Years of 'austerity budgets' keeping Toronto in state of disrepair, critics say

If city council wants to reverse years of "austerity budgets" that have contributed to an almost $10-billion backlog in service maintenance and repairs, critics say it needs to find ways to generate more money, even if it means asking residents to chip in more than what's comfortable.

Toronto is short almost $10 billion on service maintenance. Why critics want change in this year's budget

Critics are calling on Toronto's city council to properly address billions of dollars backlogged in the city's maintenance system in the 2023 budget. (David Donnelly/CBC)

The City of Toronto is grappling with a multibillion-dollar backlog in maintaining its own services — something critics say is a years-long problem that's largely of its own doing.

And if it wants to reverse the trend, they say city council and Mayor John Tory need to find ways to generate more money, even if it means asking residents to chip in more than what's comfortable.

"It has been quite a number of years of effectively austerity budgets in Toronto and people are starting to notice," said resident James McLeod, the co-creator of a satirical public art project AusterityTO.

The art called attention to blocked bicycle lanes, worn-down roads and out-of-service garbage bins during the recent municipal election — things many residents signalled it wanted the next city council to tackle. 

"The fact that we're locked in on this course is a real problem, and kind of steering in a different direction before the frustration hits a fever pitch across the board, I think, is something that Council should really be thinking more about." 

The City of Toronto is currently short $9.5 billion in maintaining its infrastructure and public spaces — something it calls a state-of-good-repair (SOGR) backlog — used to deliver 150 services including garbage collection, repairing potholes and recreational programs.

The city says $24 billion will go toward tackling the backlog — about half its total capital spending budget for the next decade. Still, the backlog is expected to almost double to $18.8 billion in 2032, with transportation services and the TTC set to take the biggest hits.

Two men stand behind a broken water fountain.
James McCleod, left, and Tom Ruhig, right, are pictured at a defunct drinking fountain outside Toronto's city hall. The fountain is one of several installations the pair created as part of their the AusterityTO public art project, which calls attention to what they see as the city's declining infrastructure and public amenities. (Linda Ward/CBC)

At the time of the budget unveiling on Tuesday, Tory said his budget is serving residents right by maintaining frontline services, keeping property taxes low and applying any money leftover to priority areas like housing and transportation. He notes the differences between the process in his eight prior budgets and this one are "very, very few and very small."

Who foots the bill?

To help address the backlog, the city is raising property taxes by 5.5 per cent and increasing its City Building Fund, meaning the average homeowner is expected to foot a little over $230 more a year. 

But for University of Toronto professor and Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Infrastructure Shoshanna Saxe, it's not enough to make up for years of inadequate property tax raises and cutting out extra expenses to make due.

"Toronto has been cutting the fat and looking for efficiencies for a long time. We're well past that," said Saxe.

Saxe is the daughter of Ward 11 coun. Diane Saxe.

Saxe says Toronto can catch up faster by increasing property taxes above inflation and applying car registration fees or parking levies for commercial lots. It might sting for residents in the short-term, particularly those already struggling to get by, but it's better for the collective public, she says. 

"It's much, much cheaper for us all to put a little bit more into the city and have better public services than to try and replace them ourselves," said Saxe.

City to reduce SOGR backlog, Tory to advocate for more funding

In a statement to CBC Toronto the city said Saturday it's planning a review of remaining challenges, and finding ways to increase investments and reduce the SOGR backlog.

However, the city says the backlog has been impacted by COVID-19 funding gaps, supply chain issues, cost escalations and labour shortages. This year, the city is short $1.4 billion due to COVID-19 related impacts alone, and needs help from Ontario and the Canadian government to continue delivering service.

Mayor John Tory's executive committee has asked city staff to take another look at the proposed fees for restaurants to participate in the CafeTO program. Staff now have a week to report back ahead of a full council meeting in February.
Toronto Mayor John Tory says his 2023 budget has very few differences compared to the past eight years-worth of budgets he helped craft. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Tory pointed out Tuesday that the city's shortfall is partly a result of a "completely outdated" way cities get financed, which is largely through property taxes and not enough from provincial and federal government.

"I think we just can't go on this way," said Tory. "I'm going to take it up as a project that's very important to me ... in the remaining time that I have as mayor."

Residents can provide their input to the budget committee on Tuesday and Wednesday. The budget is set to be considered by council in February.

With files from Clara Pasieka and Derick Deonarain