Toronto’s upcoming byelection could be looked at as a referendum on the city’s tax rates moving forward as much as it is about choosing its next leader, and therein lies the question: maintain the status quo or increase rates?
Several candidates have pledged to continue carrying the torch of tax increases at the rate of inflation, a move John Tory had pledged to forge ahead with before his sudden departure.
Several others argue the city is at a breaking point, with the threat of crumbling infrastructure and service cuts. Josh Matlow, Olivia Chow and Mitzie Hunter are all pitching modest increases to the tax rate to fund various spending plans.
The city’s financial struggles have been well documented, as upper levels of government have refused to pledge the final support Toronto official were banking on in the last budget process.
City council voted in favour of including a note on this year’s property tax bills, blaming the increase in rate on the federal government’s lack of pandemic bailout funds, despite assurances in the last election it would do so.
Many city leaders have pointed their fingers at upper levels of government, but at last week’s TVO/Toronto Region Board of Trade debate, Matlow argued the solution should come from within.
“We cannot just wait for Doug Ford to come and bail us out and save us,” said Matlow. “There’s no evidence he’s going to do that.”
Enid Slack, director of the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance at the University of Toronto’s School of Cities, said there is evidence that years of tax increases at the rate of inflation haven’t been enough.
“We have had taxes at or less than the rate of inflation since amalgamation in 1998,” said Slack, pointing to zero-per cent increases in the first three years following Toronto’s amalgamation.
“I think the result has been we’ve seen deteriorating infrastructure and that’s getting worse,” she said.
The Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation is urging candidates not to include plans to raise taxes, accusing the city of spending well beyond its means.
Its Ontario director, Jay Goldberg, said whatever the direction candidates choose, they need to be clear with their intentions to voters. “The city’s budget is rather transparent,” he said, adding that he doesn’t buy the argument put forward by some candidates that they don’t know what’s going on with the city’s books.
“Do your homework, look at the budget that was just passed, look at what’s gone on over the past few years, and provide some details,” Goldberg said.
“If you’re going to raise taxes, say so. If you’re going to keep taxes at a reasonable level, explain how you’re going to do that,” he said