City councillors are elected to make decisions on behalf of their constituents – to seek the best advice, weigh the pros and cons and then take a stand. This week, they faced one of the toughest decisions of their four-year term. They failed the test in spectacular fashion.
Asked by the provincial government for advice on what taxes or levies they would support to pay for better transit, they simply refused to decide. Going through a list of possible "revenue tools," from parking levies to payroll taxes, they ruled them out one by one, leaving only two – a sales tax and development charges – on a list that they would not reject but were too cowardly to come out and endorse.
It was a slap in the face for the thousands of Torontonians who came out to meetings or filled out surveys about what taxes they, as citizens, would endorse. It was a rebuke to the community organizations, from the Board of Trade in its downtown office tower to the self-organized community groups in their church halls, who sweated over the issue and managed to choose which taxes to support.
It was a gross dereliction of their duty as elected representatives to deliberate and, in the end, to choose.
On top of their cowardice, they added a spicing of gall. After, in effect, telling the provincial government that they would not openly support any of the taxing tools that it needs to build out the mass-transit system, they had the temerity to demand a seat on the board of the Metrolinx transit agency and call on Queen's Park to pay for half of operating costs of the Toronto Transit Commission.
On top of that, they want the federal government to lower the income tax on Toronto-area residents to compensate them for any future provincial transit taxes – taxes that council for the most part rejected. Oh, and they want an extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway line to Scarborough and an extension of the Sheppard subway west of Yonge, two projects that happen to serve the wards of the councillors who plumped for them on the council floor.
It was a breathtaking display of selfishness. For months – no, years – councillors have been calling for an "adult conversation" about how to pay for transit. What happened on Thursday was the definition of immaturity – all demands, no commitment. In the kindergarten world of city hall, it is me, me, me.
Naturally, councillors tried to defend their non-decision, reached after two days of squabbling, muddled debate and procedural incoherence. ("Once we're finished we'll know what we've done, because it's a real puzzle right now," said Speaker Frances Nunziata as the debate wore on and councillors juggled a sheaf of complex motions.)
They noted that council voted in favour of regional transit taxes in principle, if not in particular. By leaving the sales tax and development charges off their "rejected" list, said Councillor Josh Colle, they were giving a broad hint to Metrolinx about what they might support (without, mind you, taking the heat for actually supporting it).
"I think the implication is obvious," he said. "They're not on the list that we're putting forward to Metrolinx to not consider." Got it?
Similarly, TTC chair Karen Stintz tried to persuade puzzled reporters that council had done its duty by indicating which taxes it did not support. If it failed to say what taxes it did support, well, "it's not our tax to raise."
The final decision, she said, lies with Queen's Park, not the city. This from a councillor who, days before, gave a vigorous speech on the need for new taxes and tolls to support transit growth.
If council really did its duty – if this really was a step forward for transit funding – why was the tax-hating Rob Ford high-fiving his allies after the vote. He called it a historic day. He was right, in a way – a historic low for city council.