is it too much to ask of candidates for public office that they level with the voters before they get elected instead of after?
Mr. Tory believes we have to be sensible and accept that we need more money to build a great city, even if it sometimes means demanding a bit more of taxpayers. Quite true. If only he had said it when he was running for the office that he now holds.