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Royson James is on a Roll
Royson James is the Toronto Star's City Hall columnist. Although I have been suspicious of him since I was reminded that he was behind the Star's strong support of the megacity amalgamation, he tends to be pretty good. Recently he has been on a roll with several good columns. Two, in particular deliver a very strong message to the mayoral candidates -- one that amounts to, "if you're lucky enough to win this election, you're in big trouble." In the first, "Tax cut promises are nave", he takes us through the city treasurer's five-year fiscal plan to show that holding the line on taxes is going to take something like a miracle.
  • Toronto is spending $170 million this year to maintain roads and bridges, about $70 million short of what was needed and $145 million less than the annual average expected over the next decade.
  • TTC capital spending will cost an extra $100 million a year more than the current $252 million average now.
  • The city's debt is $1.3 billion and growing -- compared to Peel Region, for example, where there is no debt. Money to pay off the debt now consumes about 8 per cent of the property tax dollar. By 2005, the percentage will exceed council's 10 per cent limit.
  • This year, Toronto could only afford new debt for transit buses and trains and maintenance. That left Toronto up to $300 million short for other needs. That trend is expected to continue, unless there is a new source of money, such as the gasoline tax.
  • Water users can expect a 9 per cent annual water rate hike to generate an extra $400 million a year up to 2014. This is to upgrade crumbling water mains.
  • City's reserve funds rest at $362 per capita, much lower than other Ontario municipalities (which average $776 per capita).
  • Since amalgamation in 1998, apartment dwellers and businesses have had their property taxes frozen. Homeowners had a tax freeze for the first three years, but that was followed by hikes of 5 per cent, 4.3 per cent and 3 per cent.
  • Of the city's $7 billion budget, a third of the spending is mandated by the province. In other words, no mayor or city council can reduce the $2.3 billion spent on welfare, public health, hostels, children's services, long-term care and ambulances.
  • Police, transit, libraries, conservation, the zoo and a tiny sum for Exhibition Place account for 27 per cent of the budget, or $1.9 billion. Debt financing and other unavoidable costs use up 15 per cent, or $1 billion.
  • That means about a quarter of the budget, or $1.7 billion, is left for discretionary spending on items that council can cut. This includes money for the fire department, roads, parks and recreation, waste management, culture ($13.1 million), and about $32 million for community groups.
Not much room to cut. In fact, in his next column, James gives it to us square:"The truth is, property taxes are going up next year and every year in the foreseeable future. And you can bank on that. To add insult to injury, municipal services will be trimmed, squeezed, chopped and abandoned to deliver savings." Royson James wants one of the candidates to come clean and tell it like it is:
What's needed in this most important municipal election, still 19 weeks away, is a reality check. What if a mayoral candidate told us the truth? This is what you'd hear: More than a decade of budget cuts, a cumulative property tax hike of 18 per cent for homeowners, and service reductions have not been enough to cover the massive new costs dumped on Toronto by senior governments. Toronto needs a new funding deal and only Queen's Park has the legislative authority to deliver this. Without it, the past decade of decline will morph into another decade of devastation: not enough money to keep the trains running, the swimming pools open, the bridges repaired ... What if the would-be mayor said: "You can count on me to overturn every cupboard at city hall looking for savings, but the past decade of cuts and staff reductions suggests there aren't hundreds of millions of dollars available without radically altering the face of the city we love. "I won't preside over a declining city. That's why I commit myself to fight with every ounce of energy for a new deal for Toronto. "And if Queen's Park continues to turn a deaf ear to the pleas from the city, from the board of trade, from bankers and CEOs and labour leaders and a broad alliance of civic leaders to give Toronto new fiscal tools, I invite you to please change the government. "Failing that, and it's a privilege only you can exercise, we must face the alternative of property tax increases or turning Toronto into a shell of its former self. "Which do you want? I want municipal government efficiency and a new deal from Queen's Park. I don't want property tax increases year after year. But faced with tax hikes or closed swimming pools and fewer cops on the street and no grants to cultural and community groups and fewer public health inspectors, I choose moderate tax hikes to tide us over until we get a new provincial government that will listen to our just demands and well-documented needs."
So far, none of the candidates have said anything like this. However, John Tory and David Miller have said similar (but less direct things). John Nunziata and Tom Jakobek believe they can bring in miracle budgets and find tremendous savings. I'm still waiting to hear what Barbara Hall plans. P.s., Happy Canada Day!

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