Archived columns and blog posts by Matt Elliott

Toronto's broken funding model, and why it has to go

Toronto Mayor John Tory looks over the council chamber during council meeting at Toronto City Hall on Wednesday, June 10, 2015.
Toronto Mayor John Tory looks over the council chamber during council meeting at Toronto City Hall on Wednesday, June 10, 2015.

There’s a pattern to the way things work at Toronto City Hall. It’s as reliable as falling leaves in November, or delays on the 501 Queen streetcar.

It goes like this: The mayor and councillors spend much of the year tinkering with grand plans to address Toronto’s most pressing issues. They talk a lot about the great stuff they’re going to do. When the plans are finally approved, there’s a lot of back-slapping, sometimes even applause.

But then, when budget time comes around and they need to think about paying for those plans, they take a hacksaw to them. It’s a frustrating reality. At city hall, they’ve got ambition bigger than their wallets.

So far there’s not much indicating this pattern will change under John Tory. As council gears up to tackle the first full-year budget of the new administration, city hall has again loaded up on initiatives that will mean new expenses — but few want to talk about new revenues to match.

Last week, Tory endorsed big plans on two big issues: poverty and transit. Both are necessary. Both are largely unfunded.

On poverty, council adopted a 20-year anti-poverty strategy. It’s remarkably ambitious, recommending action on things like affordable housing, student nutrition, youth employment, low-income transit fares and services for seniors.

It won’t be cheap, but it’s hard to argue Toronto doesn’t need a strategy when one in every four kids lives in poverty.

There’s a similar situation with Tory’s announcement that he wants to see subway service begin an hour earlier on Sundays. It’s an overdue change. Lots of people need to work on Sunday mornings and are frustrated that the trains don’t run until 9 a.m.

Still, this change isn’t free — it will cost about a million dollars a year. Meanwhile, the TTC faces a shortfall of $52 million for 2016 just to maintain existing levels of service.

So where will the money to open the subway earlier come from? And will there be more money to operate the bus routes that bring people to the subway at the earlier hour?
Questions pushed off until later. To the budget. Of course. This pattern needs to change.

First, there needs to be a better accounting for the budgetary cost of decisions — and the tax impact — as they’re made, instead of only at budget time.

Second, the myth that Toronto’s issues can be addressed within its existing revenues needs to finally go away. Building a great city is important. Building a great city costs money. Toronto needs leaders who understand both these things — and are willing to pay.

Matt Elliott lives and writes in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @GraphicMatt

This post was originally published at on 2015-11-09T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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