Toronto Community Housing board approves $543M operating budget
Questions about secrecy surround the budget ask, which hinges on wrestling $13.7M more from the city to cover changes pushed by a mayor’s task force.
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Amid an outcry over transparency and millions needed in city subsidies, the board of Toronto Community Housing on Thursday hesitantly approved a requested $543.2-million operating budget for 2016.
But that “balanced” budget, presented by the managers of the largest public housing portfolio in Canada, includes an unapproved $13.7-million request to the city for needed improvements for tenants — specifically, changes recommended by Mayor John Tory’s housing task force.
A day after Tory announced his plan to introduce a property tax levy to pay for better transit and housing, the board also learned that TCHC plans to dip into its reserves and draw on its line of credit to finance $93 million of the $432.3-million capital budget.
The board approved the request to the city, which totals $1.3 billion in combined operating and capital spending, on a 5-2 vote.
Board member Catherine Wilkinson, who voted against it, said she couldn’t support a process she said lacked transparency.
"Toronto Community Housing exists to ensure that Torontonians can live in dignity. That must always include transparency, and the ability of residents to engage in the budget process," board member Councillor Joe Cressy said, after he moved, successfully, that TCHC post a line-by-line breakdown of the budget, which was previously presented only behind closed doors. He also asked that those details be posted in advance of future budget debates.
When asked why a budget breakdown wasn’t made publicly available, interim president and CEO Greg Spearn said that had not been the board’s “normal practice” and that the details were presented at a board committee that does not meet publicly.
“We’re more than happy to post line-by-line on the web, and we will,” he said.
TCHC management said the corporation faces strong budget pressures in both capital and operating costs. The city already provides nearly $200 million in operating subsidies, which remains consistent for 2016. But the $13.7 million to fund new improvements would be in addition to that.
In July, the mayor’s task force presented recommendations for improvements aimed directly at the daily life of residents, including security. TCHC responded in September with a plan to implement the changes, including $1 million for better security camera coverage. Thursday’s budget presentation included $6 million for new or upgraded cameras in more than 50 neighbourhoods.
But TCHC officials said Thursday that they can’t fund those changes within the current budget.
“I think they’re critical improvements for the lives of our residents in our buildings. I really want to do them,” Spearn said of the changes, expected to cost $13.7 million, including better pest management and social programs.
He said each TCHC department has “scrubbed” its budget for 2016, and if the city doesn’t cough up more cash, the agency will be forced to cut repairs or draw more deeply on reserves.
“I’m very hopeful that city council will support it.”
Senator Art Eggleton, Tory’s pick to chair his task force, wrote to the city’s budget chief, Councillor Gary Crawford, saying the task force was “cognizant” that its recommendations would have cost implications and asking the city to support the additional expense.
The capital budget has grown by 35 per cent from 2015, to cover planned spending on repairs as part of an approved 10-year program to fix TCHC’s crumbling infrastructure.
Chief financial officer Jason Gorel said TCHC continues to face “significant” challenges, including utility costs that rose 37 per cent over the past five years.
Councillor Ana Bailao, a member of the TCHC board who also chairs the city’s affordable housing committee, said cuts by the previous federal government and the province have left a huge gap in funding.
“The city has been stepping in with all these monies coming from our budget just to maintain the current operations, but it’s getting to a state that it’s really, really tough,” she said. “Now finally, the mayor has also brought the housing issue to the table and said, ‘You know what? This is unacceptable.’”
The operating and capital budget process launches at city hall Dec. 15.