Late last month, with southern Ontario well into summer and its second stretch of unusually hot weather, Torontonians took to social media to point to a very Toronto sort of issue: the challenge of finding a functioning water fountain in a city park. Or a working public washroom.
What’s more, though the city has already experienced 22 days of temperatures above 23 degrees this year, most public outdoor pools and wading pools are still closed. Most will not be fully operational until June 30.
These are the sorts of mundane, necessary public services that call for money and resources to operate, and to keep in working order. In a city with relatively low property taxes, high social needs and a long history of the province downloading more responsibility than cash, something has got to give. This is what gives.
But at the same time, Toronto can allegedly afford to spend roughly $100-million, before cost overruns, to host five World Cup soccer games in 2026. No problem, apparently, and almost no questions asked or objections raised.
Last Thursday, FIFA, the private venture that every four years runs the World Cup of soccer, named the cities that will host the next 48-team men’s tournament. As part of a joint bid from the United States, Mexico and Canada, 10 games will be played in this country, split between Vancouver and Toronto. Each city is expected to hold five games.
According to a City of Toronto estimate from March, staging five games will cost a mere $290-million, split among the province, the feds and the city. Toronto will be on the hook for $93.8-million (before cost overruns).
So pencil in a bill to city taxpayers somewhere north of $100-million. Maybe a lot more: In 2018, Toronto estimated a cost of just $30-million to $45-million. That’s inflation of more than 100 per cent, in four years.
To govern is to choose. Is this really the right choice?
Taxpayer resources are finite. The things a government spends on – it will cost taxpayers an estimated $63.7-million, before cost overruns, to expand BMO Field –define all the other things it cannot afford to spend on.
We don’t mean to pick on Toronto. Vancouver was awarded the other Canadian host site, at a comparable pre-cost-overrun price.
But other places have made different choices. Montreal was in the running until the provincial government said it wasn’t interested. Expected costs had doubled in four years, and La Presse reports that FIFA also demanded an “event vacuum,” meaning that summer constants such as the Montreal Jazz Festival might have to be rescheduled. Lacking a provincial blank cheque, the City of Montreal backed out.
Even Vancouver was until recently not a bidder, for the same reason. In 2018, British Columbia’s provincial government rejected the logic of shovelling a heap of money at a handful of games. (It later changed its mind.)
Taxpayers subsidizing pro sports, usually with free stadiums and tax breaks, is a popular pastime in the U.S. That country has a weak social safety net, but from the NFL and MLB to college sports, the U.S. has a massive, multibillion-dollar social-welfare system for billionaire owners and their millionaire employees. Taxpayers usually lose, but rarely notice.
Canadian government has generally been more conservative when it comes to subsidizing pro sports – for example, the owners of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors, and the Montreal Canadiens, built their arenas with their own money, and even pay property taxes, all of which is almost unheard of in the U.S.
But when it comes to international sports events, Canadian taps can really flow. The most extreme case is that of the 1976 Montreal Olympics. But consider also Toronto’s 2015 Pan Am Games: At $2.5-billion, it cost 20 times as much as Winnipeg’s 1999 Pan Am Games.
Toronto estimates it will get $307-million in “GDP impact” from the World Cup. That means the city is hoping for $307-million of extra economic activity as a result of the $290-million (before cost overruns) in government subsidies. But only a small fraction of that will come back to the city in taxes. Taxpayers should not expect to break even.
So water fountains and pools, or a one-off, five-game soccer circus? Investment in public facilities like parks and community centres and hockey rinks, or in a pro sports stadium? We know what we’d choose.
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