Doing Business in Toronto: Four Proposals from David Soknacki
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Doing Business in Toronto: Four Proposals from David Soknacki

In a recent speech at the Board of Trade, mayoral candidate David Soknacki floated several ideas for economic stimulus and fiscal responsibility in Toronto.

David Soknacki speaking to reporters at City Hall the day he launched his mayoral bid.

A week ago mayoral candidate and former councillor David Soknacki addressed a lunchtime audience at the Toronto Region Board of Trade. “To those of you from the City Hall Press Gallery,” he began, “I wish to say: I’m sorry. I know you drew the short straw. As we sit here, Rob Ford is speaking at the Economic Club—and I know I can never compete with Rob when it comes to entertainment value.” (Of course, Ford was at that moment trapped in an elevator.)

There’s a school of thought that holds Soknacki’s drama-free approach to politics will prove an advantage, that Ford-weary Torontonians will be glad to vote for someone who freely cops to being boring. Having a personal and professional life that’s devoid of scandal isn’t quite the same as being dull on the campaign trail, though, and Soknacki will have to up his game as a communicator to really make headway with voters. But what he does have going for him already is a sophisticated and detailed grasp of policy. Dotted through his long and rather dry remarks that day were several concrete proposals for making Toronto a better place to do business. Here are some of them:

Rebalancing Property Taxes

Though residential property taxes get the vast majority of media coverage, there are actually several property classes in Toronto, and they aren’t taxed at the same rates. Back when Soknacki was budget chief and David Miller was mayor, council took a look at the relative distribution of taxes among the property types—the others are multi-residential, commercial, and industrial—and determined that businesses were paying too much relative to homeowners, and that this was hindering our competitiveness. In 2007 council passed a new policy to gradually change the ratio between residential and non-residential property taxes; that process will continue until 2020.

Soknacki (after noting that then-councillor Rob Ford was absent for the vote on that policy), told the Board of Trade that “there’s still an uncompetitive gap between Toronto and our neighbours.” If elected, he said, he would “introduce an updated plan to further extend gradual rate reductions for Toronto’s commercial, industrial and rental apartment tax rates.” The goal: achieve “parity on all classes with the top band of comparable tax rates in neighbouring GTA municipalities.”

Building Infrastructure More Efficiently

“I believe we need to be open-minded to proposals for dedicated taxes to pay for new transportation infrastructure,” Soknacki said. “But I also think it’s time we looked at how quickly and efficiently we build, not just at how we much we pay for it,” noting that technical issues like the structure of our bid processes can constrain the choices council has when deciding how to implement a new project. He therefore urged: “We need bid structures with built-in incentives for innovation, prefabrication, modular assembly and other safe, high-speed construction methods.”

On a related note, Soknacki promised to hold a summit for those in the infrastructure industry, to examine the processes by which the City of Toronto commissions and builds its major new developments. “The headline goal of that summit,” he explained, “will be to improve infrastructure productivity by at least one per cent over the life of our capital plan, with a measurable reduction in major project times.”

This last element is key, he believes: Soknacki lamented the degree to which we focus on how much transit projects cost, rather than including other metrics like how disruptive they are and how long they take to complete. “We have to start measuring our transit wins by how many years we save, and by how many people we move, not by how much we’ve spent, or how many neighbourhoods we’ve tried to buy.”

Supporting Entrepreneurs

Though Toronto has many young, innovative businesses, Soknacki said, they don’t get enough (moral or practical) support from the municipal government. More specifically, he pointed to the lack of opportunities for entrepreneurs to approach City Hall with new business ideas: “If you want to bring a new innovation to City Hall, you have to use a so-called ‘unsolicited proposals’ process—yet we haven’t seen a single proposal make it through that gauntlet.” This isn’t just a question of helping businesses in Toronto, Soknacki maintains—it’s a missed opportunity for the government itself. “As we learned with the Enwave experience, commercializing innovations from within government can solve policy problems and generate windfall revenues at the same time.”

Soknacki’s proposal on this front is a modest start: he’d like to implement an entrepreneur-in-residence program, based on one that was launched in San Francisco. That program “is built around an annual competition, where a few winning teams of local entrepreneurs are invited to partner with government each year to develop innovative solutions to public sector problems.”

Later in his speech Soknacki turned to the related question of economic development, arguing that we need to develop a strategy that is based on clusters, looking at the particular sectors (for instance food production, life sciences, game-making, and film) where Toronto is strong. “I do so because each of these sectors faces their own issues with infrastructure or land-uses, regulations or licensing, public safety or partnerships.” He proposes assigning each city councillor to a particular sector, effectively turning them into advocates for their clusters. These councillors, he said, “can be constantly working to identify policy opportunities without having to wait for the next crisis.”

Regional Cooperation

When it comes to Toronto’s relationship with neighbouring municipalities, Soknacki said, “we need to focus on building regional markets, instead of focusing on regional marketing. If we succeed at the first, it’ll be much easier to succeed at the second.” He criticized regional cooperation efforts as they are happening right now for their superficiality—a question of general boosterism rather than initiatives that substantially change how businesses operate.

Soknacki cited Metro Vancouver as an example of a more robust approach, as the municipalities there “recently signed what amounted to a civic trade deal. They agreed that a business license bought in one metro municipality was equally valid in all of them. I believe we can experiment with the same approach to develop practical trade relationships, building webs of inter-city cooperation in the GTA and then elsewhere.” Soknacki also wants to look at sharing services between GTA cities, and forming strategic alliances when it comes to matters like construction and procurement.