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Why Toronto remains an underachiever - and why it won't last
At a time when the Toronto’s infrastructure is suffering decades of neglect, its financial needs are greater than ever. To make matters worse, political leaders focus on little more than keeping property taxes low.
Aug. 8, 2017

The only thing more worrisome than giving Toronto more power would be not giving it more power. Do we really want a dysfunctional city hall to have more control? On the other hand, do we really want to leave the city in the hands of a usually distracted province? Neither scenario is terribly reassuring.

Toronto may be the most important city in Canada, generating 10 per cent of the country’s GDP. But that hasn’t stopped its tendency to self-destruct. Neither does it cut much ice at Queen’s Park, where Toronto is seen as a cash cow that can be safely ignored when convenient and thwarted when necessary.

These questions have once again become the subject of discussion under the mayoralty of John Tory. For the first time since David Miller was chief magistrate, civic empowerment is on the table. But since former premier Dalton McGuinty brought forth the City of Toronto Act in 2006, little has changed. Though Tory has fumed famously about being “a little boy going up to Queen’s Park in short pants” to ask for more money, the hard truth is there’s not much he can do. The governance structure under which Canadian cities operate gives all the cards to the provinces.

Premier Kathleen Wynne made that painfully clear in January when she abruptly reversed direction and nixed Tory’s plan to toll the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway. Though doing so ran contrary to the city’s wishes - and her own progressive impulses - she opted to stick it to Toronto rather than risk suburban ire.

Tory’s frustration was understandable; but more important, Wynne’s decision once again raised the question about the wisdom of leaving Toronto, the country’s single most dynamic economic, cultural and social force, to the whims of its otherwise preoccupied provincial masters. Even when municipal and provincial politicians see eye to eye - as they do on the ruinous $3.4-billion Scarborough subway extension - the results are disastrous for the city.

The real issue, of course, is the raising and spending of money. Forbidden to impose personal income or general sales tax, Toronto must rely on property and land transfer tax, user fees and, of course, “handouts” from the province and, when lucky, Ottawa. At a time when the municipal infrastructure is suffering from severe lack of investment and decades of neglect, the city’s financial needs are greater than ever. To make matters worse, political leaders, especially those at the civic level, focus on little more than keeping property taxes low. That was as true for Toronto’s first post-amalgamation mayor, Mel Lastman, as it is for the current office-holder.

Sadly, though predictably, years of political banality have left the city more reliant than ever upon provincial funding. To make matter worse, Toronto’s leadership has squandered valuable capital - political and economic - on schemes that will leave Toronto poorly served and debt-ridden.

The choice between city and province is not a happy one. It’s a bit like the proposed revamp of the Ontario Municipal Board. Though much despised by city officials, the OMB has also enabled those same councillors and bureaucrats to avoid responsibility for development projects Torontonians fight tooth and nail.

Underlying these issues is the deep-seated suspicion Ontarians and many Torontonians feel for the big city. Official Toronto’s reluctance to accept its cosmopolitan fate, its race to impose suburban standards and continued fealty to car culture keep the city from realizing its potential. Yet at a time of backlash - Rob Ford and Donald Trump - the city’s role as a centre of innovation and intellectual and economic leadership is more crucial than ever.

The truth is that neither provincial nor municipal governments are up to the challenge of running a 21st-century metropolis. As long as political decisions are made - as they are in Toronto - out of fear of Ford Nation, the city will remain a civic underachiever.

Toronto’s best hope is probably the millennials, who have first-hand experience of how their parents’ generation has failed them. They will be the ones who take this city to the next level. They understand without being told that the urban agenda must address more than gridlock and downtown expressways and double-parked cars and low taxes.

They expect more from the city. They just need the power to get it.