In past years, the City of Toronto’s Budget Committee could make changes to the staff-recommended budget, with the final decisions resting with Council. Under the new strong mayor powers, the Committee no longer has the authority to vote on changes to the budget. It is only permitted to make requests of the mayor, effectively reducing its power to an advisory body.
Councillor Perks described it in these terms:
We’re effectively being told this body [Budget Committee] makes no decisions, makes no recommendations. It can merely make requests [of the Mayor]. That is a fundamental loss of democracy in our city. It is a fundamental loss of transparency in our city. And frankly, it’s quite an insult for every member of the public that took the time to be here or watch these proceedings. It is a diminution of the role of Toronto City Councillor and frankly, I think it is both an insult and a diminution of the Toronto Public Service.
The Budget Committee met for its final meeting of the 2023 budget cycle on January 24. At this meeting, the committee received dozens of briefing notes prepared by City staff, making more information available on capital projects and on programs and services. Councillors asked questions of staff, made statements about the budget, and voted on motions that made recommendations and requests regarding the budget for the mayor to consider.
What requests has the Budget Committee made to Mayor Tory?
The Budget Committee voted in favour of a motion from Councillor Bravo, recommending that the mayor consider increasing the budget in several critical areas. Her motion reads:
1. The Budget Committee recommend that the Mayor consider amending the 2023 Operating and Capital Budgets and present a revised Budget to City Council that does the following:
a. adequately respond to Toronto’s homelessness, mental health, and addiction crises;
b. address the need for improved public transit access and service;
c. advances our commitments to Toronto's climate and Vision Zero goals; and
d. prioritizes community responses and services for violence prevention and community safety.
Councillor Bravo also moved a successful motion on behalf of Councillor Perks, confirming that the City will invest $10 million annually in the Multi-Unit Residential Acquisition program (MURA) using revenues from the Vacant Homes Tax. (There had been some confusion earlier in the budget process, when City staff indicated that only $3 million in new funding would be committed to MURA in 2023 and an additional $7 million in 2024.)
The motion confirms the City’s ongoing commitment of $10 million annually to this essential program that supports the acquisition and preservation of affordable rental housing. However, Council has set the Vacant Homes tax at a low 1% of assessed property values. In comparison, Vancouver just raised its Empty Home Tax to 5% this year. If Toronto City Council increased the Vacant Homes Tax it could raise considerably more revenue for affordable housing while also creating a more effective tool to encourage owners to sell or rent their vacant units.
Councillor Crawford, Budget Chief, moved motions as well. His main budget motion, supported by the Committee with the exception of Councillor Bravo, largely confirmed the original budget tabled on January 10. The motion did, however, put forward some additional requests of the mayor regarding revenues, new fiscal arrangements with other orders of government, and the use of any savings or offsets to increase funding to City priorities. The motion reads:
That the Budget Committee recommend that the Mayor …
2. Propose a Capital Budget and plan to City Council based on a 10 year extension of the City Building Levy.
3. Continue to work with City Officials to find opportunities for further offsets and savings, and that any such savings be re-allocated as increases to budgets for City priorities including community safety and well-being, housing, public realm and natural infrastructure, community grants and programs, and investments in Neighbourhood Improvement Areas, in the Mayor’s proposed Budget. .…
8. Advocate to both the Provincial and Federal governments for new fiscal framework for the City of Toronto, including new revenue tools and / or funding commitments for services which the other levels of government has downloaded onto the City, and request City Officials to continue to explore revenue tools which are currently permitted under the City of Toronto Act and which do not require Provincial cooperation to administer, including but not limited to a commercial parking levy.
Briefing Notes & Highlights from the Budget Discussion
During its January 24 meeting, the Budget Committee also received dozens of briefing notes requested by the Committee and prepared by City staff on various aspects of the budget. Councillors had an opportunity to ask questions of staff regarding each briefing note.
Some highlights from the briefing note Q&A:
The budget includes continued funding to pay for free menstrual and incontinence products for community members accessing drop-ins; drop-ins, including those that do not receive funding from the City of Toronto, can access these products through the Toronto Drop-In Network.
While park washrooms will open earlier in the Spring, stay open later in the Fall, and be open later in the evening, there’s little movement on winter access to park washrooms; the budget includes $1.6 million to winterize two park washrooms to allow for year-round use. The City is developing a strategy to winterize more park washrooms in future. The estimated cost to winterize 25 washrooms for year-round use is between $10 and $13.125 million. According to City staff, the City has 170 park washrooms, including 55 that are open in the winter.
The 2023 budget for the Toronto Community Crisis Service (TCCS) is $13,754,456, an increase of $2,771,885 over 2022. The TCCS provides an alternative to a policing response for specific mental health–related 911 calls. The budget increase includes $1,629,800 in funding for new and enhanced services to improve dispatch, fund an Indigenous crisis line with TCCS anchor agency 2-Spirited People of the 1st Nations, and bolster other aspects of the service. The remainder of the budget increase is not related to any new or expanded services. It reflects annualized costs for services introduced during 2022 and expenses related to maintaining existing services. The TCCS covers 60% of the city, and the 2023 budget does not include any expansion to new communities. During 2023, the City plans to put out a Request for Expression of Interest to select new community partners to allow for expansion of the service to additional areas of the city in future years. In order to expand the service, City Council will need to authorize the expansion and allocate the funding. Some Councillors have argued that the funds should be included in this year’s budget to allow for expansion when the prep work is completed in late 2023.
Despite a 17% increase in tenant complaints, the budget for the RentSafeTO program is set to increase below the rate of inflation, at 3.9% — effectively a cut. The RentSafeTO program aims to ensure that apartment buildings are kept in good condition, complying with the City’s maintenance standards. Bylaw enforcement officers conduct proactive inspections of some of the city’s most poorly maintained buildings and also respond to tenant complaints. According to the City, the goal of the program is to “strengthen the enforcement of City bylaws, enhance tenant engagement and access to information, and promote proactive maintenance in apartment buildings to prevent the deterioration of critical housing stock.” Funding needs to keep up with inflation and demand. Tenants deserve better.
The budget includes $3.4 million to implement the City’s new Multi-Tenant Housing Licensing policy. After decades of advocacy, Toronto City Council finally adopted a regulatory framework for multi-tenant housing, also known as rooming houses, in December 2022. Before the adoption of this policy, multi-tenant homes were only permitted in the old City of Toronto and parts of the former cities of York and Etobicoke. Despite these restrictions, multi-tenant homes exist in neighbourhoods across the city. Renters living in unlicensed homes have faced major hurdles to realizing their rights as tenants, including getting their landlords to properly maintain their buildings. By permitting multi-tenant homes across the city, the new policy responds “to calls for the preservation and creation of deeply affordable and safe homes in all parts of the city.” The 2022 budget for multi-tenant housing licensing and enforcement was just over $1 million. The 2023 budget supports implementation of the new framework, including an education campaign, multilingual outreach, hiring of new staff including 26 new bylaw enforcement officers, supports for tenants, and creation of a new Multi-tenant Housing Tribunal. The framework will be implemented over a three-year period.
- The Committee received briefing notes on revenue options, including a municipal sales tax and a municipal income tax, and the potential implementation of a commercial parking levy. Many Councillors recognized the unsustainable financial predicament of the City, resulting in annual budget shortfalls, inadequate services, deepening inequity, crumbling infrastructure, and a growing state of good repair backlog. Fiscal arrangements with provincial and federal governments need to change. At the same time, for many years, Toronto City Council has opted for below-inflation property tax increases and failed to use most of the revenue tools available to it under the City of Toronto Act. More Councillors are engaging in the tough questions of how to fund a sustainable city for all. In addition to advocating for new fiscal arrangements with the province and feds, Council needs to begin the work now to raise revenues through its existing powers.
At the meeting, we also learned that the 2023 budget includes $882,000 for the Housing Commissioner, a long-anticipated, much-delayed, and critical part of the HousingTO plan. According to the City of Toronto, the role of the Housing Commissioner is to “independently assess the implementation of the [Housing] Charter and the HousingTO Plan and ensure that the City, within its legislative authorities, programs and policies, was taking concrete actions to combat systematic housing discrimination and addressing systemic hurdles in the housing system.”
The funds are included in the budget for the Office of the Ombudsman, tentatively placing the role of Housing Commissioner within this accountability office. During the meeting, Councillor Perks pointed out that Council had not decided where the Housing Commissioner role/function would be situated and that staff were directed to report back to Council on specific options. Staff acknowledged that it remains a decision of Council. Learn more about the Housing Commissioner here.
The meeting concluded with speeches by some members of Council and votes on the motions. Councillors differed — a lot! — on their take on the budget. Here are some memorable remarks:
“This has been the most challenging budget that I’ve been involved in [fiscal challenges, COVID, inflation]… The work that our City staff and the committee have done has been exceptional, under those difficult situations, to be able to keep property taxes below the rate of inflation, to be able to invest in frontline services, investing in transit, investing in housing and community safety has been exemplary. Yes, there have been challenges. Can we and have we been able to achieve everything we want? No, we haven’t but we’ll continue to work incredibly hard on the challenges.”
— Budget Chief Councillor Crawford
“The budget to date is fundamentally not the budget that Torontonians want to see. It is not the budget that will create the city Torontonians want to live in. … We’re seeing a budget that watches Toronto slowly crumble..Torontonians understand that if you want a safe city, you build public services. This budget does not do this…We face multiple crises as a city, our crumbling infrastructure, the social divisions, the increase in violence at the same time as services are declining, and a changing climate, and this budget does not address any of those in a meaningful way and it can be argued goes backwards on several.”
— Councillor Perks
“All crime indicators essentially are up. So when it comes to safety in our city we cannot put a price on human life. This is why we’re investing in Toronto police. … It is clear that we must invest in safety measures to take back our streets. … Our job is to ensure that dollars are spent appropriately, making sure our communities are safe and that our most vulnerable are cared for. That means our children, our seniors, and our marginalized are safe. It is important that our budget, our budget that we have the privilege to deliberate on and analyze is viewed through a lens that is compassionate, appropriate and forward-thinking.”
— Councillor Crisanti
“I know the knee-jerk reaction [to violence, crime] is to get more policing, be it on the TTC or on the streets of Toronto. But we all know the real issue here is the people who suffer from mental health [problems] on our streets and the lack of resources, supports for them. What we’re doing right now is, I feel, a knee-jerk, band aid solution… Mental health is a provincial responsibility and the province should really step up and do their part … but with the absence of other levels of government coming to our aid, we have to step up and do what’s right for our communities and our city. Because if we continue down this path, the same things will continue. What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results and so in my mind, what we continue to do is somewhat insane.”
— Councillor Moise
“We heard consistently that people feel that they’re paying more for less. You think about the TTC service as a start. They told us that less service equals less safety… and when we think of transit service cuts, so foundational to climate action is providing transit. We’re not meeting our climate goals. We’re falling behind, and we’re running out of time...Homelessness is a major crisis. It’s growing…This budget doesn’t include the 24/7 respite or indoor drop-in that is needed to provide people a place to be in inclement weather…They [unhoused people] are turning to transit, they’re turning to libraries, to 24-hour restaurants [with shelters full]…We know the cost of policing homelessness is $100 million a year…I don’t see the kind of energy and investment to deal with youth in crisis in this budget…We need violence prevention and it’s done expertly here in the City of Toronto through our community partnerships but CPIP [Community Partnership and Investment Program] doesn’t receive even the cost of living increase that inflation requires.”
— Councillor Bravo
“The deputants are very well organized…I do support the budget and in particular, I support the police budget and the reason I say that is that right now the priority in the city is the violent crime that’s happening. Not just downtown, but everywhere in the community. We have shootings, people don’t feel safe, getting on TTC, they don’t feel safe walking the streets. Part of the police budget is hiring new neighbourhood officers which is very effective and very positive.”
— Councillor Nunziata
“One of the things that I’d like to suggest moving forward is that in next year’s budgetary process there should be an opportunity to engage the public before we actually put the budget in place…so the public will have input in advance, not when we establish and put it in place and then having the input by the public.”
— Councillor Thompson
“It would take time and a lot of effort to create new taxes for the City of Toronto but we do have the ability to set the rates of the taxes that we impose now. And the rates that we’re setting don’t meet the current needs of the city that is something also that we have to take responsibility for and should be considered, setting a tax rate that allows us to meet the needs of the city. If we want a safe city, and I think everybody does, we do need the services to provide it. Without the services, we won’t have a safe city and we won't be ready for the climate crisis as it continues to hammer us.”
— Councillor Saxe
Next up… The Mayor is expected to release his budget on February 1. City Council meets for final budget votes on February 14.