To the detriment of language, lawns and idealism everywhere, another election begins. Toronto will be a key race; it should be a key issue as well.
The October 10 provincial vote lands in the midst of civic disarray: a council revolt over service cuts, a push for a new tax package , and a potential half-billion-dollar shortfall driven largely by mandated services downloaded by the Tories.
According to a 2002 Board of Trade study, we pay $1.4 billion more in taxes to Ontario than we get back. That gap has closed by between 300 and 600 mil, but the neglect remains.
Timing, as they say, is everything. Here, then, is your election issues primer all the stuff you need to ask about when candidates come knocking. Use it.
A BETTER WAY Way back, Ontario used to cover half the city's TTC subsidy (the portion of the operating budget not covered by fares). Toronto's share of provincial gas tax revenues , earmarked for transit ($150 million), paid about half, but that deal expires this year. It needs to be extended and enriched, or replaced by some other sustainable source of revenue. But the province could also make it easier to spend what money there is. Capital projects go through environmental assessments, and TTC chair Councillor Adam Giambrone says these should be made simpler for non-subway projects, citing delays on St. Clair as an example.
"Really, all we did was replace some track and put a curb up around it," so why did it need such an extensive process? He also worries that the Transit City light rail network could get bogged down. "Without change, it will take us years to do each line."
Changes to the EA Act wouldn't just give the city more freedom to plan its own transit, but would also acknowledge that light rail is poised to join the subway as a mode of mass transit.
NOT A CAPITAL IDEA And while the Liberals' Spadina subway extension to Vaughan may sound like transit funding, it's really just getting Toronto to subsidize sprawl - and a Lib trophy in Tory-land. When you add capital projects, operating costs increase. Unfortunately, the optics of long-term incremental funding agreements just aren't as sexy as one-shot media blitzes. "Instead of having public policy, we have announcement-itis," says Councillor Gord Perks. "And that has undermined Toronto's ability to plan for transit."
We need more operating bucks hundreds of millions of them from the province. But if pols are itching for a ribbon-cutting, there are places to start other than a subway.
HOMES, NOT SUBWAYS "We have an enormous backlogged need for affordable housing and consider it a minor miracle around here when we get 29 units built," says Perks. "The city of Montreal, from its budget, is building new rooming houses; they get reliable funding from other orders of government to build affordable housing." Of course, any new public housing needs provincial backing and has to come with a formula to cover operating costs as well. Add to this funding for rent supplements and supportive programs.
SOCIAL SERVICES In fact, a whole range of supportive services that create a safety net for people and the economy, as well as defraying costs of policing and other services, need uploading. The province recently loosened the criteria for daycare subsidies, but since Toronto administers daycare and has a capital backlog, they left the job half-finished . "The problem is that without more money, all that does is create a longer waiting list," says Councillor Janet Davis. "The list is longer, it's costing us more, and we are nowhere near meeting the demand."
Ontario also continues to claw back federal National Child Benefit dollars , taking them from eligible parents and adding them to provincial revenues. This practice will be only partially phased out by 2011 too little too late.
A CLEAN WATERFRONT But the province refuses altogether to phase out dirty energy. "[With the Portlands Energy Centre,] they've proven they"re not on the same page as Toronto," says Councillor Paula Fletcher. "With talk of a minority government, I think the bright minds who talk about energy will want to have another look at this huge monstrosity." Less public are plans to run a third transmission line from Bruce nuclear plant through the Don Valley. Perks says this is the wrong direction. "The city is investing, through Toronto Hydro and provincial funds we apply for, in a green energy strategy. If the province got off the nuclear bandwagon, the city would be able to access that money and make a massive investment in green energy."
START PLANNING TO PLAN Better regional planning, starting with real greenbelt protection, would also be an eco-logical choice. This includes regional transit , but Giambrone points out that it could do harm if not done well. "There hasn't been an increase of cars coming into the downtown since the 80s," he tells me. "GO has been a major influence on how we've built out, but it's also allowed sprawl. A hundred years ago, a lot of small towns were essentially self-sustaining. Now you're up to Stratford in the new mega-region of Toronto, and that's problematic." The city could also use some autonomy when it comes to the Ontario Building Code, which makes greywater systems, solar panels and ground-source heating tricky to approve at all, when the planning department should really be making them mandatory.
And, of course, we can't forget everyone's favourite dinosaur, the Ontario Muncipial Board, whose decisions consistently show disregard for both Toronto's Official Plan and for communities' visions for their neighbourhoods. Not only does the OMB's eagerness to overrule make councillors unaccountable for their own planning decisions, but it drains city resources by tying up staff for months at appeals. Get local candidates committed to its demise.
THIS IS WHAT BUREAUCRACY LOOKS LIKE Budget problems are due in part to growing staff costs, and too much staff time is going into appealing or administering provincial decisions and programs. Then, too, you need a forensic accountant to figure out how to access cash from higher levels of government. "We scramble around in meetings trying to figure out whether we're eligible for the $25 million that makes or breaks us from some obscure program," says Perks. "You can't find another city in North America that's scrambling the way we are to stitch together bits and pieces of programs not even to make the city livable, but to prevent further deterioration."
In sum, make sure the eager candidate at your door gets an earful.