Toronto is undergoing an agony of dollar finding, a stretched out agony that feels like it started eons ago with the slow drip release of the KPMG report on where to find $774 million – the amount of the city’s deficit and by law must get rid of – and continuing with community meetings, Twitter outrage, media hype, and last night’s-this morning’s marathon Executive Committee session with its 200 deputations from Torontonians.
I lay the blame for this agony at the former PC Ontario government led by Mike Harris.
Harris did two things that killed Toronto’s fiscal house and economic engine. He brought a big chip of envy with him to the Pink Palace and claimed – wrongly – that the city got everything and was sucking legitimate Ontario taxpayers dry, never mind that Torontonians sent billions of our tax dollars out of our city into the hinterlands of Ontario and Canada. What’s truth got to do with anything when the chip feels so good? And so, like Toronto Mayor Rob Ford today, he claimed he was going to force us fat piggish pinky Torontonians to learn to live like real people within budget.
He amalgamated the original city of Toronto with its five boroughs – Scarborough, East York, North York, York, and Etobicoke – the idea being the suburbs would overwhelm the pink pantywaist downtowners and bring fiscal sense to city accounts. And in the process, though he uploaded some fiscal responsibilities, he downloaded the way more onerous costs – but not the programming – of welfare and disability plus court security costs. Although he apparently did that with cities other than Toronto too, he knew that Toronto would be disproportionately burdened because the poor tend to gravitate to where decent public transit, accessible shops and services, and social services are easily found: the city core. Even if that wasn’t true, it is nuts to pay for social programs like welfare out of property taxes. These government programs were never meant to come out of city taxation but out of federal and provincial taxation. But Harris took a leaf out of former Prime Minister Chretien’s manual: make your own budget look good by downloading to lower levels of government.
The present Ontario Liberal government led by Dalton McGuinty has reversed this burden for some municipalities but not for Toronto – probably because we have the biggest piece of that pie so it would make his provincial deficit noticeably bigger. Yet here we Torontonians are tearing our hair out and yelling at each other over a budget deficit that we by law are not allowed to have because of having to pay for welfare -- and the TTC.
Harris gutted traditional TTC funding and halted the construction of three and a half subway lines. I bet Ford wouldn’t have won on the promise of building subways if we didn’t so desperately need them because of the stupidity of Harris saying no to subways, no to reliable TTC funding and building. Toronto is the only jurisdiction in the world, including in that free-enterprise bastion of the US, to pay for its public transit mostly out of the fare box. That’s why our commute times are the longest in the country, why we have such congested roads, why our current system is inadequate to meet the needs of the people, and why our productivity sucks. You can’t work if you’re stuck in gridlock because there’s no subway where you are and the bus is infrequent and when it comes is packed to the rafters, and then it gets stuck in traffic too.
The effects of Harris’s chip resonate down to today. We are in this fiscal and transit mess because of him and his PC government. And it’s draining our economy.
Yet Current PC leader Tim Hudak sees nothing wrong with what Harris did and has no intention of repairing the damage. He does not plan to take back the social services the province is responsible for; he will continue to decide how much Torontonians have to pay for them out of our property taxes. And he has no plans to return the TTC to the pre-Harris longstanding funding formula that made our city the transit envy of the world and allowed us to be productive citizens, whose work powered Canada’s economic engine.
McGuinty says he plans to reverse the welfare and provincial court security costs download, about $170 million, which is almost double the spending cuts discussed at the Executive Committee’s marathon meeting and which probably won’t happen as these city services are so needed. However, McGuinty is looking way down the road to taking those costs back: 2018. The TTC funding looks like it will be as it is now, inadequate to put it mildly.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath has promised to upload these costs and will restore TTC operating funding to 50/50. This will mean $220 million to Toronto. That’s a nice chunk out of Toronto’s deficit, even over four years.
We need to reverse the disastrous Harris policies once and for all. It may seem like only Toronto is affected, but for every tax dollar not generated because Torontonians are stuck in traffic and for every property tax dollar going to welfare instead of consuming, a portion of that dollar is not going to all Ontarians. The only two who look like they will reverse Harris policies are McGuinty and Horwath. And of those two, Horwath looks better.