Despite the pandemic highlighting Toronto’s lack of power to chart its own course – city officials spent a week trying to convince the province to implement tougher public health measures – a new recovery plan released Wednesday Morning does not recommend immediate changes in taxation or seek new provincial powers.
Cities are on the front lines of post-pandemic reconstruction, says the new report, designed as a “road map” for Toronto’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The result is a 270-page report with 83 recommendations for moving forward – from changing planning rules to encourage more affordable housing, to creating new, permanent cycle lanes.
But the country’s largest city faces an increasingly uncertain financial future, as a coverage report to council from City Manager Chris Murray that accompanies the roadmap indicates.
With an economic downturn on a scale not seen since the Great Depression, growing inequalities for racialized, low-income and other marginalized groups, and an estimated budget deficit of $ 1.5 billion next year alone, the pandemic only exposed the existing problems and made them worse. .
“Municipalities… were designed for another era – from our urban form, from our governance, from our funding and from our partners – everything we knew before the pandemic has either been amplified or changed,” Murray says in his report.
“We can no longer make the meaningful contributions to so many programs and services that benefit not only Torontonians but the region as well, with limited capacity, resources, authority or control over the things that matter most to our people. residents – equity, prosperity, health. and well-being. “
Saad Rafi, a former provincial bureaucrat who heads the Toronto Recovery and Reconstruction Strategy and one of the authors of the roadmap, said they plan to raise taxes as an immediate step as part of their recommendations.
“Raising taxes on those who are already in very, very difficult economic conditions has been reviewed and seen as less effective,” Rafi said. He added that current provincial legislation governing what the city can and cannot do places “significant limits” on how money can be raised.
Right now, the city’s most lucrative taxing powers are municipal property taxes and land transfer tax. But under COVID-19, homeowners and businesses face their own financial challenges.
Instead, Rafi said, the report focused on ways to create greater spending capacity for the city – which by law must balance its budget – by pushing for increased funding to other levels. government.
In addition to the projected losses of $ 1.5 billion and rising costs in 2021, the city still faces a 2020 year-end deficit of $ 673.2 million, the reports point out. biggest gap in recent memory.
Reports also note that provincial and federal government funding – aside from a pandemic – has not kept pace with inflation, rising from $ 1,100 per person in 2010 to $ 830 in 2020.
Much of this is because of the cost of social housing and other social services being uploaded to the city’s books, according to reports.
Coun. Josh Matlow (Ward 12 Toronto-St. Paul’s) argued for a City of Toronto charter to increase the city’s ability to control its own destiny.
Several American cities, such as New York, have “charter city” status, which gives them the legal authority to manage their own affairs without state interference.
Matlow said on Wednesday it was an idea more needed than ever.
“This pandemic has demonstrated very clearly how different the toolkit Toronto needs to provide services to residents and have the capacity to respond to urgent public health priorities is than that of Sault Ste. Marie and Wawa, ”said Matlow. “And the tools the province provides us with must reflect this reality.
He said this matters to the city’s ability to cope with a housing crisis, an ongoing opioid epidemic, community planning and unforeseen future deficits.
Currently, the city’s powers largely exist under the provincial City of Toronto Act, which can be changed at any time by the province, such as when Premier Doug Ford unilaterally downsized half council in the 2018 election. This decision and the city’s status as a “creature of the province” are the subject of an ongoing battle in the Supreme Court of Canada.
“Cities across the United States don’t have to wait until their states or federal governments are able to act on a number of core priorities that Toronto needs to go to cap at Queen’s Park to ask,” said Matlow.
He added that the pandemic proved that the ability to act quickly on our own could matter, highlighting the one-week delay in the province in responding to the city’s request to implement measures to slow the spread of the virus as cases rise in Toronto.
“Time will tell the public health impact of an entire week, while we wait for the province to respond to our demand to ban indoor dining,” he said, adding that the mayor and council should be “empowered” to act on priorities in a timely manner.
Murray, who is due to report to council on a charter and options for greater city autonomy, said on Wednesday he expects that to be part of the conversation ahead.
Dr David Mowat, the province’s former chief medical officer of health who heads the city’s public health strategy, said autonomy issues existed before the pandemic and have yet to be addressed.
He noted that immediately before the onset of the pandemic, the province decided to cut funding to public health in Ontario, including Toronto Public Health, and to make governance changes “that threatened to remove the ‘harmonization between public health and the rest of the city’s services ”.
He also said he was threatening to prevent public health from having a say in politics, which he said is “essential” to achieving short-term infection reduction goals, but also to address the social determinants of health.
He said it was important that the old public health structure could continue without hindrance.
“I would like to see, after we have gone through this acute phase, a reopening of this discussion and a review by the province of its previous plans for the future of public health infrastructure in this province.
Murray, the city manager, said on Wednesday the city had no guarantees from other levels of government that it could pledge funds by the end of the year, but he remained hopeful that more money would go into phase two of the provincial secure restart plan, which provided $ 668.6. million in the first phase.
Murray’s report says the upcoming budget debate will still require “tough decisions.” Asked on Wednesday, he said he couldn’t rule out dramatic service cuts posed earlier in the pandemic.
Its report also points out that Toronto was in bad financial shape to begin with and that the pandemic “has only exacerbated the city’s structural financial challenges, particularly the misalignment of income and responsibilities.”
“We’re going to take a very radical look at Budget 2021 if we don’t have the support we need, ultimately, again from the federal and provincial governments,” Murray said. “I think there is certainly a great interest on our part in getting clear indications of what the art of the possible is for 2021.”