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Austerity, status quo or city building: It's time for Toronto voters to pick a path

In the upcoming Toronto election, let’s try something new: First pick a path, then find the leaders who can get us there, writes Matt Elliott.
In the upcoming Toronto election, let’s try something new: First pick a path, then find the leaders who can get us there, writes Matt Elliott.

What kind of city do you want to live in?

It’s a big, nebulous question, I know, but with less than a year to go before Toronto’s next municipal election, it’s time to start thinking about choices.

City Manager Peter Wallace can help with that.

Wallace delivered his third annual city manager’s address at the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance a couple of weeks ago. The event is always relentlessly nerdy. Lots of numbers and charts.

But this year, beyond the technicalities, Wallace used his time at the podium to do something especially relevant as we move toward another election campaign: He laid out three viable paths forward for our city.

Path #1: Austerity

Wallace called this path “focus on services to property.” If Toronto follows it, city hall would actively work to shrink itself. Fewer libraries, a reduction in recreation programming, less emphasis on building new infrastructure and so on.

The city government would focus most on stuff like picking up garbage and fixing potholes.

As Wallace explained it, this is the only pathway the city could take that avoids the need to increase revenue. You want property taxes to stay super low? You have to be OK with losing services.

Path #2: Maintain existing service levels

The same level of TTC service, the same amount of park maintenance, the same incremental implementation of strategies to tackle issues like road safety, poverty and climate change.

But be warned: even keeping the status quo requires the city to increase revenue.

Over the last few years, city council has used windfalls from Toronto’s hot real-estate market and an array of various accounting tricks to balance its books. Neither is sustainable.

Path #3: Broader city building

Down this path, Torontonians say to hell with the notion of cutting our city or maintaining the status quo, and embrace efforts to rapidly build. It’s about vision.

It won’t be free, because great cities aren’t built for free. Try as you might — and Toronto politicians have tried — you can’t pursue a city-building agenda while cutting the budget.

With the money, strategies to expand transit service, build bike lanes, make roads safer, fight climate change and address the city’s sky-high child-poverty rate could get the full level of investment they need.

The cost to you? Well, maybe Toronto wouldn’t be able to claim the lowest property taxes in the GTA any longer. It could also mean a new sales tax or parking levy.

During his presentation, Wallace made sure to point out that these three pathways aren’t meant to be definitive, merely illustrative. There is variance within each and more choices that need to be made.

But during an election year, the approach has a lot of value as a starting point. It’s a way to categorize the many candidates for council and mayor who will come forward: austerity, status quo or city building.

In past municipal elections, Toronto has gotten tangled up in debates about specific issues without deciding what kind of city voters want in the first place.

This time, let’s try something new: First pick a path, then find the leaders who can get us there.

This post was originally published at on 2017-11-06T00:00:00.000Z

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Matt Elliott

City Hall watcher, columnist and policy wonk in Toronto.
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