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E-BLAST: Hot Button Budget Items: Police Spending & TTC

Since it was launched last week, the biggest issues in the 2023 budget have risen to the surface. After the sticker shock of learning that the proposed property tax increase will keep pace with inflation, community conversations centred on the Toronto Police Services budget and the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) budget. Let's dive in.

Investments in Community Safety & Updates on Alternates to Policing

Mayor Tory announced big investments in community safety this year, with a proposed $48.3 million increase to the Police Services budget. Since this announcement, there has been much talk that the road to a safer city is not through policing. If this year's budget approach was through conventional policing alone, I would agree. But that is not the case. This budget also funds initiatives that help facilitate the move away from policing for certain community work. To make our city safe, we need to invest in the social services that help prevent crime, continue to work on community-based alternatives to policing, and make sure our emergency services are up to snuff.

Our police service has long been under pressure to reform, especially to address widespread evidence of racial profiling and to change police response to people experiencing mental health crises. Recommendations to do so have come not just from the community but from Provincial commissions and public inquiries as well. Some of that reform work has been happening since 2015, when tasks like crossing guard management and waterfront lifeguarding were shifted from the police over to the City. Where tasks can't be diverted from police, cuts and efficiencies within central operations are used to fund further modernization efforts. As of late, the biggest reforms are happening in mental health response. Based on expert opinion and learning from successful practices in other jurisdictions, some mental health crisis response is now being undertaken without any police involvement at all. This is part of a pilot program called the Toronto Community Crisis Service. For almost a year now, City staff have partnered with four respected community agencies to respond to mental health crisis calls when it is determined that police presence may not be necessary or preferred. Calls can be dispatched from 911, 211, or directly from community partners, and trained teams of crisis workers are sent out to respond. Council will soon get an annual progress report on the pilot, which has been incredibly effective thus far. I've included a summary of their activities below:

A few stats from the first six months of the TCCS. Click to learn more.

At present, Toronto may need more police officers due to population growth, retirements, and past budget-caused reductions in the number of officers. However, the TCCS pilot bodes well for the future. Staff are hard at work preparing this program for eventual city-wide expansion, and the success of the program shows that other activities currently handled by police could become community agency tasks in future. In the meantime, the Toronto Police Service has 700 fewer officers deployed now than it did in 2010. This budget proposes putting 200 officers back on the street, including 16 new Neighbourhood Officers, to provide the kind of safety services that only police can. This investment will also hire additional special constables and 911 operators to improve lagging service and response times to make sure police are getting to you as quickly as possible in an emergency.

TTC Budget Shortfalls

The budget for the TTC is a bit more complex. Our transit system has been lacking the kind of ongoing operating funding that every other major transit system in Canada receives from their respective Provincial governments since 1995, creating a backlog of issues. If the TTC was already underfunded before the pandemic began, it doesn't take much to imagine the state it's in now. It has become utterly unclear which services are being reduced each day as our transit system continues to navigate a deep hit to fare box revenues. For those of you who take the TTC, I don't need to tell you this—I'm certain you're seeing it when you ride the system. This year's budget needs to be more transparent to allow the TTC Board, the Mayor, and Council help the system properly recover.

Early in the pandemic, our Federal and Provincial governments agreed that keeping the TTC running could be included in COVID expenses. This allowed us to reverse driver layoffs and make sure that Toronto's frontline workers had reliable service to get to our hospitals and long-term care homes, something I fought hard for as a TTC Commissioner. While parts of our city are starting to return to something closer to "normal", the TTC continues to feel the impacts of reduced ridership. Unfortunately, the money to help the system along has not flowed from the Federal or Provincial governments as expected.

Without other government supports, gaps in service are being decided on a week-by-week basis and are not always announced. By reducing the hours of drivers and operators, and not filling positions after retirement, the TTC's actual spending in 2022 was about $75 million short of what was budgeted. How much of that shortfall is resulting in buses that short-turned on you, or streetcars that just don't show up? The less consistent our service is, the more likely transit riders are pushed to rideshares and other forms of transportation to get from A to B.

We also need a reliable transit service to help facilitate a more robust return to work, especially in our business district. This will help bring our city core back to life and support hundreds of small businesses. I believe this is possible even with greater flexibility in work hours and work-from-home options, but CEOs can't ask for more hours in the office if their employees can't rely on our transit system to get them there.

This year's budget does make some investments in the TTC, including rehiring special constables that were reduced during the pandemic and introducing additional Streets-to-Homes outreach workers to help those who have been seeking refuge on the TTC. While these measures are important, they don't address the service shortfalls we're seeing. More advocacy needs to be done to address service gaps and attract riders back to the system.

TTC leadership can't tell us everything is fine and ask for funding at the same time. TTC CEO Rick Leary needs to be far more transparent and share exactly where the system is suffering in full-colour detail. Then, the TTC Chair and his entire Board can help us become better, louder advocates for all that is needed to get the system back on its feet.

We know that our City budget doesn't provide enough to fully support our transit system. As I detailed in last week's E-Blast, we need to keep pushing for funding solutions beyond property taxes to keep the TTC and our whole city viable in the long-term.


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