News / Toronto

Toronto balanced budget on 'backs of the most vulnerable,' critics say

But some councillors worry the budget impacts too much on the city’s vulnerable residents.

Toronto mayor John Tory speaks with a visiting school at the visitor area of city council, February 15, 2017. Councillors start debating the 2017 budget at city hall.

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Toronto mayor John Tory speaks with a visiting school at the visitor area of city council, February 15, 2017. Councillors start debating the 2017 budget at city hall.

It was the budget that almost wasn’t.

Despite a vote that created an unexpected $2-million hole just before midnight and nearly 15 hours into the debate, council approved a budget Mayor John Tory said kept property taxes at “reasonable” rates his allies called “affordable.”

That included approval of a residential property tax rate hike that totals 3.29 per cent for 2017, or $90 extra for the average homeowner.

The budget passed with a final 27-16 vote.

But critics of the approved balancing called it “unsustainable” said they would have trouble sleeping once they got home in the early hours Thursday morning with cuts impacting the city’s most vulnerable.

An attempt to prevent the elimination of 10 front-line shelter staff positions — at a time when those havens are exceeding capacity targets and those who rely on them struggle to find more permanent housing — failed 19-25. The mayor and all but one of his executive members supported the cut.

Councillor Joe Cressy moved a motion that council keep the 10 front line positions, by voting to increase the 2017 operating budget for shelter, support and housing administration by just over $1 million, by pulling funding from a property tax stabilization reserve fund.

Cressy accused the mayor of directly intervening to ensure the cut passed.

“It’s deeply disappointing that the mayor of Toronto decided to personally intervene to balance a budget on the backs of the city’s most vulnerable,” he told Torstar News Service. “When it comes to a budget setting the priorities for a city, cutting shelter staff is about as clear an indication as any that this budget is a failure.”

Tory supported a successful motion asking staff to report back on the “true” service level impacts of the shelter cuts, saying he believed it would be “minimal.”

“I have confidence in our professional public servants and I can’t believe they would even put in front of us for consideration, no matter what direction they’d been given by us, any recommendation that they thought could lead to that consequence that you’ve talked about,” Tory said in response to criticism the cuts could hurt Torontonians most in need.

“That a budget that does make a big additional investment in transit somehow gets translated into a cutback, a budget that makes a big additional investment in housing somehow gets translated into a cutback, a $250 million investment in repairs to Toronto Community Housing can in no way be described as a cutback ... But I guess that is the way things work in the context of this chamber and I am glad for the most part today the discussion has been other than on that kind of basis.”

Earlier, under questioning from Councillor Mike Layton, Tory admitted staff said they only presented the cut because they were directed to find 2.6 per cent in budget reductions — a direction pushed by Tory.

The 10 positions will be lost through attrition, when the current staff retire or leave.

Five of the jobs, council heard earlier in the night, would come from one of the 10 city-run shelters, which serve about 1,500 people. The remaining 49 shelters in the city are run by community agencies. The entire system, including hotel beds, has room for about 4,600 people, according to city data.

Councillor Pam McConnell, who was picked by the mayor to champion the poverty reduction strategy, said it wasn’t enough to just fund new shelter beds and that shelters are not meant to be “homes.”

“If we get it wrong, people are going to die. I don’t want us to be in a position where we are increasing the number of beds, but at the same time we are not able to service those people,” she said from the council floor before the vote. “Because at the end of the day this is not about the bed count entirely, it is about moving people through the shelter system, getting them out off the street, into the shelter system and then out of the shelter system and into their own homes.”

Paul Raftis, general manager of the city’s shelter, support and housing administration division, said an earlier description from McConnell that the cut means less hands to help was fair. He noted it would be a relatively “minor” impact on service.

The budget was briefly and confusingly unbalanced just as council believed they were heading into the final votes of the evening.

Council unexpectedly voted against reducing spending on street sweeping, which left a $2 million hole in the budget. Legislation requires that council pass a balanced budget.

After the uproar, a motion that took money out of a rainy-day fund restored order and the budget was finalized.

Earlier on Wednesday, council approved a residential property tax increase for 2017 just below the rate of inflation.

The 2 per cent increase required to help balance this year’s budget, when adjusted to include a new special levy for capital projects and the provincial education tax, totals 3.29 per cent.

That increase will cost the average homeowner, with property assessed at $587,471, an extra $90 in 2017 and total $2,835 on their bill.

Council rejected two separate motions — one that would have flatlined property taxes and another that would have raised them above the rate of inflation.

A motion for a 0 per cent increase from Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, who has positioned himself as enemy number one to the mayor in recent months, failed 2-40. Only Etobicoke Councillor Stephen Holyday supported him.

Councillor Gord Perks, who has long argued that residents can afford to pay more to help the city’s most vulnerable, put forward a 4.26 per cent increase. That motion failed 10-32.

“What I am proposing is that we ask those people in the city of Toronto who have the most wealth to put more money back into the system and the reason I want to do that is so that we can afford the programs that help the people who truly are struggling to live in the City of Toronto,” Perks told his colleagues on the council floor.

His motion would have meant the average homeowner would see their taxes increase by $152.50 this year instead of the approved $90.

“I am proud of city council’s decision to keep Toronto property tax increases below the rate of inflation,” said a prepared statement from Tory’s office after the tax rates vote. “The single biggest cheque most families write to the city is for their property tax bill. I was elected on a mandate to keep property tax increases at or below the rate of inflation and I will keep that promise.”

Layton, who unsuccessfully moved to reverse above-inflation increases to user fees for recreation programs for youth and seniors, noted the mayor had set a benchmark for this budget’s success: for councillors to sleep soundly after it was finalized.

“I can tell you with cuts to shelters, cuts to long-term care, I’m going to be thinking of those people tonight when I try to go to sleep,” Layton said Wednesday night.

A motion from Councillor Janet Davis that tried to reverse cuts to mandatory training for long-term care home homes staff failed while another to delay closure of a child-care centre passed.

A motion from the newest executive member, Councillor Jon Burnside, asked for funding of two youth hubs and increased programming for existing hubs in four other library locations that was earlier left out of the budget. That $387,000 for a program that is part of the city’s poverty reduction strategy — which Tory earlier promised to fully fund — was approved with Tory’s support.

“I think we will approve a budget that is status quo,” said Councillor Ana Bailao on the council floor, noting other levels of government needed to come to the table to help with the city’s most pressing needs, such as $1.7 billion in unfunded repairs to social housing.

“What we have in front of us is a fight for a future of this city.”

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