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The last time I attended a city of Toronto public consultation on new "revenue tools," it did not go so well.
On May 17, 2007, in a hall beneath the North York Central Library, Mayor David Miller's attempt to obtain citizen buy-in for new taxes backfired in a spectacular way.
Livid attendees staged a coup, wrested control from staff and declared the meeting's premise invalid: the city did not have a revenue problem, they insisted. It had a spending problem.
NOW Magazine's Mike Smith reported at the time: "One young deputant stands at the North York meeting to say, ‘Taxes are an investment in a society that works.' People shake their heads, laugh."
That "young deputant" was me.
So when I trek out to the York Civic Centre at Keele and Eglinton on Monday, February 4, for the first Feeling Congested? consultation on new revenue tools for transit expansion, I anticipate a show. Maybe not quite so fierce, but still with notable bluster.
Led by new chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat and city manager Joe Pennachetti, the consultations see the city of Toronto once again presenting the public with a list of possible taxes for consideration.
But that's step two. The genius of this new campaign is that it subordinates the revenue tools to the things for which they will pay. It asks people to mull over and discuss their own transportation priorities, and only then figure out how to raise funds to make the discussed solutions a reality.
The structure of the argument is not the only thing that's changed in the last six years. We now have a mayoral administration that requires the same degree of convincing as those indignant North Yorkers. But, having borne witness to Ford's fruitlessness, we also have a citizenry more open to dealing with serious challenges in serious ways.
Transportation planning consultant Ian Druce explains the 14 suggested revenue tools to the crowd. "We are trying to raise approximately $2 billion a year. You will quickly figure out that none of [the tools] give you $2 billion a year. So in all likelihood, we'd be looking to come up with some sort of blend of options, which is why in the discussion guide we've asked you to circle the five you like the most. Or to put it a different way, the five you hate the least, depending on your view of the world."
But those who hate taxes on principle seem not to have shown up. Those in attendance are almost disturbingly well informed. If they take issue with the consultation's premise, it's because it doesn't go far enough: Why are these the only revenue tools on offer? Why aren't we discussing the federal government's abdication of any responsibility for coming up with a national transit strategy?
One vocal participant, graduate planning student James Nugent, is annoyed that the exercise isn't being conducted through a sufficient equity lens. The majority of the attendees are white and male, he points out, in an area that is significantly black and female. How does affordable housing figure into transportation schemes whose effect will likely involve gentrification?
Another conspicuous absence is that of Councillor Frank Di Giorgio. This is his ward. He is about to be anointed the city's new budget chief. This a massive project, tackling the most pressing problem facing Toronto in the near, medium and long terms. Provincial agency Metrolinx is going to propose new regional revenue tools no matter what, so the governing administration at City Hall should probably be listening to the public's input.
At 9 pm, I wander out into the cold York night and hop on the bus that in a few years will be replaced by a rapid transit line. Every corridor should be so lucky.