Go Ahead, Tax Me

lefties say Mel’s wimpy 4.6 per cent increase isn’t enough to keep T.O. healthy

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for the second year running,Toronto homeowners will pay more and get less for their municipal tax dollars. Exactly how much more for how much less will be determined next week when council holds a special session to approve the city’s $6.4-billion operating budget and set the final property tax rate for 2002.But the 4.6 per cent hike recommended by council’s budget committee, and endorsed last week by Mayor Mel Lastman’s hand-picked policy and finance squad, appears destined to get the majority nod. Too many local politicians just can’t be bothered with the intricacies of number-crunching and will offer up their “yes” votes in order to put all the fiscal boredom behind them for another year.

But as this city sinks further and further into decline thanks to four years of municipal mismanagement made worse by provincial abuse and federal neglect, more and more residents are starting to ask exactly what their tax money is being used for if it isn’t to fix all the things that have gone wrong.

This helps explain why some councillors are increasingly saying the public would be more willing to accept increased levies on their homes if they were convinced the cash would be used to enrich life in Toronto.

“Do we have to descend to the level of American cities in the 70s before somebody does something about it?” asks Howard Moscoe, the councillor for Ward 15 (Eglinton-Lawrence). “Mel’s “city that works’ has hemorrhoids.”

Moscoe concedes that he must bear some responsibility for the mess Toronto’s in because, as a member of the former Metro council, he supported the provincially mandated amalgamation almost five years ago.

“I’m embarrassed and ashamed of the position I took,” the brash North Yorker says now. “What we got was one big megalopo-mess. We can no longer wait for Queen’s Park and Ottawa to come to their senses and help us out. We’ve got to start doing what we can to clean things up ourselves.”

Moscoe argues that since a majority of his colleagues seem resigned to a tax increase, they should bite the bullet and peg it one point above the 4.6 per cent advocated by the mayor and budget chief David Shiner. That, the political veteran maintains, would at least keep services at current levels. He maintains that a 6 per cent increase (last year it was 5 per cent) would actually see programs and services improve hereabouts.

The tax bill on an average city home assessed at $261,000 would then go up about $110 this year. But that’s only $25 more than the same homeowner would pay if council raised taxes by 4.6 per cent.

“People are going to get hit for a lot more than that with all the increases in user fees and permit charges that have been built into this budget,” Moscoe says. “Why go through the agony? People know they’re being screwed, and they’d much rather get screwed from the front than from behind.”

David Miller isn’t quite so graphic. But the councillor for Ward 13 (Parkdale-High Park) is hearing much the same thing from his constituents.

“The feedback I’m getting from my residents is that fees and service cuts are becoming much more of a problem for them than a tax increase,” he says. “I think people are beginning to understand that you get what you pay for. They see that the city is tattered, and they want it rejuvenated. But, as it is now proposed, all the 2002 budget does is continue to nibble away at the things that make Toronto a livable city.”

Although a formal alternative to the proposed budget hasn’t been fully articulated this year, a sizable segment of council — dominated by NDPers and fellow travellers from that middle-left region of Canuck liberalism — is ready to join Miller to vote against the budget next week unless its shortcomings are addressed.

They want more money restored to the hostel-counselling budget that provides critical services to the city’s homeless. They want to reduce or eliminate a $322 annual rent increase being passed on to parents with children in daycare centres located in Toronto schools. They want more dollars committed to traffic calming initiatives in busy city neighbourhoods, and assurances that school swimming pools won’t be closed for lack of funding while the cops get $2 million to hire computer consultants.

They want council to increase the subsidy for the Toronto Transit Commission beyond $154 million this year, in hopes of preventing another 15-cent fare increase that would push the cost of a monthly Metropass over the $100 threshold. That increase would surely drive many wavering transit patrons off buses and subways and into automobiles.

“Council is balancing its budget on the backs of the TTC rider,” protests Miller, a member of the financially challenged commission. “The net result will be that our air quality will decrease as traffic gridlock increases.”

Olivia Chow, a perennial member of the budget committee, is “totally opposed” to the financial document produced after less than two months of deliberation. “This will be the first time since amalgamation that I’m not supporting a budget,” the councillor for Ward 20 (Trinity-Spadina) says.

“All these user fee, permit and fare increases are just ridiculous. People are being double and triple taxed. It’s completely unnecessary.”

Chow says there’s cash to be had in supplementary tax revenue slated to come in after the budget is approved. Last year the extra tax take was budgeted as $10 million and came in at more than $35 million. This year, the estimated projected supplementary income is $15 million. But Chow insists a boom in local condominium and new home construction will see that figure more than double.

“The money is there, but they just don’t want to spend it on clean air or community health and safety initiatives,” she laments. Chow suggests she would support hiking taxes higher than proposed if it is the only way to protect threatened programs.

Kyle Rae, councillor for Ward 27 (Toronto Centre-Rosedale), is taking a similar stance. “Residents will accept a tax increase, but they expect to see services increased as well,’ he says. Rae figures a 5 per cent hike would be acceptable again this year. “We could have had an annual 2 per cent increase over the last five years if we hadn’t had the mayor’s illogical and damaging promise to freeze taxes.’

Jane Pitfield is another member of the budget committee who’s less than enthralled with what was accomplished between early January and late February. She says the way the committee went about shaving spending to reduce the tax increase from the 4.8 per cent originally proposed to the supposedly more acceptable 4.6 per cent bordered on the ridiculous.

The councillor for Ward 26 (Don Valley West) doesn’t believe any tax increase would be necessary if council had properly reformed its budget preparation process to reduce municipal bureaucrats’ power over it. “I think the staff are definitely in control here at City Hall,” Pitfield charges. “They prepare the budgets. They explain to the politicians what it all means. And then they spend the money.”

Pitfield says she plans to point out to council that departmental surpluses are routinely moved into reserves accounts to be used at the discretion of management when unforeseen financial needs arise.

She figures there’s now more than $100 million in those cash pools. Council should be on a mission “to track them down and sniff them out.”

It’s probably too late for the 2002 budget cycle, unfortunately. The tax bills have to be out there soon in case the entire civil service goes out on strike at the end of March. City of Toronto workers want a pay increase similar to the one council recently gave itself. But someone neglected to include money in the budget to make the municipal unions happy.

Chris Korwin-Kuczynski, the councillor for Ward 14 (Parkdale-High Park) offers yet another view in opposition to the proffered spending plan.

“I can’t support it because my people won’t stand for even a 4.6 per cent increase on their tax bill,” he says. “They can’t afford to pay it.”

As it happens, Korwin-Kuczynski’s ward borders David Miller’s, where we’ve learned residents are fast coming to the conclusion that they can’t afford not to pay more.

There’s nothing like a little irony at times like these.

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