Toronto’s budget: we have a role

By Patrick Hunter Wednesday January 28 2015 in Opinion
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By PATRICK HUNTER

 

And so begins the quasi-tumultuous period in Toronto’s history – an annual recurrence – the debate over the City’s budget. What goes in, what stays in, what’s missing – these are some of the points that will hold the attention of the councillors and some members of the public over the next few weeks.

 

Note that I said: “some members of the public”. One gets the sense that the majority of the public does not get involved in the debate, at the very least. Or, they couldn’t care any less, at most, until the discussion around what measures will be undertaken to raise the funds to cover the increases in expenditure. Yes – new or increased taxes.

 

The proposed budget has been out now for a week or so and public hearings are about to begin. The first opportunity for the public to make a presentation to the budget committee will be at City Hall on February 2. This is where you, or I, as an individual or on behalf of an organization, can make a five-minute pitch to change, amend and or otherwise critique the budget. You can also make written submissions if you like.

 

Okay, so why should I care? They are politicians and they will do whatever they feel like doing anyway, while going through the motions of pretending that they are listening to you. Besides, I am just one person. What can I bring to the table that they haven’t yet heard or thought of?

 

Well, there are a couple of principles here that are worth bearing in mind. Yes, it is possible that they may have heard the issue or issues that you wish to focus on but sometimes you, the individual, bring a side of the story to the table – based on your own lived experience – that may hone in on a key element of the discussions that may have been overlooked before.

 

Shot in the dark, I know, but sometimes it works. If your argument manages to convince enough councillors, the matter could go further.

 

Another principle is: It’s my money they’re messing around with. I can have a say, and I feel I have something to say, about how it’s spent.

 

One thing about this opportunity as well is that you do not have to be a citizen to make a presentation. This is one of those quirks of our version of democracy. You cannot vote because you are not a citizen, but you can provide input in this crucial exercise of policy and program direction – your tax money at work.

 

There are basically two budgets. One is the annual operating budget – this year $11.2 billion. The other is the capital budget and plan, which includes capital expenditures over the next10 years. This, I suspect would include infrastructural upgrades and expansion – like replacing the old pipes that carry water to you home. That is $28.7 billion.

 

An important thing to remember here is that, not only is this the proposed budget, it has to be balanced. In other words, by law, the City is not allowed deficit financing. Whatever they spend, is what they have – or expect to get – from all the sources of revenue the City has. That means your property taxes and various other revenue sources that the City can directly put in place; provincial and federal contributions (again your taxes) that these two levels of government agree to provide in support of policies and programs.

 

This budget proposes a 2.25 per cent increase in property taxes. Are you surprised? Let’s face it: the property tax is the single most dependable source of income the City has. The costs of what the City provides – social programs, transportation, policing, sewer and road repairs – all that stuff increases year over year. If these things are not looked after, we will complain. Expectations have to be fulfilled. Fulfillment costs.

 

According to the proposed budget, it will provide about 34 per cent of its revenue. While the City can fiddle with user fees, fines and other tools, there are limits.

 

Right now, this proposed budget anticipates an increase in the amount of transfer payments from the Province. Early indicators are that the Province is not buying it. It has talked about providing a line of credit – essentially a loan – to cover the amount that they are prepared to give to the City and what the City is hoping to get.

 

At the end of the day, when all the haggling and give and take is over, we will have a better sense of where we stand, and where the money is going. We may not be satisfied with everything that has been finalized, and it will mean a little less spending or saving for us as individuals. But, we can only hope that our pot-holed roads will be repaired, our transit system becomes more dependable, our garbage gets picked up and the police do their job to serve and protect.

 

Email: patrick.hunter11@gmail.com / Twitter: @pghntr

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