Saturday, August 14, 2010
As mayoral election looms, Toronto is still a city divided
Each morning on his way to work, Kic listens to the radio mainly for the traffic updates, but also for the news. He considers himself pretty well informed.
He knows his taxes have gone up and that Mayor David Miller suddenly discovered an extra $100 million in city coffers earlier this year.
He knows that city councillors have huge office budgets and that councillor Rob Ford gives his back.
He knows that ever since amalgamation, tax dollars flow downtown, while the suburbs sit ignored.
“Under Mayor David Miller, we pay more taxes and get less services,” he said. “It’s not the same as when we were our own city. Things got done then.”
It’s irrelevant if what Kic believes is actually true. He thinks it is. And so do tens of thousands of other voters who live in the inner suburbs.
City council is split on the issue. Suburban councillors bemoan what they say is blatant urban favouritism by the mayor’s office. Old-Toronto representatives say this is simply a (sub)urban myth.
The 1998 amalgamation brought urbanites and suburban dwellers together geographically, but Toronto is still very much a city divided. And on Oct. 25, when voters choose the next mayor, their decision will likely be rooted in where they live.
The proof is in the archetypal frontrunners.
On one end is businessman Rob Ford, a crusading fiscal conservative who believes in “traditional marriage.” He finds passionate support in neighbourhoods just like Kic’s.
On the other end is Liberal heavy-hitter George Smitherman: a married gay man living in a hip downtown condo, whose loyal base lives in the city core.
Moreover, there is little cross-over. Ford holds a solid majority of decided voters in Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke, while Smitherman is polling far behind in each of those areas, said Jodi Shanoff, vice-president of Angus Reid, public opinion, and managing director.
The opposite is true for old Toronto.
In April, when the bike lanes issue hijacked election chatter, suburban voters kicked and screamed at the idea of adding routes along major arterial roads. Drivers were pitted against cyclists and the battle lines were drawn starkly along pre-amalgamation boundaries.
A culture war has been quietly simmering in the 416 for a decade. The victor will be decided in the fall.
Part of the debate is ideological. But part is a common feeling of unfairness. Walter Kic would say the bike lane issue is another example of needless cash being spent in old Toronto, while services like boulevard weeding are neglected in his neck of the woods. Meanwhile, the city keeps downtown in showroom state for the throngs of summer tourists.
So is Kic right?
Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti thinks so. Mammoliti, who made the suburban plight a pillar of his failed mayoral bid, said his staff analyzed the numbers and there is no doubt the majority of city spending goes downtown.
“Everything from parks and recreation to the works department, and in particular culture, is gobbled up by (old) Toronto … and there’s just no room left for the suburbs,” said Mammoliti.
As far as parks go, it’s hard to tell. That city department is only now developing a proper post-amalgamation assessment of its assets — which is a big part of the problem.
How do you make things even when you don’t know what you’ve got?
At the moment, the actual breakdown shows old Toronto receives less funding per-person ($31) than both North York ($34) and Etobicoke/York ($40). But digest those numbers with a considerable amount of skepticism, cautions parks manager Brenda Patterson.
From the $640 million renovation of Union Station (the city is covering just under half), to the $500 million investment in the waterfront revitalization, to the $25 million Bloor Street beautification initiative, big money doesn’t seem to stray far from the CN Tower.
Budget chief and North York Councillor Shelley Carroll sees it a different way.
The majority of property tax revenue is generated in the high-density, high-value old Toronto neighbourhoods. And more than 40 per cent of all commercial and industrial tax revenue comes from the financial district.
“In fact, the downtown core is actually investing in the suburbs,” said Carroll.
When the province forced together the former cities of Etobicoke, York, North York, East York, Scarborough and Toronto, each came to the table with different needs.
“The discussions about amalgamation came as they were all dealing with the early ’90s recession. And so each was deferring things to balance their budget,” said Carroll.
North York, for example, was debt-free, but had put off years of water infrastructure maintenance. Scarborough had top-notch roads, but opted not to invest in public transit. Residents in tiny York paid low taxes, but the city could never afford a community centre.
The city is still playing catch-up, trying to level the field.
The tab for those fixes: The basement flooding mitigation program in North York will cost between $500 million and $1 billion. The city is directing $8 billion in provincial transit funding mainly to the suburbs and the York community centre will be around $30 million.
But there’s more.
Tired of hearing colleagues complain, Toronto-Danforth Councillor Paula Fletcher made a list of recent council initiatives that primarily benefit suburbia.
At the top of that list — which includes $120 million in tax forgiveness for Etobicoke’s WoodBine Live, a $171 million sports complex for Scarborough (the city promised to cover up to $37.5 million) and ongoing snow removal and leaf pickup services — is the multi-million-dollar investment in Toronto’s 13 priority neighborhoods, which are nearly all in the suburbs.
Decades ago, Toronto’s local government began building a safety network of programs and facilities for its poor. At the same time, suburban municipalities were directing few resources towards struggling communities, such as Lawrence Heights, Kingston-Galloway and Malvern.
Once again, city hall is left cleaning up a mess created in a pre-amalgamation world.
The problem for a mayoral candidate with quasi-incumbent status like deputy mayor Joe Pantalone is that suburban voters don’t connect their own households to this kind of spending.
While door-knocking in the 2006 election, Scarborough Councillor Norm Kelly heard the same complaint time and time again: We are being ignored.
He struggled to find an educated response. No one had ever looked into it before. So the next year, Kelly hired two University of Toronto students to conduct a comprehensive study of city resources.
Fair Share Scarborough examined 10 essential city services, such as children’s services, police and water.
“What they found is that for the most part, yes, Scarborough was in fact getting its fair share,” said Kelly.
But money is only part of the equation, said former Toronto budget chief David Soknacki. What the megacity did is create a complex bureaucracy. People now feel far removed from their local government.
“Part of the real attraction of someone like Councillor Ford is that no matter where you are in the city with a hole in your city housing unit, he will be there, sometimes with staff in tow to get it fixed. That’s a far cry from the procedure of calling 311,” said Soknacki.
And that’s exactly why Walter Kic says he plans to vote for Rob Ford this fall.
Kic knows that he can trust Ford with his money.
He knows that Ford wouldn’t give Nathan Phillips Square a makeover while potholes go unfixed in family neighbourhoods.
“Why Rob Ford?” asks Kic. “He’s the only one that makes sense when he talks.”
Comparing the Burbs