The city’s $13.53-billion operating budget is balanced, senior staff told a packed committee room at city hall on Friday.
But that balancing act is precarious at best with $77 million relied upon from the federal government to help pay for refugee-related services. That money has yet to be promised by Ottawa.
This is the second effort by staff to put together what they say is a balanced budget without funding promises in place from the federal government. Last year, council approved a “balanced” budget with a $45-million request to the federal government and $34 million in additional unidentified cuts.
Friday’s budget launch is the start to a long process that will see the budget debated and amended over the next month at various committees and council. The final approval at council takes place Feb. 19.
While Mayor John Tory’s administration stressed it will keep the property tax hike to roughly the rate of inflation, that 2 per cent boost recommended by staff will come on top of a major tax hike approved last month by city council to help Toronto cope with major transit and public housing costs.
That increase to the city building fund — 8 per cent over the next six years — was championed by Tory. The fund, created in 2017, will rise by an additional 1 per cent in both 2020 and 2021, followed by annual 1.5-per-cent hikes through 2025. The revenue will leverage $6.6 billion in borrowed funds to invest in transit and housing projects now.
With the total 1.5 per cent property tax increase for the city building fund in 2020 and other adjustments, the total residential property tax increase would be 4.24 per cent this year if this initial budget was approved.
That works out to $128 more for the average homeowner, with a home assessed at $703,232, and a total property tax bill of $3,141.
Some councillors, however, say that increase is not enough.
Coun. Ana Bailao (Ward 9 Davenport), a member of Tory’s executive as well as his hand-picked housing advocate, says she will push council to commit to introduction of a vacant home tax and an increased municipal land transfer tax on luxury homes in 2020 to help the city raise badly needed revenues for housing programs in the midst of an ongoing crisis.
“This situation is very serious and needs urgent action and I think that we need to look at everything and anything that can assist with the situation,” Bailao told the Star this week. Tory said Thursday he is in favour of a vacant home tax “in principle” subject to a pending staff study and believes it could be implemented relatively quickly. He has previously been dismissive of the municipal land transfer tax proposal.
A new report, from advocacy group Social Planning Toronto, argues that a decade of austerity budgets at city hall has cost Toronto greatly when it comes to transit, housing and child care.
The staff-recommended budget includes $67 million in “new” investments, several of which are not funded by the city but funds from outside sources.
However, one unexpected addition in city spending is the $929,600 to build 10 new dedicated youth spaces in existing community and recreation centres over three years. Additional funding will need to be approved in 2021 ($545,700) and 2022 ($582,300) to build all the new spaces.
That comes after Coun. Josh Matlow (Ward 12 Toronto-St. Paul’s) pushed to double the number of available youth spaces — dedicated spaces in existing city buildings, including libraries, that provide mentorship, homework help, snacks and other programs after school — in response to ongoing and escalating violence.
City data has shown the existing hubs in libraries have been wildly popular. Matlow argued that long-accepted research on the roots of youth violence demanded the city improve the accessibility to such safe spaces for youth across the city. The funding is largely needed for staffing.
A statement from Tory on Friday following the initial presentation of the budget specifically addressed the need to invest in programs that help address the roots of youth violence.
“While the budget invests an additional $18.6 million in poverty reduction and addressing the roots of violence, I firmly believe that we must go further in investing in kids and families, especially as it relates to the threat posed by escalating gun violence,” his statement said. “In consultation with the budget chief and our council colleagues, I will be leading an effort to ensure that we find a way to make additional investments in kids and families and addressing the root causes of violence as the budget approval process proceeds.”
There are other initiatives left out of this staff-recommended budget.
That includes $5.1 million this year to implement Toronto Public Library’s Open Hours plan — a comprehensive strategy to increase hours at branches across the city, focusing on neighbourhoods most challenged by poverty, violence and other systemic factors. Library staff, approved by their board, have repeatedly tried to see the plan funded at council without success.
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In all, staff identified some $9.6 million in new funding requests that are not included in the staff-recommended budget.
Council earlier approved increases for homeowners’ trash collection and water service.
Last March, Tory and council approved tax hikes totalling 3.58 per cent — 2.55 per cent plus the building fund for transit and housing projects. That added an extra $104 for a total bill of $3,020 of a then-average $665,605 home.
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