Lessons Toronto can learn from city budgets across Canada
Budgets are about choices, and Toronto can learn from other cities.
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Toronto city council will make some of its most significant decisions of the year on Wednesday.
It’s budget day at city hall and that means a whole bunch of priorities will be set in the form of money actually flowing toward programs given the nod over the past 12 months.
It’s expected that $1.15 million worth of child care subsidies will be preserved, there will be an additional $4.7 million to expand Toronto’s tree canopy and an additional $8.5 million for the poverty reduction strategy. But not everyone is, of course, expected to come out a winner.
Three pools could see their city-supported programming cut, 12 shelter and housing employees could be cut even though many shelters are over capacity and a plan for 75 additional child care subsidies remains unfunded.
The same story repeats itself across Canada as growing cities pinch pennies to keep property tax increases to a minimum.
There are lots of lessons to be learned in what’s happening from coast to coast as the country’s largest urban centres make tough decisions to stay afloat.
Proposed property tax increase: 1.8 per cent
Highlight: Councillors have objected to a proposed $780,000 in parks and recreation service cuts.
Lowlight: Halifax’s CFO has warned councillors that the city’s expenses are outpacing expected revenue; taxes have remained flat three of the last four years.
Lesson: Things cost money. If you don’t increase the main revenue source (i.e., property taxes) by the rate of inflation, then political battles turn into attempts to salvage minor but cherished parts of the budget.
Property tax increase: 2 per cent
Highlight: Council approved a low-income transit pass that’s half the regular cost, a first for the city.
Lowlight: The city failed to fully fund a budget commitment to the arts (first made in 2013).
Lesson: You can still pass some good initiatives with inflation-level property tax increases, but it might mean breaking some promises too.
Proposed property tax increase: 2 per cent
Highlight: Property taxes are either the lowest or among the lowest in the province, depending on how you measure it.
Lowlight: $33 billion worth of approved but unfunded capital projects, like lower Don River flood protection, TTC maintenance, and social housing repairs.
Lesson: You can keep trying to delay large and necessary city expenses, but eventually you have to pay for them.
Property tax increase: 2.33 per cent
Highlight: A 57 per cent increase in funding for pedestrian and cycling projects, including buffered bike lanes along the Pembina Highway.
Lowlight: The road budget – a major issue in the city – was flatlined after record spending the previous year.
Lesson: The most cost-effective way to alleviate traffic congestion and decrease road repairs is by encouraging people to use other modes of transportation.
Property tax increase: 2.85 per cent
Highlight: Lowest property tax increase in 10 years.
Lowlight: Chose not to fund Nuit Blanche or the city museum.
Lesson: You can achieve low property taxes, but it often comes as the expense of low-cost things that make the city feel special.
Property tax increase: None
Highlight: Council found money to freeze the monthly low-income transit fee at $44, averting a proposed $6 increase.
Lowlight: The city’s top civil servant warned that a dire economic downturn means big challenges for the 2018 and 2019 budgets.
Lesson: City budgets should be built to withstand economic turmoil. Failing to do so can mean cuts to city services when citizens most need them.
Property tax increase: 3.9 per cent
Highlight: Increased property taxes by an additional 0.5 per cent to fund services for its opioid crisis.
Lowlight: Opposition councillors argued it wasn’t Vancouver’s place to try to “throw money” at the fentanyl crisis.
Lesson: When council recognizes a crisis – like opioids in Vancouver and other major cities – the way to show political courage is to fund evidence-based solutions.