Toronto homeowners could pay a whopping 20 per cent more in property taxes and still be paying less than counterparts in half the municipalities around them, says a new Ryerson University study.
The idea might give Torontonians a jolt as city council prepares to finalize the 2019 budget, with Mayor John Tory promising another year of rate hikes held to around the rate of inflation.
But Gord Perks, one of Tory’s council colleagues long critical of the mayor’s budgets and their impact on the city’s finances, says the study by Frank Clayton, an economist with Ryerson’s Centre for Urban Research and Land Development, is proof Torontonians can pay more — phased in, not in one shocking hike — to improve their city without going broke or losing their homes.
Perks estimated at 20-per-cent hike would equal an extra $600 million per year in city revenue, but it would be bad policy to hit people all at once with a huge hike.
“Many of us argue we need to close the gap to get the services we need and defend the services we have,” Perks said in an interview.
Don Peat, a spokesperson for the mayor, said Tory was keeping his promise by holding property taxes to around the rate of inflation. He said in an email that “voters across Toronto in every ward voted overwhelmingly in favour of that promise and gave the Mayor a mandate to continue his responsible approach to the City’s finances.
“Despite a tough budget year, the proposed budget includes no service cuts, makes additional investments in many areas — including transit, policing, housing, and libraries.”
Clayton, the economist, notes in the study released Thursday that Toronto faces growing challenges paying to replace aging infrastructure, including some century-old sewer pipes, to add new infrastructure and to pay for enhanced services triggered by the city’s growing population.
“It is often suggested that the senior governments should provide a share of their income tax or HST revenue to the City to fund these needs. However, it seems unlikely that this will happen in the foreseeable future,” Clayton writes.
“Rather, our approach is to explore whether higher municipal property taxes could be used to finance the infrastructure and services being demanded by city residents.”
He analyzed unpublished data from the 2016 census using two measures favoured by academics to determine the tax load on property owners.
The first is average property taxes as a percentage of average market value of owner-occupied homes, or the relationship between your tax bill and what price you could get for your home.
Toronto’s “average effective tax rate” of 0.51 per cent is 21 per cent less than the average rate for the median-ranked municipality in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. Only two other GTHA municipalities — Markham and Richmond Hill — have a lower effective tax rate.
The other measure is the average property tax burden — taxes as a per cent of household income. On that score, the Toronto average of 2.74 per cent is 22 per cent less than the average tax burden for the median-ranked municipality in the GTHA.
“We have concluded that Toronto has room to increase the average property tax rate on homes by approximately 20 per cent and still be in the middle of the range of taxes levied by 28 other municipalities within the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area.”
In an interview, Clayton said “I’m a taxpayer too,” with a laugh, when told many homeowners might be upset over his conclusion.
But he is adamant that “there’s room for taxes to go up,” noting Torontonians’ unhappiness with the state of transit, snow removal and other services, and the tens of billions of dollars in unfunded capital projects including Toronto Community Housing repairs.
Torontonians were hit with above-average inflation tax hikes after the Second World War, he said, when the city was quickly growing, subways and highways and suburbs were being built, and residents accepted the extra cost as the price of living in a boom town.
“They knew they had to pay those taxes to get those services,” Clayton said. “We have to change that mentality — if you want the public sector services, you have to pay for them.”
During debates at city hall, politicians often warn that big tax hikes will hurt senior citizens on fixed incomes who can’t readily tap into the escalated price of their homes.
Clayton said seniors can take out reverse mortgages, and the city could enhance an existing program to let low-income senior and people with disabilities defer property tax increases until they sell their homes or die.
But cities with such program often see little take-up, he added. “People seem to find income from somewhere to pay tax increases,” he said, “because they want to have an asset to pass on.”
David Rider is the Star’s City Hall bureau chief and a reporter covering Toronto politics. Follow him on Twitter: @dmrider