Mayor Olivia Chow’s first budget was left largely intact when it went to council Wednesday, barring several key amendments, including a restoration of the police budget approved by the Toronto Police Services Board and money to save a windrow-clearing program.
The budget builds on social programs and housing while trying to simultaneously plug a $1.8 billion budget deficit, in part through a 9.5 per cent tax bump for homeowners – the highest property tax increase since amalgamation.
“It feels great and it’s also historic in a way that we are finally having Toronto back on track even though we inherited a huge $1.8 billion financial mess,” Chow said after the budget was finalized.
“When the residents, businesses, all the councillors work together, we have a budget that really helps build a city that’s more caring, more affordable and safer where everyone belongs.”
The mayor described the budget as a good step towards her promise to bring the city on the right track.
“Can we do it in one year? No. It is a journey, but at least we are starting. We are halting the decline of services. We’re changing direction.”
Full police increase restored
While the mayor sought to trim the budget increase for Toronto police from $20 million to about $8 million, she said Tuesday that she would support a motion at council to provide the force with the full $20 million increase advised by the Toronto Police Services Board in December. She said her support for restoring the full increase follows indications that other levels of government will help Toronto with its unique needs around policing, though they have not yet said how much they will commit.
Following deliberations Wednesday, council adopted a motion by Deputy Mayor Amber Morley to provide Toronto Police with the full budget increase they had sought.
Morley, who also sits on the Toronto Police Services Board, said changes are being made to policing, but will take time and in the meantime, the city needs to be able to meet its unique needs. However she added that residents expect to see results if police are given more money.
“We expect a reduction in officer response times, increases in the number of available frontline officers, increases in the number of neighbourhood officers, and recruitment of more women and gender diverse people,” Morley told council.
Her motion passed 21-5.
Chief Myron Demkiw spoke with reporters following the vote and said he was pleased to see the full increase approved.
“There’s room to recognize that the unique needs of Toronto include how police services are delivered,” Demkiw said following the meeting.
He added he’s heard “loud and clear” that people want to see response times improve.
He said a new class of 146 officers are graduating next week and they will be focused on the front lines. He said the force is continuing to build supervisory capacity on the front lines as well, which should hopefully improve efficiency.
When asked about why she supported the motion to give police the funding they were asking, Chow said, “I found extra dollars in the last week.”
“I’m very thankful for the federal and the provincial governments stepping up to say that hey, Toronto has unique policing costs and they’re willing to share some of the burden of paying to support the police,” the mayor said.
A short time into Wednesday’s meeting, as councillors were asking questions about the police budget, a protester in the gallery was removed from the chamber after they disrupted the proceedings, yelling for police to be defunded and abolished.
Ahead of the budget, some activists had said they would like to see less money for police, while the service itself argued that it has been underfunded for decades, with increases often falling short of inflation.
Windrow clearing and other items saved
Councillors also voted unanimously to spend $4.1 million to save a windrow-clearing program, which sees city plows clear the dunes of snow left at the foot of driveways.
Other motions which passed to provide last-minute funding to a number of areas, including Black Creek Pioneer Village; tree planting, pruning, and watering; community safety, violence prevention, and wellbeing programs; and money to hire more bylaw enforcement officers to respond to noise complaints, business licensing, and animal care and control officers for dangerous dogs response.
Chow says building a better city takes money
A motion introduced by Coun. Vincent Crisanti to reduce the property tax increase by one per cent by using $42.2 million from Tax Stabilization Reserve Fund failed.
Chow had already shaved one per cent off the increase in the budget she put forward to council.
City staff had recommended a nine per cent increase, in addition to a 1.5 per cent bump to the city-building fund. Following budget consultations, Chow revised the staff-proposed increase to eight per cent, bringing the overall increase to 9.5 per cent.
While the proposed budget asks residents to pay more, Chow said the increase amounts to less than a dollar a day for the average household.
At Wednesday’s meeting, council voted to approve the tax increase 18-8.
Speaking with reporters ahead of the meeting, she reiterated that she inherited a financial mass, with an opening budget deficit of $1.8 billion.
Chow touted the fact that she has been able to secure money from other levels of government in order to help plug the hole, including an upload of the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway to the province, and hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government to help with housing and asylum seekers. However she said that it is still not enough.
“Even with all our hard work, we still needed to increase revenue so vital city services will improve,” Chow said.
She noted that the property tax increase for multi residential buildings is being held to 3.75 per cent so that renters don’t feel the impact.
Still, she said that the increase is necessary if people want to see the sort of city they voted for.
“People voted for me to bring the city back on track to change course to fix those potholes, invest in public transit and housing,” Chow said. “We can’t do that without paying for it. It just won’t work. That’s magical thinking. It won’t work. We’ve been doing that for a while.”
However she vowed that the city will track its progress in order to make sure taxpayers are getting what they pay for.
“When you go out and buy something, you’re getting something back. When you pay for service you want to see the service and receive the service, you want good service,” Chow said. “When people are asked to pay $1 extra in their property tax, yeah, they want to see results. So we will track our service levels. We will set goals and timetables with clear targets so that we can be accountable. That’s the least we can do. Because Torontonians deserve no less.”
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