Lots of pie charts were shown at the Scarborough Village Recreation Centre, but not much hope.
Social Planning Toronto (SPT) wants more money spent in Toronto fighting poverty, and cheered last year as councillors committed to a poverty-reduction strategy.
But as the group hosted a public forum on the city’s budgeting process Thursday, Jan. 7, its representatives looked disappointed.
Mayor John Tory had said he’d at least consider new “revenue tools” for the city in future, and he has proposed a special tax levy to pay for affordable housing and transit.
But Toronto has $23 billion in projects it can’t afford to build, 85,000 people on an active waitlist for affordable housing, tax revenues not keeping pace with costs, and declining federal and provincial support.
As the 2016 budget worth more than $11 billion inches toward final vote at Toronto City Council next month, anti-poverty and transit advocates are fighting to add perhaps $5 million in improvements.
A long list of items they expected, including money to improve life in Toronto Community Housing based on task force recommendations, an expansion of student nutrition programs, and warming centres for the homeless, aren’t funded yet, said SPT’s Beth Wilson.
Gary Crawford, Toronto’s exceedingly polite budget chief and Scarborough Village’s local councillor, said citizens may want more spent on poverty reduction, but the city must act responsibly.
Tory wants tax increases kept to the rate of inflation, now at about 1.3 per cent, and that’s what Crawford said his budget committee will aim for.
“Revenue tools and raising taxes is not the answer,” Crawford said at Thursday’s forum, but conceded, “Maybe we need to have that conversation.”
The mayor supports the anti-poverty strategy, he maintained, but it is a 20-year strategy.
“There is an element of choosing,” Crawford said at one point, and like children working at their Christmas lists, citizens can’t have everything they want.
That message wasn’t accepted by some in the audience, including Joy Robertson, president of the Scarborough Village Residents Unite Neighbourhood Association.
The Village has been in “priority neighbourhood” status for many years and can’t get out of it, said Robertson, who would like the city to attach a “special seriousness” to fighting poverty.
Robertson said it feels as if the city was “just spending enough to keep the wheels spinning” in the Village and other districts Toronto now calls Neighbourhood Improvement Areas.
“We cannot really move forward if our residents are falling through the cracks.”
Brenda Thompson of TTCriders dared to speak for larger tax increases, saying the city could perhaps defer them for people on fixed incomes until they sell their homes.
More than half of Scarborough Village’s residents don’t have a driver’s licence, she said, and Toronto’s transit system is the least subsidized by government in North America, one that’s “been efficiencied to death.”
Thompson said that can change if the province raises its gas tax or taxes corporations more, and if the city brings back its vehicle registration tax, creates a commercial parking tax, or looks at other “revenue tools.”
A commercial parking tax, say $100 per space, would bring in $175 million, enough to pay for all the anti-poverty measures SPT wants in 2016 twice over, Wilson said.
Dovie Rochester, a retiree, said she was frustrated by talk of raising property taxes.
“People have to live,” she said, arguing tax hikes are especially hard on seniors.
“Some people have to give up their TV or their Internet just to survive, and I don’t think that’s fair.”
Israt Ahmed, who also works for SPT, said it’s important for people to tell councillors what they want in the budget.
Crawford and a budget subcommittee are coming to hear public deputations Wednesday, Jan. 13 at Scarborough Civic Centre, though speakers must register by noon Monday, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 392-4666.
“You need to speak out, and next week you have an opportunity,” Ahmed said.