No gravy left

This year is a chance for Toronto to reconsider its civic philosophy — and students can help make it happen

It’s budget season in Canada and in quick succession from February to April, Canadians will learn how representatives from all three levels of government will spend their tax dollars for the coming year.

Perhaps the most dramatic of budget deliberations began last week at City Hall. Mayor John Tory’s proposed budget, released late last year, calls for a two per cent property tax increase to match the rate of inflation and for all city departments to reduce 2.6 per cent from their operating budgets.

Flickering into the spotlight for the first time last week when decorated Olympic swimmer Penny Oleksiak called out proposed cuts that would lead to the closure of public pools, the budget now faces a barrage of opposition from citizen groups.

Since Tory’s tenure began in 2014, he has kept property tax increases at the rate of inflation, in accordance with a key election promise. From 2015–2017, however, user fees have gone from funding five per cent to eight per cent of the city’s budget. By some estimates, the average family will pay approximately $670 a year more in user fees under the proposed 2017 budget, in order to cover increases in the cost of recreation programs, summer camps, garbage collection, and childcare.

This brings the city to an ideological impasse and should cause each Torontonian to consider to what extent the burden of paying for services that are traditionally concentrated on low-income families — should be shared. Meanwhile, with a $91 million shortfall still expected, the City Manager has noted that Toronto no longer has a spending problem but rather a revenue one.

It is thus time for Torontonians to realize that the gravy boat at City Hall is empty, and that it is time to start spending to protect the integrity of the city’s middle and working class services. U of T students, as both stakeholders in Toronto budgeting decisions and potential advocates for social and economic change, are faced with the opportunity to take on this challenge.

Notable slashes to the Toronto budget for 2017 include service reductions and fee increases for city-run childcare centres, park and recreation programs, and the TTC. A total of 350 child care centres are scheduled to lose city funding in 2017, raising the cost of daycare by $351 per child annually. A 10 per cent increase in the cost of sports and fitness programs means that it will cost around an additional $2 per class at the city’s community centres, while budget reductions will close 36 city wading pools and 10 indoor pools and reduce turf maintenance by 33 per cent.

Although students have access to some social and recreational services through the university, they undoubtedly benefit from access to city services as well. Mature students with childcare needs may bear the brunt of increased costs should the budget be slashed in this area.

In addition, the TTC is currently the most poorly subsidized transit system in North America. Now, fares are set to increase for the sixth year in a row — beyond the rate of inflation. The price of tokens and Presto fares will increase by 10 cents and monthly Metropasses by $4.75. For any third-year University of Toronto student commuting to school on a Post-Secondary Metropass, the cost of transit for an academic year has increased by $70 since they first began university.

As usual, the real pinch will be felt by the city’s most economically marginalized residents — some of whom are students as well. In December, a panel of experts from Ryerson University, U of T, Social Planning Toronto, the Fred Victor Centre, and the United Way concluded that a 2.6 per cent reduction to all city budgets “disproportionately” impacts low-income residents.

Mindful of this, the Shelter, Support & Housing budget is under review to shrink its budget by nearly $28 million to close the city’s $91 million gap. This would include homeless prevention services — which offer interest-free loans to people facing eviction and support services to residents facing homelessness — losing over $18 million in funding. As city staff notes, “withdrawal of these services may result in additional homelessness,” perhaps pushing more residents into the city’s shelter services, which are already operating at 90 per cent capacity on a daily basis.

A total of $4 million would also be reduced from the Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) budget despite increased maintenance costs due to rising hydro fees; 1,921 TCHC units would also be closed and replaced with affordable-rent homes.

A sore point for many anti-poverty activists, affordable-rent homes set rent prices based on average rent costs in the city — and are therefore not especially affordable to those living in poverty.

On the other hand, a welcome change comes with respect to the largest single item in the budget: the Toronto Police Service (TPS). The TPS budget reached over $1 billion last year, despite the fact that Toronto is considered one of the 10 safest major cities in the world according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Safe Cities Index.

Chief Mark Saunders has committed to reducing the budget for the first time in 10 years, despite pushback from the Toronto Police Association. This money can be redirected towards a long list of programs and services approved by council that have yet to receive financing — including a proposal to expand the student immunization program, create 75 new subsidized childcare spaces, extend public library hours, and hire additional city planners.

Toronto’s 2017 budget presents all Torontonians with an opportunity to consider their civic philosophy. Contributing more in taxes instead of service fees propels a greater philosophy of helping one’s neighbour — creating a more equitable and sociable society.

Budget deputants at the municipal level are often the most vocal, publicized, and evidently listened to of all participants involved in the budget process in Canada — meaning that Torontonians have a realistic chance of changing the narrative and the trajectory of their city for years to come.

Furthermore, U of T and Toronto at large boast strong coalitions of student advocacy groups dedicated to raising the minimum wage, making university affordable, and forcing governments to commit to sustainable development. It would not be a stretch for such groups to focus on fighting inequality within the city itself.

James Chapman is a second-year student at Innis College studying Political Science and Urban Studies.

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