City state Sell­ing off Hyrdo won’t save city from bud­get woes – a park­ing levy might

Sell­ing off pub­lic as­sets like Toronto Hy­dro is not the an­swer to our bud­get woes, but a levy on com­mer­cial park­ing spa­ces would sta­bi­lize fi­nances for years to come

NOW Magazine - - CONTENTS - By JOHN CARTWRIGHT news@now­ | @now­toronto

I have just re­turned from the United Na­tions Con­fer­ence of the Par­ties (COP22) in Morocco, where thou­sands gath­ered to nudge for­ward the global agenda on cli­mate ac­tion signed in Paris last year.

Mixed emo­tions were on dis­play: del­e­gates cel­e­brat­ing the Paris agree­ment were deeply shocked by Don­ald Trump’s vic­tory. U.S. Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry tried to put a brave face on things, but we all un­der­stand that Trump’s pres­i­dency means an enor­mous step back­ward in global ef­forts to tackle cli­mate change.

At panel dis­cus­sions across the COP22 venue, speaker af­ter speaker pointed to the grow­ing role of cities and re­gions in spear­head­ing so­lu­tions. On­tario Min­is­ter of the En­vi­ron­ment and Cli­mate Change Glen Mur­ray as­serted that many Amer­i­can may­ors and state gov­er­nors will con­tinue to pur­sue this work. The C40 May­ors, the Global Com­pact of Cities and many other or­ga­ni­za­tions are com­mit­ted to driv­ing an am­bi­tious en­vi­ron­men­tal agenda. The Fed­er­a­tion of Cana­dian Mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties con­tin­ues to frame a pro­gres­sive role for cities large and small.

In Canada’s largest city, it’s time to take stock of what we can do.

The Trans­for­mTO process is un­der way, de­vel­op­ing a de­tailed plan for Toronto’s cli­mate and en­ergy goals for the com­ing years. We can build on past achieve­ments: the 25 years of in­no­va­tion spear­headed by the Toronto At­mo­spheric Fund, and the Bet­ter Build­ing Part­ner­ship’s retrofitting of build­ings to cut 680,000 tonnes of CO2.

But we must also ac­knowl­edge huge gaps: $2.6 bil­lion of needed re­pairs on Toronto Com­mu­nity Hous­ing stock; an­other $1 bil­lion for school build­ings; and the TTC anx­iously scroung­ing for funds to keep more than 1.5 mil­lion pas­sen­gers mov­ing daily. We are the child poverty cap­i­tal of Canada.

It’s not that there isn’t lots of money in this town. Loads of it flies around in spec­u­la­tive stock deals, merg­ers and ac­qui­si­tions and CEO bonuses. The 1 per cent are do­ing very well.

But city coun­cil is now strug­gling to find the rev­enue needed to keep de­liv­er­ing the pub­lic ser­vices so vi­tal for a healthy city – not just bricks and mor­tar, but the so­cial in­fras­truc­ture that pro­vides a mea­sure of equal­ity for ev­ery­one.

We all know that wages have stag­nated for most peo­ple in the last decade, and too many young peo­ple are work­ing in pre­car­i­ous jobs. So how do we raise the money to in­vest in what is needed for com­mu­ni­ties, and do our part for the en­vi­ron­ment?

Sell­ing off pub­lic as­sets, as Mayor John Tory has sug­gested, is not the an­swer.

The Park­ing Au­thor­ity and Toronto Hy­dro gen­er­ate tens of mil­lions of rev­enue dol­lars for city cof­fers. They are huge in­come-mak­ers, which is ex­actly why Bay Street would love to take them over.

On the Hy­dro front, a very so­phis­ti­cated game is afoot. You only have to track the mayor’s lan­guage around in­ad­e­quate wiring and trans­form­ers, a script wor­thy of a sea­soned spin doc­tor to see how the de­ci­sion to cut Hy­dro’s div­i­dend was de­signed to ease the way to a sale. (Nick Kou­valis’s deft hand at work?)

It mir­rors Mel Last­man’s plan 15 years ago to pri­va­tize Toronto’s wa­ter sys­tem. Back then it was worth $19 bil­lion, and the pri­vate wa­ter firms were hov­er­ing like vul­tures over car­rion. No mat­ter how of­ten Mel and his team claimed they had the best in­ter­ests of the pub­lic at heart, it be­came ob­vi­ous that a scheme was in place.

A ma­jor pub­lic fight de­railed that at­tempt, fu­elled in part by strong feel­ings about pri­va­ti­za­tion in the wake of the Walk­er­ton tragedy.

But a dif­fer­ent dy­namic is at play these days as both the fed­eral and provin­cial Lib­er­als trumpet “as­set re­cy­cling” – a term meant to dis­guise a mas­sive power grab by wealthy in­ter­ests.

Some politi­cians throw up their hands in ex­as­per­a­tion to con­clude that we have no other op­tion. “Can’t raise property taxes,” they say. “What about the poor widow in her bun­ga­low?”

So let’s leave her alone and con­cen­trate on those who have am­ple means to con­trib­ute.

The KPMG re­port on city rev­enue tools clearly shows one op­tion above all oth­ers that makes sense both fi­nan­cially and morally: a com­mer­cial park­ing levy that could raise $171 to $535 mil­lion a year with a daily tax of 50 cents to $1.50 for a park­ing spot. It would be paid by the rich­est landown­ers in the city. We’re talk­ing se­ri­ous money, and the chance to sta­bi­lize Toronto’s fi­nances for years to come.

There could be an ex­emp­tion for small strip malls. They don’t en­joy the same kind of rev­enue as the big boys – an 18 per cent in­crease in one year for York­dale, 33 per cent for Royal Bank Plaza, 8 per cent for the Ea­ton Cen­tre and Fairview. You get the pic­ture. That’s why the big com­mer­cial land­lords have their lob­by­ists fu­ri­ously work­ing the halls of 100 Queen West to de­rail any at­tempt at this sen­si­ble so­lu­tion. But it re­ally is the only op­tion of the mag­ni­tude to pro­vide real in­vest­ment in Toronto’s fu­ture.

We could also claim the in­come from the ho­tel levy that Dal­ton McGuinty de­nied us in the orig­i­nal City Of Toronto Act. Ev­ery other ma­jor city de­rives funds from ho­tel vis­its, and Premier Kath­leen Wynne has sig­nalled that she’s will­ing to en­ter­tain the idea.

But it alone won’t pro­vide the amount needed for se­ri­ous work or make up for the loss of land trans­fer funds when the real es­tate mar­ket cools down.

So let’s fo­cus on fair­ness and ask those with the most re­sources to con­trib­ute their share to keep Toronto a liv­able city. For af­ford­able pub­lic tran­sit, de­cent hous­ing, ac­ces­si­ble re­cre­ation for our youth and ser­vices for se­niors, ev­ery­one needs to pitch in.

And if we’re go­ing to re­duce our city’s car­bon foot­print, we’ll have to re­duce en­ergy and wa­ter use, di­vert waste and adapt for ex­treme weather events. There will be pay­backs later, but first we have to in­vest. John Cartwright is pres­i­dent of the Toronto & York Re­gion Labour Coun­cil.

Big com­mer­cial land­lords have their lob­by­ists fu­ri­ously work­ing the halls at 100 Queen West to de­rail any at­tempt at this sen­si­ble so­lu­tion.

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