Toronto’s month and a half long budget process will come to an end today, and it could see councillors approve the city’s largest property tax hike in over 25 years.
Councillors are digging into Mayor Olivia Chow’s first budget and have the chance to change her proposed 9.5 per cent property tax hike. But if councillors want to do that, or add anything new to the $17-billion spending package, they’ll need to find offsets.
In an interview on the eve of the final debate, Chow said she’s comfortable with the number and that it will help the city shore up fraying services like transit and the city’s state of good repair.
“I think the rate is just right,” she said. “I’m hearing that people understand that we need to get the city back on track and invest in services — basic services.”
The budget process officially kicked off in January when city staff presented their draft budget, which included a proposed 10.5 per cent property tax hike. Chow brought that number down by a full percentage point after weeks of public consultations and recommendations from council’s budget committee to keep a focus on affordability for residents.
The mayor said Tuesday that she will support a number of motions that will pump additional funds into city services on the chopping block, such as snow windrow clearing. That service cut would impact 262,000 suburban homes and Chow said she’s heard seniors are concerned about it.
“I’m hearing the seniors saying we’re going to have difficulty shovelling the snow,” she said. “So, we will support restoring it. A lot of councillors are hearing from their constituents.”
The motion was moved Wednesday by Coun. Paul Ainslie and called for $4.1 million for windrow clearing in the 2024 budget. That money would come from $8 million Chow set aside in her budget proposal for “emergent” priorities.
Ainslie also moved a second motion for $200,000 in additional funding for the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority to run programming at Black Creek Pioneer Village in North York.
Chow backtracks on police budget
The mayor also reversed course on the contentious debate over the Toronto police budget. After weeks of pushing against it, Chow says she will back a bid to increase the nearly $1.2-billion net budget by $20 million, instead of the $7.4 million in her draft spending plan.
Coun. Amber Morley moved a motion to increase the police operating budget by another $12.6 million, which would mean the service gets the full funding increase it requested late last year. The money would come from a reserve fund.
While tabling her motion, Morley said that as member of the Toronto Police Services Board, she has seen “the operational need for this money at this time.”
Chow and Morley expect the reserve fund to be replenished by the provincial and federal governments, in particular from the $121 million Ottawa committed to the province last week to help police forces combat auto theft.
“That gives me confidence that we don’t have to go and cut other services to provide extra support to police because that’s not what I want to do,” Chow said Tuesday.
But Coun. Jon Burnside said he thinks the mayor was under pressure from councillors and city residents to increase police funding. With 22-minute response times to priority calls, this is about addressing service levels, he said.
“You can love the police, you can hate the police. But when you need the police, you need the police, and 22 minutes is unacceptable,” he said.
Coun. Brad Bradford said without the additional funding, the service’s ability to recruit more officers will be limited.
“We need to make sure that they have the resources so they can do the hiring so we can get more bodies online,” he said. “That’s going to be really important.”
Morley signalled that later Wednesday, she will move another motion requesting the police and police board work to establish “specific and detailed targets, with clear goals and timelines” to increase transparency and accountability around the service’s spending.
That includes details on how the additional funding will be spent to reduce officer response times, boost the number of frontline and neighbourhood officers and recruiting more women and gender diverse officers.
In response to questions from councillors, Toronto police Chief Myron Demkiw said staffing supervisory roles will be key to improving response times. He said there are currently 140 unfilled sergeant positions and 40 unfilled staff sergeant positions in the service.
Meanwhile, Chow continues to signal that she will not use powers granted to her under the “strong mayor” legislation introduced by Premier Doug Ford’s government.
That law gives her a veto over any changes to her budget made by city council. Those could then be overturned by a two-thirds majority vote of council.
The mayor says she expects the process to wrap up today and expects compromises to be found to balance the $17-billion budget.
“Democracy will work,” she said.
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