Poverty reduction, student nutrition programs and public transit were among the issues heard at the Scarborough Civic Centre during a public deputation meeting on the city’s 2017 capital and operating budgets.
On Thursday, Jan. 5, dozens voiced their views to members of the budget committee, which needs to find $91 million to balance the budget.
John Stapleton, who co-authored a poverty report in November, urged councillors to invest in reducing poverty.
“The city also has a role in creating a living wage that would take people out of poverty and turn them into taxpayers,” he told the meeting. “Rather than trying to save 2.6 per cent off the city’s budget through cuts, the city’s government could more usefully apply itself to reducing the city’s own share of the cost of poverty, and in time, eventually save the same amount and perhaps a bit more.”
Stapleton noted the “fiscal drag of the cost of poverty” stands at about $5 billion out of the $184 billion economy Toronto represents.
“That is an unnecessary fiscal drag of just over 2.7 per cent caused by the cost of poverty alone.”
Though it’s not up to city government to create full employment, said Stapleton, the city does have an important role “to create the policies that foster full employment.”
Sherry Pearson, co-ordinator of the student nutrition program at St. Agatha Catholic School, spoke of the merits of the morning meal program.
“Benefits such as satisfying hunger — which allows a child to focus more on his or her school work — educating them simply through example on healthier food choices and providing food in the morning to those who, for one reason or another, don’t get enough, or in some cases, any food at all.”
Pearson said her greatest challenge is “acquiring more funding in order to maintain this invaluable program.”
Coun. Gary Crawford, chair of the budget committee, said in an interview that an increase in funding to student nutrition programs across the city isn’t in the budget at this point. “If we can’t balance the budget through other means, some of those important programs could be in jeopardy,” he said — adding, though, the mayor won’t be supporting cuts to programs that impacts the city’s poverty reduction strategy.
Crawford noted the board of health brought forward a $2.2 million proposal to expand the student nutrition program. “We would have to look at how we get that into the budget if that’s a priority of the budget committee,” he said.
Gillian Sumi received applause after describing the challenges of using public transit while in a wheelchair. She said that ramps are too small and she can’t navigate easily on narrow TTC buses. When the buses are very crowded, Sumi said, she can’t even get on, forcing her to travel during nonpeak hours. She said she uses transit buses because Wheel-Trans requires riders to book trips at least one day in advance.
Sumi said the TTC is experiencing a $77 million budget shortfall and urged councillors not to support cuts to bus routes.
“Council has not applied the revenue tools needed to build the transit our city desperately needs. Road tolls alone will not do,” she said. “Ask drivers to pay their fair share by introducing the vehicle registration tax and/or other taxes.”
Anna Kim, who works with Scarborough newcomers and community groups, said there are concerns around transit, housing and employment resources.
“Toronto is an extraordinarily wealthy city. We have a vast amount of resources, so I think there is no shortage in ability to actually fund what we need,” she told Metroland Media Toronto prior to the meeting. “Newcomers need a lot of resources that can be provided through the city and by community groups … Toronto is a big city, and I get the challenge for city council, but it does need to be responsive to its constituents.”
Scarborough resident Lydia Munro, who also came to observe the meeting, said she can’t afford any more taxes. “They should find efficiencies,” she said.
Children’s Aid Society community worker Michael Polanyi, who wore and distributed T-shirts that read “City Council: Keep your promise. Fund Toronto’s poverty plan,” said he’s concerned about potential cuts to programs and services.
“There’s a huge need in this city for affordable housing, affordable transit, and the concern is that this budget is not moving us forward,” he said prior to the meeting. “We’re encouraging residents to think about how these potential cuts would impact their lives and to speak out and participate in the democratic process.”
Crawford said the city is facing a “serious fiscal challenge this particular budget year.”
“We are going to have to make some difficult decisions,” he said. “We’re going to be working incredibly hard in every way to find efficiencies, to find different ways of doing things, so we will not be impacting the most vulnerable in this city.”