Even this early in the 2018 budget process, it's clear there is one singular goal: to keep property taxes low.
Next year, as Frances Nunziata remarked in Thursday’s Budget Committee meeting, will mark 20 years since amalgamation. She then stared off into the middle distance, as if wondering whether or not it was ever a good idea. Next year will also be the final year of Mayor John Tory’s first term—itself a term that, it was hoped at the outset, would rid the City of the sort of municipal dysfunction that plagued the City during the Rob Ford era.
But anyone who was looking at 2018 as an election year in which Tory’s brand of municipal politics—a veneer of mediating centrism, obscuring his political commitment to the upward mobility of wealth in Toronto—might fade away in favour of a socially-focused urban agenda will be disappointed. After a year of intense belt-tightening in service of Tory’s famed 2.6 per cent and across-the-board budget trimming, Toronto will once again be asked to do more with less: on Thursday, the Budget Committee voted in favour of a recommendation that will direct City programs and agencies to prepare a zero-increase budget that, in essence, asks everyone to, once again, do more with less.
The Budget Committee heard from over a dozen speakers, almost all of them from Toronto’s social services sector. Speaker after speaker made the same point: at a time where our social services, from community housing to shelters to climate programs, are under immense strain, a zero-increase budget is effectively a cut.
“Starting a budget process by looking at a freeze, and inflation-only property tax increases is not a way to do a budget,” said Rev. Maggie Helwig. “We know that the city is not healthy. People are literally dying on the streets—and I know this, because I am at their funerals.”
Arguably the worst impacts of a zero-increase budget will be felt in Toronto’s shelter and community housing programs—two areas that are at their breaking point, argued some speakers. “I’m here to try to impress upon members of council that there are people I think you forget about on a regular basis,” said Patricia O’Connell, executive director of Sistering, a shelter for women in the Bloor and Ossington neighbourhood. “It is unconscionable that this is happening in the city. This City is letting down these people. Women shouldn’t have to live in these kinds of conditions.” Her description of an average night at Sistering tells the whole story: 60 women sleeping in a room that contains only 12 reclining chairs. Just to sustain these levels, Sistering has to fundraise an extra $500,000 every year.
“Will a zero per cent budget direction make life worse for the women?” Councillor Joe Cressy (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina) asked O’Connell.
Both Councillors Shelley Carroll (Ward 33, Don Valley East) and Mike Layton (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina) proposed similar amendments that would exempt Toronto’s shelter, support, and housing services from the direction to prepare a zer0-increase budget. Carroll also moved that Toronto’s shelter, support, and housing services be asked to prepare a budget that would allow them to reduce the shelter system to 80 per cent capacity since, she argued, “We have essentially forgotten that past 80 per cent is tantamount to full.” Both amendments, however, failed to pass.
The budget process is just beginning, and there are around nine months until it will be finalized by Council, and, in that respect, there is reason not to panic just yet. But the frustration that is emerging from frontline service workers is rooted not in the immediate material realities of budgeting, but budgets that have one simple goal at their heart: to keep property taxes low. While this is easy to do—balanced budget requirements pretty much allow you to set the tax rate and then budget from the revenue you have, not the revenue you need—social planners like Sean Meagher point out that it’s a flawed approach. “Don’t ever write a budget with wishful thinking,” he said. “It will cost you in the end, and it’s costing us now.” Moreover, it discourages any sort of ambition on the City’s part, incentivizing austerity measures instead. “If I budgeted according to what I wanted to spend,” he joked, “I would tell my kids to stop learning after high school.”
But this approach is, of late, enshrined in the politics of Toronto City Council. When, at the 11th hour in this winter’s budget meeting, Council accidentally blew a $2-million hole in their budget, they were left with little recourse but to scramble for reserve funds in order to balance a budget. Had spending decisions been made before revenue generation ones, this probably could have been avoided.
Make no mistake about what this means: in both procedural and figurative terms, the issue of how much the property-owning classes have to pay comes ahead of how much help we are willing to give the most disadvantaged in the city. Though early in the process, a zero-increase budget direction is a product of this sort of thinking. It ignores what front-line service workers are saying—that there is no more they can do with the money they have—and actively encourages to the upward distribution of wealth.
Toronto’s real estate market has experienced meteoric increases in value, both over the last 12 months and in the longer-term. Saying that it is out of the question to levy property tax increases above the rate of inflation (as Tory has promised) is to essentially say that there’s no political will to ask the upper classes to pay more, even when the consequences of that approach—90 homeless people dead in the past two years is one, but just take your pick—are obvious.
Increasingly, Toronto politics are organized along the division of those who own property and those who don’t. This is nothing new (it’s effectively the organizing principle of capitalism), but in Tory’s Toronto it has been reinforced and embedded in budgetary procedures.
For Tory, this is all part of a rather transparent political gambit. In 2018, he will be up for re-election; though he doesn’t yet have any challengers, his campaign will likely rest on the contradictory legacies of his cost-cutting austerity, and the moonshot legacy projects (like the Scarborough subway extension, SmartTrack, the Eglinton East LRT, and Rail Deck Park) that he’s essentially promising without clear funding agreements.
Such is the duality of Mayor John Tory: cut costs, but promise the moon.
Some of those projects, though, seem increasingly tenuous: City staff note that, without hiring new planners, the City is at risk of blowing some key transit funding deadlines for the Eglinton East LRT (which, given what the 2018 budget is starting to look like, seems like more and more of a long shot) and Metrolinx deadlines for the delivery of SmartTrack as part of the GO RER improvements. As Layton noted, this has been a challenge: “People shouldn’t be poaching our planning staff from the City of Toronto,” he said, in response to City staff noting that they are having trouble filling vacant jobs and keeping up with an eight per cent turnover rate.
All of this, of course, is preliminary. City Manager Peter Wallace stressed as much to councillors. The budget you budget for in May is not necessarily the budget you get next January. But, with that said, preliminary budgetary directions signals more rough waters ahead as far as City services are concerned.