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Are city leaders nuts? No, just fed up

Royson James
The Cities

They are not wild and crazy - Torontonians so disgruntled with the senior levels of government they would consider separating from the province of Ontario.

They are not raging radicals - people like former mayors David Crombie and Barbara Hall, who say Toronto needs a new funding partnership that recognizes its real needs.

Mayor Mel Lastman is not even serious when he muses about the Province of Toronto or city-state status.

They are just fed up. And they have good reason to be. Consider that:

  • Greater Toronto residents pay out $3.8 billion more in taxes than they received from the federal and provincial governments.
  • The Mike Harris government dismissed advice from several groups, experts and citizens and downloaded millions of dollars on Toronto right after amalgamation. Toronto puts the amount at $251.7 million a year. The Premier’s office claimed yesterday the city is actually $27.5 million ahead.
  • Toronto has huge needs for housing and transit that can’t be funded directly by the federal government. Any money must flow through Queen’s Park. But when savings flowed from lower mortgage payments recently, Ontario scooped the money.
  • Queen’s Park unloaded all the costs for public transit on Toronto, but refused to give the city any new revenue sources to fund it.
  • Toronto council wants to impose a hotel tax and use the money to fund tourism, but can’t do it without provincial legislation. Consequently, tourism falters.
  • In addition, the city has no constitutional protection against arbitrary action from the province. Queen’s Park could decide tomorrow to abolish city council and the city would have no legal recourse. An example of this was the recent decision to reduce the size of city council.

The concerns cross partisan political lines. It matters not who is the government at Queen’s Park or in Ottawa, the response is the same.

“We are treated like little bugs,” says Councillor Gloria Lindsay-Luby. “They regularly step on us.”

The federal government dumps costs on to the province, and the province does the same to municipalities. The cities, with no legal status, accept the burden and are forced to squeeze services or jack up property taxes.

Toronto, as a magnet for the country’s poor, homeless and social outcasts, suffers the most. But other cities also feel the sting of neglect from senior levels of government.

Yesterday, Councillor Michael Walker, who has an uncanny ability to up the ante in any debate, proposed that Toronto city council approve a referendum asking its citizens if they want to secede from Ontario. The motion was deferred, pending more studies, but it sure got juices flowing at Queen’s Park and city hall.

“The motion is brilliant and stupid at the same time,” said Councillor Brian Ashton.

It’s brilliant because it forced Harris to jump into the downloading debate and gave Lastman a chance to state Toronto’s grievances once again.

But the secession debate also raised eyebrows, with people asking: “What’s with these guys? Are they stupid? After all, everyone knows the city wouldn’t be allowed a divorce.”

This is more than a silly catfight or a political spat between two egotistical political leaders battling for the minds of Toronto taxpayers.

That’s exactly how the provincial government wants it viewed, of course. Harris would have us believe that Toronto’s grievances are frivolous, the mere delusions of a mad and mouthy mayor.

But Toronto’s grouses are significant, lengthy and long-standing.

Has Harris ever heard of Puppets on a Shoestring, a report from 25 years ago that warned that municipalities lacked adequate funding tools? The Metro government report, Crumbling Financial Partnership, that had the same message?

Rethinking the Fundamentals, a 1996 GTA report based on 1992 data, put the net outflow of tax dollars from Greater Toronto at $3.78 billion, or $2,400 per household.

Yesterday, as the Association of Municipalities bristled at the claims in the Premier’s letter, Lastman said he would welcome an independent auditor to see who is telling the truth, and former mayor Crombie said he would be willing to assemble a team of experts to see who is right.

Setting aside that disagreement, one thing is irrefutable.

The province has wrongly dumped the costs of social services, including all of housing, on property taxpayers. The action runs counter to every expert’s advice it received and threatens to destabilize cities when the economy turns sour.

And while it might be philosophically sound to let municipalities like Toronto pay for all of their transit costs, funding tools other than property taxes are needed.

Montreal gets $43 million annually from car registration and $47 million in gas tax revenues. British Columbia shares its retail sales tax with municipalities and gives Greater Vancouver $79 million a year in gas tax revenues.

Toronto, meanwhile, pays $200 million to TTC and GO Transit, plus $230 million a year for equipment and new service - with no help from Ontario.

When Toronto looks at other jurisdictions, it sees the senior governments in close funding alliances to address urban problems. But, at home, there is rampant neglect.

Little wonder normally reasonable citizens are contemplating a divorce.

Royson James’ column usually appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.