Toronto's proposed budget balances books with reserve funds
The proposed budget is either a prudent, equitable plan, or a crass sell-out of low-income Torontonians, depending on who you ask.
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Toronto’s budget committee has balanced the city’s proposed $12.25 billion spending plan with hefty draws from rainy-day funds, an inflation-level property tax hike and a bit of help from new revenue tools.
The proposed budget to be forwarded to Mayor John Tory’s executive committee, and finally city council, is either a prudent, equitable plan, or a crass sell-out of low-income Torontonians, depending on who you ask.
“I think we produced a very fair budget, a fiscally responsible budget and I think a budget that is affordable for the residents of this city,” Councillor Gary Crawford, Tory’s budget chief, told reporters Tuesday after the final vote.
Crawford applauded staff and his committee colleagues for reducing the gap between projected expenses and revenues from an initial $731 million to $91 million and eventually zero.
But he acknowledged the books balance only with tens of millions of dollars from reserve funds — the kind of one-time, unsustainable solutions city manager Peter Wallace has urged council to stop relying upon.
Crawford noted his slew of last-minute amendments reduced reserve draws by about $7 million. He couldn’t give a final figure on the total used but Councillor Gord Perks, a staunch critic of the Tory administration, said the budget still hits the city’s piggy bank for about $90 million.
Perks was scathing in his assessment of a plan that holds the property tax hike to 2 per cent — about $96 on an average Toronto home — while cutting staff at homeless shelters and subsidies for daycares in schools.
“The only people who win in this budget are people who own multi-million-dollar homes and are having their property taxes remain lower than anywhere else in Ontario,” Perks, who is not on the budget committee, told reporters after the vote.
“The people who are losing in this budget are the people who rely on public services to get around or have their kids look after or maybe they’ve got their mom in a home for the aged . . . The services are worse, the user fees are higher and the wait times are longer.”
He blasted the proposal to once again lean heavily on reserve funds, saying council should instead raise property taxes to pay, in a sustainable way, for the services people are demanding.
One surprise was that Crawford and the committee did not heed Tory’s much-publicized direction to find a way to keep city programming at three school pools, rather than transfer it to city pools, after Olympic swimming hero Penny Oleksiak tweeted a #saveSHpool plea to Tory.
Crawford said he took city staff advice that, when programming was transferred in the past, the school board found a way to keep those pools open. The budget chief said he is “very confident” the city decision, saving about $300,000, will not see school kids lose a pool.
Some measures in the proposed budget:
- The city would fully cover Toronto Community Housing Corp.’s $30-million-plus operating budget gap. Earlier the social housing provider’s board voted to put $19 million from a prior-year surplus toward the gap rather than desperately need repairs to units. This frees up that money but the 15-per-cent budget hike is a tiny fraction of TCH’s repair needs of $1.6 billion over 10 years, for which the city is demanding provincial and federal help.
- Some 225 new childcare subsidies, promised by Tory after criticism of his poverty-reduction efforts, would be funded. But the budget would cut subsidies for 350 daycares in schools, potentially boosting fees for 8,400 young children. Councillor Janet Davis said it would be shameful if council balances the budget by adding hundreds of dollars of years to parents’ daycare bills that are already the highest in Canada.
- The budget committee failed to find funding for programming for youth hubs or to expand that initiative, at a cost of $387,000, and expanded WiFi-hotspot lending from Toronto Public Library by only half of the approved $300,000 total.
- Plans to decrease staffing at the Adelaide Resource Centre for women would be scrapped. The budget would also offer $6 million toward the next phase of Regent Park revitalization, for which senior governments are being asked to also contribute.
- On the revenue side: a new hotel tax is expected to generate $5 million; harmonizing land transfer rates with the provincial rate is forecast to raise $77 million; and hiking the commercial property tax rate to the maximum allowed 50 per cent of the residential rate should rake in $3.8 million.
- Community grants, awarded to groups that work with vulnerable residents in low-income neighbourhoods, would not be cut as planned, returning $382,000 to cover inflationary increases.
- There’s no $267,100 for planned new permanent positions at Toronto's newcomer office for refugees.
- There is $1.3 million for random drug testing for TTC employees.
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