Two Toronto doctors say the cuts made in the 2017 City Budget will put vulnerable residents at risk.
Toronto’s 2017 City Budget process is now behind us. While the City has adopted strategies related to poverty reduction, housing and homelessness, older adults, and more, they are just words on paper until resources are allocated to them. This budget left many important programs with insufficient resources. It also cut frontline staff and hours of service in several departments, making it more difficult for these strategies to become a reality.
During the budget vote, Council voted for about a 12 person cut to the staff complement for city-run shelters on the argument that this would have a minor impact on services. As people who do research and see patients in city-run shelters, we can tell you that shelter workers are already stretched thin. The result: People stay in the shelter system longer, and under poorer conditions, as they do not have the support necessary to get better (people are often dealing with complex health problems), access appropriate services, find housing, and get out.
Even if additional staffing were not necessary, the more than $1 million taken out of the budget for city-run shelters is sorely needed in other areas. Last year, we worked with Toronto Public Health to develop an evidence-based approach to cold weather alerts. We found that a high number of cold-related injuries among people experiencing homelessness occur on days that are only moderately cold.
Currently—and despite the addition of new shelter beds—almost every type of homeless shelter is above the 90 per cent maximum occupancy rate. Housing allowances, an increase in eviction prevention supports, additional shelter beds, outreach staff: any of these would have been an important and much-needed use of more than $1 million in annual funding.
City Council also voted to cut 17,000 hours of service from long-term care homes. In addition, they cut 111 frontline positions from the staff complement for community centres—jobs that largely seem to have been left vacant, and that often go to youth. Recently, Parks, Forestry and Recreation (PFR) released the waiting lists from 2015. There were more than 180,000 wait-listed spots. Of these, 86 per cent were for children. The top three wait-listed programs were swimming, summer day camps, and pre-school programs.
Council also voted to increase TTC fares, and to impose a 12.5 percent increase to user fees for programs such as homework clubs, craft clubs, and family gym time. At the same time, according to an analysis by Social Planning Toronto, Council added funds so that the Toronto Community Housing Corporation and TTC could, in essence, carry on existing services. They also added approximately $6 million in new initiatives related to the Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS). These include expanded school nutrition programs, library youth hubs, and 300 new childcare subsidies.
While we applaud these initiatives, it’s important to look at both sides of the balance sheet. The cuts to the community centre staff complement, long-term care home hours, and city shelter staff alone add up to more than $6 million each year. The result: the erosion of access to services while selected programs expand or come online through the PRS. As an example, a mother with a child who attends a school nutrition program may also have that child on the waiting list for summer day camps and swimming lessons. She is now paying more for TTC. She may have a parent in a long-term care home. We don’t live in silos—robust healthy policy looks at the system as a whole, and our lives in all their complexity.
This situation should not be acceptable to Toronto residents, or to members of City Council. It is not acceptable, and it is not necessary. Resources are absolutely needed from other levels of government.
As many have pointed out, however, City Council has revenue sources it has chosen not to use. This year, City Council voted for a property tax increase that was below inflation. Property tax rates for condos and houses in Toronto have been kept artificially low for years—lower than all other GTA municipalities, Hamilton, and Ottawa. Toronto also has—and could expand—mechanisms to mitigate the impacts of property tax increases for households living on low incomes.
In addition, the City has access to revenue tools it’s not using, such as bringing back the motor vehicle registration tax.
What is needed now is the bold and courageous expansion of resources and services. It’s possible, however, that future budgets will instead make things worse. During the budget process, the Budget Committee called for the City Manager to explore additional cuts in future years.
As experts in public health, we would like to say clearly that failing to appropriately resource the operating budgets for services such as housing, shelters, community centres, child care, and transit will further entrench the deep health inequities already present in our city, and lead to predictable increases in preventable illness.
City Manager Peter Wallace has said that it’s what we fund—not what we say—that is an “expression of the values” of the city. We have often acted as expert advisors to city policies and strategies, and we have done so with the understanding that these policies and strategies would be made real through the allocation of funding. Going forward we will be watching the numbers. They are the best indication of Mayor Tory and City Council’s intentions towards our city, the people who live here, and our health and well-being.
Dr. Stephen Hwang is a physician specializing in internal medicine and a Professor of Medicine at the University of Toronto. Dr. Ketan Shankardass is an epidemiologist and an Associate Professor at Wilfrid Laurier University.