Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Whoops! Toronto had an election that overlooked the city’s giant budget gap

By: Metro Canada Published on Fri Jan 30 2015

It should have been the question of the campaign.

Every leading mayoral candidate at every debate should have been asked about it. And every leading mayoral candidate should have been expected to come forward with a plan — a realistic one.

It's too late now, of course. But let's ask anyway.

In 2013 the provincial government announced they’d be phasing out $150-million in payments to the City of Toronto for social housing programs. In 2014, under Mayor Rob Ford, the city avoided dealing with this problem, creating an $86-million hole in the 2015 budget. So, hotshot mayoral candidate, what’s your plan to deal with this?

Because without a plan to balance the books, all other campaign planks become effectively irrelevant.

Instead, Toronto had a mayoral campaign — a ridiculously long, repetitive, soul-sucking mayoral campaign — where this giant, obvious, blatant, foreseeable problem was never really addressed. It was pushed aside in favour of endless promises to keep property taxes at or below the rate of inflation, even though the numbers never even came close to adding up.

The rare times candidates were asked to talk specifically about Toronto’s finances, they punted.

He then pivoted to the same conservative talking points he brought up over the rest of the campaign. The city has too many real estate departments. Contracting out garbage collection of east of Yonge Street will save money. He did not mention that both solutions — if they’re indeed solutions at all — could not be implemented before the 2015 budget.

His opponents didn't do better. Rob Ford, and eventually brother Doug Ford, offered no workable budget strategies, though who would expect them to? Olivia Chow, who was supposed to offer an alternative, gave us much of the same. When I asked her about the budget, she touted her record on Mayor Mel Lastman’s budget committee where taxes were kept low. To her credit, she was at least in favour of returning to the Scarborough LRT plan, which would have helped the city’s budget position.

None of them even came close to acknowledging that the problem is dire enough for the city to consider taking a loan to balance the budget.

It’s enormously frustrating to look back at the mayoral campaign in the context of this budget issue and realize how little it was talked about.

It’s as if we had a team of architects come in and show off their flashy redesign plans for a building, but none of them bothered to mention that the building in question has leaky windows, a cracked foundation. And is also currently on fire.

Tory’s new proposed solution to the 2015 budget gap, announced Thursday, isn’t terrible. It’s certainly preferable to many of the alternatives I laid out earlier this week. It’s the equivalent of a household, struck by a sudden decrease in income, deciding to take major purchases they were going to pay for with cash and instead put them on a credit card. Going forward, the idea will be to pay off that credit card with ongoing budget adjustments — by lowering costs in some areas, and increasing revenues in others.

It’s an acceptable solution, more or less. But what’s unacceptable is the entirely haphazard way in which this budget came together, where politicians who had the numbers long beforehand made it seem they were blindsided by something as simple as basic math.

Every person running for mayor should have known this budget gap was coming. There was a year-long campaign with a thousand opportunities to talk about it.

Instead Toronto's obvious budget problem was buried under a snug layer of feel-good promises. Talk about waste and inefficiency.

This post was originally published at on 2015-01-30T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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