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E-BLAST: What We're Hearing on the Budget

For the past two nights, I've been joining Mayor Chow to host the City's first-ever Budget Telephone Town Halls. As I shared when I took on the role of Budget Chief, the most important thing to me is that we are constantly in conversation with the community about the budget. That's why we held 16 pre-budget consultations back in November, and it's why we're hosting these Telephone Town Halls this week. I want to hear from you so we can build the future of our city together.



Me with Mayor Chow, Chief Financial Officer Stephen Conforti (left) and City Manager Paul Johnson (right) at our first Telephone Town Hall on Tuesday evening.


So far, tens of thousands of Torontonians have joined to listen in and share their thoughts, questions, and concerns about the proposed budget. Our final Telephone Town Hall is taking place tonight at 7 PM. If you want to take part, all you have to do is call 1-833-490-0778 (toll-free) at 7 PM and you'll be patched in. You'll hear from me, Mayor Chow, our Chief Financial Officer Stephen Conforti, and our City Manager Paul Johnson. There are opportunities to ask questions and share your feedback live on air, and hear from folks across the city.


The great thing about these Telephone Town Halls is that they really are a snapshot of how the whole city is feeling. Folks are calling in from every corner of Toronto. I'm going to share the most common questions we've gotten and their answers in this column today, as I'm sure many Don Valley Northerners have similar ones. Let's dive into it.


We start each Telephone Town Hall with a poll question that everyone answers with their phone. The question is:


In our pre-budget consultations, residents identified three key areas for investment. Let’s see if this group agrees. Please select what service you think is most important to invest in, when the mayor delivers her budget on February 1?

  1. Affordable housing and shelters

  2. Good, affordable, reliable transit

  3. Police and making our city safer

  4. Other priorities for investment

The pie chart below shows the answers we've gotten to that question so far:



Overall, this is very much in line with what we heard during the Pre-Budget conversations back in November, and it's why this budget proposes strategic investments in those three priority areas. We're investing in multiple affordable housing initiatives, budgeting to hire over 300 more first responders across our police, fire, and paramedic services, and investing in safety measures on the TTC while freezing transit fares to get people back riding our buses, subways and streetcars.


After the poll, we got into resident questions. I'm going to spell a few of them out below and share the answers provided by myself, Mayor Chow, CFO Stephen Conforti and our City Manager Paul Johnson.


"Why is there $1 billion more spending in this budget?"

– Celia from Etobicoke


When we compare total spending in 2024 to 2023, there is $700 million more this year than last. However, most of that increase doesn't come from our property tax-supported operating budget. It comes from both of our rate-supported programs, Toronto Water and Solid Waste Management (mostly to support their capital work building infrastructure), and our flow-through and cost-shared social services that are delivered on behalf of the other orders of government. This includes things like the Federal childcare expansion and an increase to Employment and Social Services, whose caseloads are going up as more Torontonians access Ontario Works and ODSP.


"How will seniors on fixed incomes be impacted by this tax increase?"

– Elaine from High Park


A few folks have contacted my office with this question as well. I want to make sure everyone knows about the City's Property Tax Increase Deferral and Cancellation programs. Seniors and people with disabilities with a household income of $55,000/year and under are eligible to have their property tax increase either deferred on cancelled. Our income threshold for this program is much higher than neighbouring municipalities like Markham, who only provide this support to households with an income of $40,000 or lower and individuals with an income of $23,000 or lower. This service is in place to make sure property tax increases don't increase the burden for people living on fixed incomes. You can learn more about the program and how to apply at the website below, or by calling 311.

"Has City Council reviewed all department budgets for savings?"

– Giuseppe from Scarborough


We started a detailed, line-by-line review of every division in June 2023, a process that identified $620 million in offsets and savings. This isn't always about service cuts, it's about how we deliver service to be as efficient as possible. For example, we can look at things like how we procure medical supplies. We need to stock our long-term care homes and our various Toronto Public Health clinics. By bulk buying and then distributing to the divisions, we can save your property tax dollars.


"In light of increased crime rates, with incidents up by 15-20% and 911 wait times upwards of 20 minutes, how do you propose to balance police resources for crime prevention and community safety?"

– Sarah from North York


This question became even more relevant today, when Budget Committee did our public review of the Toronto Police Services budget. Safety is one of the top priorities of this Budget, which is why we are increasing the police budget by $25 million. This is enough money to hire about 300 new staff. The Chief of Police and Board will decide how to deploy those positions—it could be 300 new officers on the ground or a mix of officers and civilian staff. This is a similar level of investment as was made in the 2023 Budget, which saw 200 new officers, 90 special constables, and 20 new 911 operators hired. This was the highest infusion of your property taxes into the police budget in one year since 2012, and we're making a similar investment this year.


You may have seen that the budget increase we've proposed is lower than what the Toronto Police Services Board has requested. The difference is about $12.6 million. We've asked every department to tighten their belt this year given our financial challenges, and are also very mindful of the fact that the Toronto Police Association will bargain for salary increases later this year, which are not included at the budget we're looking at today.


Safety in our community is always top of mind here at City Hall. I'm confident that the strategic investments in Police, as well as Fire, Paramedics, and our new Toronto Community Crisis Service, will improve emergency response times and help make sure all Torontonians feel safer in our city.


"In addition to raising taxes, what other major sources of revenue have been considered? Have we been creative, like asking corporate donors to make big, one-time donations?"

– Anne from Downtown


While I've long been an advocate for diversifying our revenue streams, we have to be careful about how we go about it. One-time revenue is a problem because then we have to go back and find a way to raise that money again every single year.


Instead, we need access to ongoing, stable revenue tools that grow with our economy, such as a Municipal Sales Tax, which could raise north of $800 million for our city every year. Many options like this were presented through the City's Long-Term Financial Plan, which was released last summer. Some of the bigger revenue tools like a sales tax require permission from the Province. They've been great partners through the New Deal, and have committed to continuing the conversation about Toronto's long-term financial position in the months ahead.


This is a sample of the questions that have been asked over the past two evenings, and I look forward to another engaging conversation tonight. If you aren't able to take part in tonight's Telephone Town Hall, rest assured there are still many opportunities to get involved, including public deputations next week and our very own Don Valley North Budget Town Hall on Monday, February 5, 2023. I've included the links with more info to both below. Remember, this is the time to weigh in and have your voice heard to get our city back on track and start building the Toronto we all want to see.

 

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