By AMARACHI AMADIKE, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The recent announcement of a “new deal working group” aiming to create a financial structure that better equips the City of Toronto to address its current $1.5 billion deficit, has left many residents wondering if cooperation between the city and the Province of Ontario is achievable.
Premier Doug Ford and Mayor Olivia Chow have seemingly put their political differences aside in an attempt to address Toronto’s financial crisis which continues to worsen.
Last week, Chow announced that the federal government has also shown interest in joining the conversation about Toronto’s long-term financial plan.
“I applaud Mayor Chow’s success in bringing first the province and now the federal government to the table,” said Toronto-Danforth Councillor Paula Fletcher.
Since Chow took office, councillors have approved a wide range of taxes. Their reasoning was that the City of Toronto lacks revenue tools that grow with the economy, leaving the city with no way to dig itself out of the deep financial hole it currently lays in.
With Ford adamant that his administration is firmly against any taxes, it’s safe to wonder what kind of deal the city hopes to achieve from the “new deal’ meetings.
Beaches-East York’s Councillor, Brad Bradford said Toronto needs “long-overdue structural reforms with respect to what level of government is paying for and delivering the different services Torontonians rely on”.
As an example, he highlighted the unfair nature of Toronto’s financial responsibilities pertaining to the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway. Although these routes are essential to East Toronto drivers, Bradford, like most of his Toronto Council colleagues, believes the city shouldn’t bear the full financial burden considering these roads are a “regional transportation network”.
“These are effectively 400-series highways that ought not to be paid for by the property tax base of Toronto alone,” said Bradford. “Mississauga isn’t on the hook for [Queen Elizabeth Way], so why are only Torontonians carrying the costs for these major pieces of critical infrastructure?”
According to City of Toronto staff, revenues from city tax increases would only cover about 30 per cent of the current deficit Toronto faces in its operating budget. However, councillors who voted in favour of the hikes believe the city has been left with no choice by federal and provincial governments.
“After decades of downloading costs onto the city, we need willing partners in Queen’s Park and Ottawa to ensure Toronto, Canada’s economic engine, is on sound financial footing,” said Fletcher. “I’m encouraged by Mayor Chow’s early success and look forward to concrete and substantial commitments from the province and federal government.”
With added pressure on the city’s finances, Toronto Council has generally adopted the notion that it must raise its own revenue to cover spending. But Bradford believes that it is inappropriate to increase taxes on residents during these harsh financial times.
“In the midst of an affordability crisis, the last thing Torontonians need is an increase in their taxes,” said Bradford. “You simply cannot tax your way out of a $1.5 billion dollar fiscal crisis, especially when it’s off the backs of middle class families who are already struggling to make ends meet.”
This sentiment is shared by some residents who expressed distrust in how responsibly Toronto’s tax revenue will be utilized by Toronto Council.
“Our services are bad now. Are they going to get any better?” asked Scarborough Southwest resident, Ron Parkinson.
“We need some accountability for that. Where is it going to be spent? We don’t know where that money goes and we’re trusting our politicians to spend it properly.”
One area Parkinson hopes to see improvements in as a result of increased taxes is Toronto’s transit system.
A decline in TTC ridership which came as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic led to cuts to TTC services that ultimately drove more residents to reduce their commutes. But with a lack of subsidies from the upper levels of government, although reducing services, the City relied on an additional fare increase to make up for lost revenue.
“Toronto also has a long-term funding gap for the TTC, and this new deal should come up with solutions for helping cover operating costs,” Bradford said. “We need collaborative solutions in order to preserve service on the TTC.”
In 2019, the TTC had an operating revenue of $1.25 billion which reduced to $513million following the pandemic. According to TTC officials, Toronto’s transit system receives the lowest subsidies of all North American transit systems.
Although Bradford and Parkinson are residents of different wards in the city, they share a belief that all levels of government need to play a role in addressing Toronto’s financial struggles.
They showed concern for the current refugee crisis which, once again, Toronto has been left to handle mostly on its own.
“If we’re bringing in more people and have no housing, why are we doing it?” asked Parkinson. “We’re putting them through hell.”
Similarly, Bradford said Ford and Chow’s new deal must support the city’s housing plan in a way that addresses the increasing number of refugees entering Toronto, “most of whom are ending up living in shelters or on our streets”.
“We’re already facing a supply shortage for those who live in the city.,” said Bradford. “This influx only compounds the problem, and we can’t have folks fleeing their countries of origin only to set up tents in our parks and in our neighbourhoods.”
Following Chow and Ford’s meeting, the Province of Ontario announced that it was spending $26.4 million to provide long-term housing solutions for asylum seekers in Toronto. According to officials, this will be funded by the Canada Ontario Housing Benefit (COHB) program.
– Amarachi Amadike is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Beach Metro Community News. His reporting is funded by the Government of Canada through its Local Journalism Initiative.