Taxpayers or investors? A radical concept for Toronto

toronto-taxpayers
Accustomed to being treated as children, pampered and primped, Toronto voters won’t all be thrilled about the idea of being forced to grow up, writes Christopher Hume. (Source: Stephan Hochhaus)

Long before it began, expectations for 2017 were low. After the last 12 months, which were a genuine annus horribilus, the focus was more on the end of 2016, not the start of the new year.

Who can blame us? Has there ever been so little to look forward to? With Narcissist-Elect Donald Trump about to become leader of the free world and his Russian puppet master Vladimir Putin firmly in control, prospects aren’t great. The sorts of things that preoccupy us here in Toronto — housing prices, parking, property taxes, congestion and bike lane creep — seem insignificant in the face of such unrelieved awfulness.

But no issue is too small for Mayor John Tory and Toronto city council. Whether it’s cutting down a private tree, approving underpass murals or spending $3.5 billion on a one-stop subway line, our elected representatives are hard at work on our behalf, making the tough decisions the rest of us would rather avoid.

Certainly, 2017 won’t be easy for Toronto; it comes with a $91-million operating deficit and $33 billion in unfunded capital projects. Though council still officially maintains the fiction that there are “efficiencies” to be found at city hall, that’s more a reflection of lack of imagination than observable reality. Council’s fear of raising taxes continues unabated, but prodded by a desperate Tory, council did agree to explore tolls for the Don Valley Parkway and the Gardiner Expressway. But they wouldn’t be applied until 2021, so far in the future they seem less than pressing.

Unfortunately, Toronto needs the money now. The big challenge for council won’t be just to raise revenues, but to reframe its relationship with voters.

Currently, councillors view the electorate as a large amorphous beast, slow off the mark but quick to anger and although ever demanding, unwilling to pay the price. Traditionally, Toronto politicians have played along with residents, letting them believe they can have it all and that Daddy will never say no. Problem is, of course, they can’t.

As the gap between what we want and what we can afford grows wider, residents become increasingly frustrated.
But who’s willing to take that first painful step toward honesty, if not maturity? When will that long-delayed “adult conversation” finally occur?

Road tolls were a move in the right direction, but let’s be frank, too little and a bit too late. Though they seem radical in a city 30 years behind the advanced world, they’re anything but.

peter-wallace
Peter Wallace, Toronto’s city manager

Perhaps as city manager Peter Wallace told councillors at their last meeting of 2016, council must learn “to treat taxpayers as investors.” Again, this will seem a radical notion at first. Accustomed to being treated as children, pampered and primped, voters won’t all be thrilled about the idea of being forced to grow up. For councillors, such a demand will be terrifying. The ward system makes the city its personal playground.

But Wallace was adamant. “We’ve got to show them the dividends,” he argued. In other words, he was telling councillors, their task is to convince Torontonians that it’s worth spending money on Toronto. The better the city does, the better we do. That would be obvious in most cities, but not here.

Last year, residents of Los Angeles, aka Car City, voted to raise their taxes to pay for public transit. Meanwhile, every post-amalgamation mayor except David Miller has reinforced the notion that city hall is the enemy, that it’s out to waste our money and rip us off. The anti-public-sector rhetoric reached a crescendo under Rob Ford but it can still be heard loud and clear today. It appeals to our most selfish instincts and makes no claim to anything more elevated than Not In My Back Yard.

At a time when trust in government is so low Ford was elected mayor, we need leaders willing to fight to restore confidence in public enterprise and the notion of the collective good, indeed, in civil society itself. In effect, Wallace’s enlightened suggestion was that we start the process by changing the culture of Toronto and asking residents to take more responsibility for the city that gives them at least as much as it takes. Rather than simply paying taxes that leaders have told us again and again simply disappear into some abstract general revenue fund, he proposed Torontonians reframe these demands as “investments” in projects that will generate prosperity and enhance quality of life.

But before anyone buys into that idea, they need to know their investment will pay off, that the benefits are real. Even at the best of times, that’s a hard sell. These days it might even be impossible.

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