The last time I attended a City of Toronto public consultation on new "revenue tools," it did not go so well.
On Thursday, 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 to be invalid: the City did not have a revenue problem, they insisted; it had a spending problem.
"The city needs to slow down and listen," NOW Magazine's Mike Smith wrote at the time. "The tax warriors need to shut up and listen. And councillors need to spend lots of time explaining what the hell taxes are. 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. What is it that they think pays for services?"
The "young deputant" was me, and I took being booed by a roomful of conservatives as a badge of pride.
So when I trekked out to the York Civic Centre at Keele and Eglinton on Monday, February 4, I anticipated a show - maybe not something quite so fierce but still with notable bluster. Led by new Chief Planner Jennifer Keesmaat and City Manager Joe Pennachetti, the City of Toronto is once again presenting the public with a list of possible taxes for consideration.
But that's step two.
The genius of the new Feeling Congested? engagement initiative is that it subordinates the revenue tools to the things for which they will pay: in this case, transit. It has people mull over and discuss their own transportation priorities, and only then figure out how to raise funds to make such solutions a reality.
In 2007, Pennachetti (then the City's CFO) was the person trotted out to bear the brunt of the public's anger. He learned the hard way that taxes are not generally palatable as abstracts, but may be swallowed if put forward as inextricable from concrete objectives.
Certainly, the structure of the argument is not the only thing that has 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 explained the 14 suggested revenue tools to the crowd, "keeping in mind, we are trying to raise approximately $2 billion a year. Those of you in the room will quickly figure out that actually none of them give you 2 billion a year, at least none of them as stated. 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 that 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 by default seemed not to have shown up that night.
The people who did come out to this Feeling Congested meeting are almost disturbingly well informed. If they took 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?
(Because you are surely wondering, the 14 listed revenue tools are: a personal income tax, a sales tax, a payroll tax, a dedicated increase to property taxes, a parking levy, a dedicated increase to the land transfer tax, a fuel tax, a vehicle registration tax, highway tolls, high-occupancy toll lanes on regional highways, a central-area congestion levy, increases to development charges, a value capture levy and a utility bill levy. [pdf, page 2])
One vocal participant, graduate planning student James Nugent, was annoyed that the exercise isn't being conducted through a sufficient equity lens. The majority of the attendees were white and male, he points out, in an area that is significantly black and female. How does affordable housing figure in to transportation schemes whose effect will likely involve gentrification?
Another conspicuous absence was 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 that's facing Toronto in the near, medium and long terms. Provincial agency Metrolinx is going to be proposing new regional revenue tools no matter what, and so the governing administration at City Hall should probably have been listening to the public's input.
The following afternoon on CBC's Here And Now, Di Giorgio is asked for his thoughts on new taxes and fees for transit expansion. His complete response is as follows:
Well, I think it's the start of a process where we will try and engage people to see what are some of the options. I personally will not be supportive of a lot of the tax increases that will come forward as potential tax increases to pay for transportation. I think that we've got to look to a revitalized economy to help us generate the necessary funds to address our transportation issues. Remember that we may not have the economy that you need to deliver the high-quality services that Torontonians believe they should have. And Torontonians are emotionally attached to the city that they live in, and they expect high-quality services. But unless you have the economy in place to deliver the necessary funds, to make the necessary funds available to deliver those services, then you start runnin' into problems. Then you get into, you know, your structural deficit and havin' to borrow money - all those things that create problems further down the line. So a large part of the budgetary process from the City's perspective, as far as I'm concerned, is to acknowledge that, look, you cannot move at the rate that you think you can move at, in terms of generating all these improved transit services. Okay. It takes a lot longer to do than what people might, you know, lead you to believe. And if congestion is something that we have to live with in the short term, we have to look at alternative ways of easing the congestion.
To which host Gill Deacon replied, "Okay."
Upcoming Feeling Congested public meetings
Scarborough Wednesday, Feb. 6, at 4:00-6:30 pm and 6:30-9:00 pm. Scarborough Civic Centre, Council Chamber / Foyer, 150 Borough Drive.
North York Monday, Feb. 11, at 4:00-6:30 pm and 6:30-9:00 pm. North York Civic Centre, Members Lounge / Foyer, 5100 Yonge Street.
Toronto and East York Wednesday, Feb. 13, at 4:00-6:30 pm and 6:30-9:00 pm. City Hall, Main Floor Foyer, 100 Queen Street West.