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T.O. set for a power surge



Just about everything the city wants to do is constrained by provincial legislation, even weed control. A new City of Toronto Act would give Toronto more powers than any city in Canada has ever known.

Law change would boost city’s authority over local issues

Councillors say more money has to come with more control


In 1915, new legislation was needed to cover the pressing problem of the day in old Toronto: rogue dogs killing sheep.

In 1932, during the Depression, it was municipal income tax, and by 1963, it was on-street parking at night.

In all those cases, city politicians didn’t have the power to do what they thought was in the best interests of the city. They had to ask a provincial politician to introduce special legislation.

Nothing has changed.

Just about everything the city wants to do is constrained by provincial legislation. The mayor and the Premier want to end this with a new City of Toronto Act — one that will give Toronto more powers than any city in Canada has ever known.

Right now, when a new issue comes up, like speed humps and demolition of heritage buildings, councillors have to trudge up to Queen’s Park and play “Mother may I.”

A new City of Toronto Act could flip that around by giving the city more unfettered powers and reining in provincial control over the city.

“It is huge. It turns the idea of municipal government on its head,” Mayor David Miller said.

A progress report, scheduled for release this month, has yet to materialize. City and provincial officials say it may be finished within the next few months.

They maintain the new act will be here by the end of the year.

What will it look like?

Brief, hopes Miller.

“The Constitution that sets out the division of power between the province and the federal government does it in about two pages. The Municipal Act, City of Toronto Act and all the other pieces of legislation (that govern Toronto) are probably as tall as me,” says the 6-foot-3 Miller.

All that legislation treats the city as a child needing constant supervision instead of an equal with the respect due Toronto, Canada’s sixth largest government, he says.

The City of Toronto Act spells out specific things the province allows the city to do, down to the detail of operating a ferry service to the Toronto Islands.

If somewhere in the 100-page City of Toronto Act, the 388-page Municipal Act and hundreds of other pieces of provincial legislation that affect the city from A (the ambulance act) to W (the weed-control act) it doesn’t say the city can do something, the city can’t.

Even the legislation allowing Toronto to register dogs and use the fees to compensate farmers whose sheep were killed is still on the books.

Miller wants to replace all this detail with something along the lines of: “The city can do whatever it needs to do to carry out its responsibilities.”

Anything the province wants to retain control over would have to be specified.

It’s a total flip of the current system and long overdue, says Premier Dalton McGuinty.

“It’s a bit of a miracle that this city has delivered prosperity for so long and to so many, despite living in a legislative and fiscal straitjacket that would baffle Houdini,” McGuinty said last September, in announcingan overhaul of the City of Toronto Act.

Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing John Gerretsen, whose department is reviewing the City of Toronto Act with the city, agrees change is needed.

“There are way too many things a city like Toronto has to go to the province to get permission for, everything from changing the ward boundaries … to many parking regulations, stop signs, traffic lights and speed humps on residential streets,” Gerretsen said.

“It is high time we give municipalities much greater permissive legislation,” he said.

‘There are way too many things a city like Toronto has to go to the province to get permission for’

John Gerretsen, minister of municipal affairs and housing

The politicians at city hall and Queen’s Park seem to be, for a change, on the same page. But that doesn’t mean getting a document with their signatures on the bottom line will be easy.

Think of legislation as a three-room house. One room belongs to the province, the second is owned by the city and the third they must share.

What goes where?

You wouldn’t want to give the city, for example, powers so extensive it could ditch the human rights code or have different safety standards for buildings than the rest of the province.

And it probably doesn’t make sense that the province controls whether a speed hump can be put on a street in Scarborough or a bar in Etobicoke can stay open late for World Cup soccer.

But what about protecting green space, something that has both local and regional impact?

City and provincial bureaucrats are trying to figure out what’s local, what’s not and how to come up with some rules to follow in shared-interest areas.

Figuring that out is complicated enough, but it is still just half of what is involved in revamping the City of Toronto Act and the broader fight to get Toronto a new deal from senior governments.

The other half is getting revenue sources that grow with the economy such as gas taxes.

At the start of the City of Toronto Act review, the plan was to deal with power first and revenue second. But it has proved hard to separate the two, say those involved in the review.

What good is the power to do something if the city doesn’t have the money to do it?

So far, on the subject of money, there is little agreement.

City politicians talk about the need for Toronto to get a portion of existing provincial income and sales taxes.

This means councillors would get new revenues without having to increase the tax burden on citizens and businesses.

The province counters that if it keeps bailing out the city, councillors will never show fiscal restraint or take steps to get their own house in order.

Provincial politicians, who have a financial crisis of their own, prefer to talk about new revenue sources the city could tap into. Among the ideas floated is an additional sales tax for Toronto and taxing things like hotels, parking and billboards.

“I know the city likes to talk about sharing our existing revenue,” Gerretsen said, noting that the province has already agreed to give cities two cents of the provincial gas tax.

“Some of us think it should go further than that, that there should be perhaps new revenue tools that currently aren’t available to the city itself,” he said. “It’s very easy for anyone to say, `Well, you know, we want a share of your pie.’”

Miller counters that Toronto is bankrolling Queen’s Park and Ottawa to the tune of some $11 billion a year. Toronto wants some of that back to reinvest in the city, says Miller.

This is the same fight McGuinty has lately taken up with Ottawa. Some $23 billion more leaves Ontario than comes back in federal programs and funding, says McGuinty, who is demanding $5 billion back.

With the province pleading poor, Toronto councillors fear they’ll get a revamped act but only a few paltry taxing powers that stop far short of the hundreds of millions the city needs to improve itself.

No one knows what city issues will be in 10, 25, 50 years.

If Toronto gets an act giving it broad permissive power it doesn’t matter. The city will be able to do what it needs to — without provincial permission or new legislation.

“The biggest struggle is asking the senior provincial mandarins to divest themselves of a lot of authority to cities like Toronto,” said Glen Murray, former Winnipeg mayor, who is a front-liner in the fight to get a new deal — more power and revenue sources — for Canada’s large cities. Gerretsen said he’s confident the politicians and bureaucrats on the file will be able to come up with a new City of Toronto Act that “the city feels is in its best interests to have.”

There is still a long way to go.

“We’re not going to force anything down their throats, that’s just not this government’s style of dealing with the City of Toronto. But how exactly you resolve issues where there may be two conflicting ways of actually doing things, that really remains to be seen.”