Toronto city manager leaving new financial plan in hands of next council

Toronto needs to raise billions of dollars to pay for transit projects and city services, but it will be up to a new city council to decide how to do that. The question is who's daring enough to run on a platform of raising taxes or fees.

City needs to raise revenue if it wants to keep services up, says Peter Wallace

Toronto's city manager says it will be up to the next council to decide how it will pay for services like housing, transit and anti-poverty measures. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Toronto needs to raise billions of dollars to pay for transit projects and city services, but it will be up to a new city council to decide how to do that.

The question is: who's daring enough to run on a platform of raising taxes or fees.

City Manager Peter Wallace, who will soon leave city hall for a job in Ottawa, released a long-term financial plan for Toronto this week that warns there's a growing gap between the services council wants to see and the cash to pay for it. The report's other key points are:

  • The city's reliance on the Municipal Land Transfer Tax and deferrals of known costs could put service delivery at risk in the future.
  • The city can keep looking for cost-saving and efficiencies, but it will need to modernize in order to find substantial savings.
  • The city continues to pay a "disproportionate share" of costs for things like housing and transit that benefit the entire region and needs better ways to seek funding from other levels of government.

Wallace's report, a key read for those interested in municipal politics, contains several options for improving the city's financial future, but doesn't recommend any specific measures.

City Manager Peter Wallace is leaving it up to the next city council to chart out Toronto's financial future. (John Rieti/CBC)

Ryerson University's Mitchell Kosny says voters should be asking any candidate who knocks on their door about their approach to these issues. 

"What do you want to do? Where do you want to go? And then how are you going to get there?" he said.

Kosny says good councillors should be able to articulate what they stand for. Further, he says, if Mayor John Tory doesn't have a high-profile opponent, then the timing may be right for him to ask taxpayers for more in order to build a better city. 

"Stand up and be larger than you are. Be leaders. And make some bloody tough decisions," said Kosny.

But he admits it's a risky proposition to ask the public for more money while also asking for their vote.

Torontonians feeling 'a pinch'

Amanda Galbraith, Tory's former spokesperson who's now with the communications firm Navigator, says talking taxes on voters' doorsteps is probably ill-advised.

"People feel kind of a pinch right now, I would say, and politicians are going to have to respond to it," she said.

She compares a politician simply running on raising taxes to a "kamikaze pilot," but suggests that Torontonians may be open to paying more if that money is being dedicated for transit infrastructure, building community centres or improving local parks.

"People only want to pay more for government when they see a real measurable return on that investment," Galbraith said.

Public consultations that led to Wallace's report suggest that's accurate. While more than half of those who provided input said they believe the city's in poor financial health, many said they would support spending so long as it's linked to the city's priorities.

Tory's executive committee will discuss Wallace's report next Monday. The mayor has opted to hold that meeting at the Scarborough Civic Centre.