One of Canada’s most senior conservative politicians just made a U-turn. We are now going to praise his driving skills, and his sense of direction.
Toronto Mayor John Tory, who has long rejected calls from left-leaning councillors for higher property taxes, this week put forward a plan that essentially embraces the ideas of his critics. To help Canada’s largest city maintain and build affordable housing and public transit, Mr. Tory wants to substantially raise a levy known as the city-building fund, putting an additional $5-billion into municipal coffers by 2025. The plan to gradually raise the levy’s rate to 10.5 per cent over the next six years will almost certainly pass city council, where it has support across the spectrum.
Mr. Tory is making the right move. Higher taxes aren’t always good, but sometimes they are. Sometimes, rather than figuring out how to spend less, we have to figure out how to pay for more. Sometimes, what’s needed is not less money for less government, but more money for more government.
Mr. Tory, a former leader of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party, has been elected and re-elected in the city by pitching himself as both a progressive and a conservative – a believer in both the necessity of government and the value of keeping taxes low. His brand is that of a progressive who wants to watch the pennies.
But Mr. Tory is now admitting that the city can’t get by simply by watching the pennies. There are future public services that won’t get built, and existing services that can’t be properly maintained, unless the city has more dollars.
Even as Toronto’s population expands and private-sector development booms, public-sector Toronto is falling further behind. That’s in part because Toronto’s government is underfunded. That underfunding, particularly of public transit, the city’s circulatory system, is holding back the economy and harming the quality of life.
Toronto’s dirty little secret is that it has among the lowest property taxes in the region. All else equal, low taxes aren’t a bad thing, but in Toronto, all else isn’t equal. The city has costs and responsibilities that other municipalities don’t. It’s operating a province-sized government on a shoestring.
The city has less than half of the Greater Toronto Area’s population, yet as Mr. Tory pointed out this week, it is home to 90 per cent of the region’s social housing. Two decades ago, the Mike Harris government downloaded those costs onto the city.
The Harris government also forced the city to take responsibility for the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway. Mr. Tory says 40 per cent of trips on those roads begin and end outside Toronto, yet Toronto taxpayers foot the bill. The Mayor wanted to toll those roads; Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government blocked him. Later, Premier Doug Ford’s government cut a promised payment to help with highway costs.
Toronto also runs the country’s biggest mass-transit system, which gets the least taxpayer support for each rider of any North American public-transit operator. The city isn’t properly compensated for the fact that more than one in 10 riders comes from outside Toronto.
The city also operates an extensive shelter system; according to the mayor, almost 40 per cent of spaces are occupied by refugee claimants. It’s perfectly logical for these people to move to Toronto, where they likely have the greatest opportunity of finding both community and work; it’s completely illogical for Toronto property taxes to be used to pay for a national issue.
A year-and-a-half ago, Mr. Ford’s government took glee in making Toronto its punching bag. It redrew the municipal electoral map without consultation, promised to do the same on transit and revelled in the lamentations of the locals. Nothing gave it more pleasure than upsetting Torontonians. If Mr. Tory had said boo about raising taxes then, he would have been attacked as an enemy of The Government For The People.
Things have changed. The province has earmarked money for new Toronto transit, although details are still sketchy. And Mr. Ford has discovered that voters have no more appetite for destruction. He’s now talking like he wants to work with the Trudeau government, which has lots of infrastructure funding to offer. And the city will soon be bringing additional financial resources to the table.
Tomorrow just might be better than today.