You might think that Premier Doug Ford’s vindictive decisions are responsible for most of Toronto’s problems, and you wouldn’t be far wrong, but that’s not the whole story. A former mayor also must take part of the blame.
Former mayor John Tory claimed that the property tax should never be raised enough to be equal to the increase in the cost of living or inflation. For his eight years in office Tory always required city departments to reduce expenditure to be below the rate of inflation — except for the Toronto Police Service, which almost always got an increase. A majority of city council followed his lead. They seemed to think it was good politics.
There are two results of this foolhardiness. First, the city is short of money, in the order of $30 or $40 million a year, which adds up over these eight years to about $300 million not available to build on this year.
It is not enough to resolve Toronto’s problems this year, but it sure would be useful to have that extra money. And council could build on that with a reasonable property tax increase this year to produce another $50 or $60 million.
Of course, Ford’s government must be blamed for cutting revenue otherwise available to the city, such as the $200 million a year from development charges or not providing reasonable funding for affordable housing or for transit. His government cannot be let off the hook. But still, former mayor Tory’s policies have been very damaging financially.
The second result is a staffing problem. When departments find they are short on money several things happen. More experienced staff decide they can move on to other municipalities or to the private sector where they can get more compensation and find more challenges. That means that less experienced staff are put in charge.
Then the department finds that it does not want to take any chances or do anything new and innovative, so those who took that approach to public service find it is time to move on. The department becomes settled in old ways, unable to respond well to new challenges.
And of course departments decide to cut services — like not opening washrooms in parks or skimping on transit services or being unable to attend public meetings with community groups. The public becomes disillusioned with city government.
All of those things happened in Toronto over the last eight years.
I keep hearing stories about how city staff are unable to respond in a reasonable time to proposals to build new affordable housing units; planning staff who are thought to be local planners often do not have the faintest ideas of the neighbourhood they are responsible for. A planner working in Scarborough, for instance, is assigned to downtown Toronto or the opposite.
Mayor Olivia Chow wants to change many things — thank goodness — but she can only do that with strong and innovative staff. Those people are certainly not hidden in the bowels of city hall.
And she does not have the money to hire them quickly from somewhere else. It means the opportunity for her and the council to make change is more limited than any of us would like.
This drives Mayor Chow to reduce her scope of action in order to make financial demands on the other levels of government. Premier Ford will deny her request for a sales tax or any other progressive form of revenue.
The federal government will continue to dither and claim that cities are really a provincial responsibility, which constitutionally is true, much as it hurts.
So we are bearing the brunt of John Tory’s short-sighted approach to city government for eight years.
JOHN SEWELL is a former mayor of Toronto.