Artists threw a party at City Hall in January to celebrate council's commitment to arts funding. Photo by Wade Hudson.
A landmark plan to boost Toronto's funding for arts and culture groups could be delayed as part of the 2014 budget process.
Earlier this year, local artists celebrated what they thought was a hard-won victory when council agreed to allocate proceeds from a new tax on billboards to fund the arts. The goal was to increase Toronto's arts funding to $25 per capita by 2016.
But in budget documents released this week, staff recommend pushing the target back two years to 2018. The proposal is getting negative reviews from leaders in the arts community.
"I'm surprised that it's being suggested to push it back," says Claire Hopkinson, director and CEO of the Toronto Arts Council, the arms-length organization that administers city-funded culture grants. "Arts organizations have been waiting a very, very long time for this."
"I'm really uncomfortable with this back-sliding," says Devon Ostrom, who in 2001 founded the Beautiful City group that tirelessly advocated to make the billboard tax a reality. It was finally created in 2009. "It's kind of pathetic and I think we should really expect more from our government," he says.
If council reneges on meeting the 2016 target it will be the third time the city has missed a deadline to increase arts funding to $25 per capita, a level seen as the standard a decade ago when it was reached by Montreal. In 2003, council endorsed a plan that set 2008 as the target, and once that was missed, approved another report in 2010 that set 2013 as the deadline.
As Toronto has struggled, Montreal has increased its arts funding to $55 per capita. Ostrom warns that the city risks losing its creative talent if we continue to lag behind.
"The next arts hotspot that people are moving to is not the Junction or Parkdale. People are moving to Hamilton now because it's the only place they can afford," he says.
In order to reach $25 per capita, the city will have to allocate an additional $17.5 million a year to the arts compared to 2012 levels. The billboard tax is expected to bring in $10.7 million next year, but contrary to what Ostrom and others wanted, that money won't be specifically earmarked for the arts; instead it will go into the general property tax base.
A reserve fund created by the billboard tax has been dedicated to the arts however. The $22.5-million reserve is made up of retroactive billboard tax payments that were not collected while the advertising industry fought the city in court, unsuccessfully arguing that City Hall had no jurisdiction to implement the sign levy. (Billboard sign companies lost the case in 2012.)
As part of the 2013 budget council voted to gradually phase in arts funding using a mix of the tax base and one-time injections from the reserve account. The quicker the reserve is exhausted, the sooner the entire $17.5-million increase will have to be borne by the tax base, which could necessitate a property tax increase.
Six million dollars from the reserve was put into arts funding in 2013, and staff were instructed to come up with a four-year phase-in schedule. But the 2014 budget recommends a six-year plan to enable "a smoother tax funding increase." It proposes adding an average of $3.5 million from the tax base and $3.3 million from the reserve every year until 2018.
City Manager Joe Pennachetti says the slower ramp-up is necessary to avoid delivering a major hit to taxpayers.
"What is tabled is affordable and makes sense," he says. "We can't do it faster. The faster you do it, the more of a tax increase you've got."
But Hopkinson argues that the phase-in could be done more quickly if all of the annual proceeds of the billboard tax were directed to the arts. She says that was the original intention.
"There was this unwritten deal that was recognized by all the councillors... that this billboard funding was to be a resource to help the city fund the arts," she says. "The revenues are there."
Councillor Gary Crawford also believes the four-year timetable is still doable.
"The arts community's expecting this over four years," says Crawford, who championed the funding goal during the 2013 budget. "I've made that commitment and I want to live up to it. "
Before the 2014 budget is finalized in January, he plans to put forward a motion that would either increase contributions from the reserve or from the tax base to phase in the funding by 2016. He predicts most councillors will support it.