Toronto’s draft 2019 budget, introduced Jan. 28, is being debated at city hall, and is scheduled to be finalized March 7. The decisions being made over the next few weeks could have far-reaching consequences for residents.
The city owns a vast array of physical assets, valued at just under $95 billion. That includes roads, bridges, culverts, buildings, parks and thousands of vehicles, including subways, streetcars and ferries, which must be maintained and kept in a state of good repair.
Each year cash from the city’s operating budget — which covers day-to-day spending — is transferred into the capital budget, which covers infrastructure, and the 10-year plan for spending the capital budget is updated.
With a growing population, the city had been increasing the amount of cash it transfers to the capital budget every year. But a drop in revenue in 2018 from the Municipal Land Transfer Tax — paid when properties exchange hands in Toronto — has led to a reduction in the amount of money currently earmarked for transfer to the 2019 capital budget.
The current draft budget decreases the transfer by $46.4 million to $340 million in 2019.
The budget estimates that the city’s total backlog for repairs and maintenance will grow from $7.8 billion in 2019 to $9.5 billion in 2028 — but that assumes capital transfer levels return to normal next year and increase every year after that, hitting a high of $754 million in 2026.
Councillor Gord Perks, who supports a property tax increase above the inflationary 2.55 per cent increase currently being proposed for 2019, is concerned that the city’s backlog of repairs is about to get worse — much worse.
“Essentially, to keep property taxes low, we’re sacrificing the money that we’re spending on maintaining roads, libraries, parks and all of that other stuff. When you add all that up, we start to be a city where more and more of the things you rely on are rusted out, leaky, cracked, broken and having to close from time-to-time while we do patchwork repairs,” said Perks.
Where to spend and where not to spend is a continuous and delicate balancing act, and sometimes the compromises result in unintended consequences.
On Jan. 31, at around 2:30 p.m. at the Toronto Zoo, four panes of glass in the African Rainforest Pavilion, overburdened by a heavy snowfall, crashed to the ground, including over part of a public corridor.
Fortunately, many of the guests had left for the day. The pavilion was closed immediately and the area barricaded for staff safety. A contractor replaced the glass with safety glass and the pavilion was reopened the morning of Feb. 2.
Robin Hale, the zoo’s chief operating officer, said the glass was single pane and needed to be upgraded to a stronger, energy efficient, glazed roofing system.
“The broken glass is due to the need to upgrade and replace all of the single pane pavilion glass that forms much of the roofs of the Africa Rainforest and Indo-Malaya Pavilions with a stronger, energy efficient glazed roofing system,” said Robin Hale, the zoo’s chief operating officer.
“This is on our (state-of-good-repair) backlog list and is an ongoing maintenance issue. The work will be scheduled as part of a larger pavilion renovation.”
No one was injured in the accident. No animals were harmed. But it illustrates the danger of putting off repairs.
“It’s manageable. But I wouldn’t want to see it get any worse,” said Hale.
“Infrastructure maintenance investment isn’t something we in the public tend to notice until it goes wrong,” said Shoshanna Saxe, PhD, P. Eng., an assistant professor of sustainable urban infrastructure, Department of civil and mineral engineering, University of Toronto.
She added that increasing extreme weather is adding further stress to the infrastructure system.
“Infrastructure that was well designed for the 20th century may not be prepared for the climate of the 21st,” said Saxe.
“Moving forward I think we need to acknowledge that infrastructure is the foundation of our civil society. It requires upkeep and investment and that costs money. If we don’t invest now it will be even more expensive in the future to catch up.”
One of the ways the city tracks backlog levels is by comparing the cost of the backlog (estimated repairs and replacements, upgrades and renovations) to the value of the assets being managed.
The figure varies widely between agencies and departments and even within agencies and departments.
The repair backlog list at the zoo runs at about 26 per cent of the zoo’s total valued assets, according to Hale.
At Toronto Community Housing, the backlog was at 16.4 per cent at the end of 2018, according to spokesperson Bruce Malloch.
Despite significant new investment, it’s expected to keep climbing to just over 18 per cent by 2020, as buildings age faster than they can be repaired.
The agency’s goal is to bring it down to 10 per cent by 2026, which is industry standard, but the long-term funding for that strategy is not in place.
“We’re not underfunded this year, but for our 10-year-plan yes, it’s not a fully funded plan at this stage,” said Malloch.
At Parks, Forestry and Recreation, the repairs and maintenance backlog is expected to grow from 15.1 per cent in 2018 to 20.3 per cent in 2028, although spokesman Shane Gerard said most of the projects are not obvious to residents and visitors.
Some areas will suffer more than others. According to budget documents, the backlog of work on trails, pathways and bridges will hit 98 per cent of asset value by 2028.
Ramsden Park Outdoor Ice Rink was on the state-of-good-repair backlog for years because of the age of the plant, but because it was operating satisfactorily, it was not a high priority for repair.
This season, however, the system failed during start-up, resulting in the closure of the rink for the season. Now the project has moved to the top of the priority list and will be addressed as part of the 2019 budgeted work, Gerard said.
It can take years and sometimes decades for planned improvements in city facilities — the orangutan outdoor enclosure was originally envisioned as part of a 25-year capital master plan put forth in 1990. It wasn’t added to the zoo’s 10-year capital works program until 2010 and was scheduled to be completed by 2017.
Now slated for completion in 2020, the new enclosure, outside the Indo-Malaya Pavilion, adjacent to the indoor holding area, will provide the zoo’s six orangutans with more space and activities, allow for some growth in the number of animals, and create a better attraction for visitors.
Although the current facilities meet all of the current applicable animal care standards, the improvement meets the zoo’s mandate to provide behavioural enrichment for its animals, Hale said.
Numerous other projects are being delayed. A budget submission from Toronto Public Libraries lists nine projects requiring $77 million in debt funding. The city is recommending providing $5 million.
The nine projects that won’t be funded include the Barbara Frum library, which requires new HVAC, mechanical electrical systems and elevators. An expansion of the Parkdale neighbourhood library is on hold.
“A significant percentage (70 per cent) of Toronto Public Library’s branch infrastructure was built between 1960 to 1990, and many branches are now coming up for renewal or replacement over the next 10 years, creating high (state-of-good-repair) needs,” according to Toronto Public Libraries spokesperson Ana-Maria Critchley.
“At the same time, city funding … is coming down over the next 10 years, creating a funding shortfall that will result in an increasing (state-of-good-repair) backlog.”
Staff at the city’s Long-Term Care Homes & Services decided not to include in the 2019 budget several capital maintenance projects at five city-owned and operated long-term care homes that are slated for mandatory redevelopment, said Reg Paul, general manager of the division.
“In future, there may be a growing pressure to increase the capital maintenance budget requests if the redevelopment of the identified (long-term care) homes does not proceed in a timely manner,” he added.
Councillor Perks, says he is particularly concerned with the backlog of repairs needed to trails and pathways at bridges maintained by Parks, Forestry and Recreation; he’s concerned with a $33-billion backlog at the TTC; he’s concerned with the growing backlog of repairs needed to keep city streets in good condition.
“Some stuff is getting done. I want to be clear — we are doing some repairs. We’re just not doing all the needed repairs. We’re doing a smaller and smaller percentage of the needed repairs every year,” he said.
“It means more potholes, more sinkholes, more cracks.”
Francine Kopun is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @KopunF