This young Torontonian says the city’s budget neglects the future

This young Torontonian says the city's budget neglects the future

Michael Manu is paying close attention to this budget.

As the budget lead for the Toronto Youth Cabinet, the official youth body advising council, he said those the cabinet represents are worried about a lack of funding for capital repairs — a billions-dollar backlog in the next decade meaning more potholes, a less functional transit system and crumbling public housing.

Michael Manu, the budget lead for the Toronto Youth Cabinet, likens the city's budget to the personal budget of someone who is failing to prepare for retirement.
Michael Manu, the budget lead for the Toronto Youth Cabinet, likens the city’s budget to the personal budget of someone who is failing to prepare for retirement.  (Andrew Francis Wallace / Toronto Star)

That is, if council continues with the plan they have in front of them.

“The way that we’re doing things . . . it’s just not going to work going forward,” said Manu, a 23-year-old Scarborough Village resident who is looking for work while pursing his third university degree.

He lives at home with his parents and expects to “for the next couple of years” with median rents in his neighbourhood at around $1,300 for a one-bedroom apartment.

“We love our city,” he said, “but it doesn’t feel like it’s a city that is for the next generation.”

On Thursday, council will meet at city hall to approve both a $13.5 billion operating budget and a 10-year, $40.7 billion capital plan in the country’s largest city, where rents have skyrocketed, shelters are over capacity, one in four children live in low-income households, and a spike in violence left 41 homicide victims under the age of 30 last year (not including the Yonge St. or Danforth attacks).

Nearly every part of the budget is a choice council makes — what to fund or what not to fund.

That includes decisions like whether to pay for two new youth hubs — safe, after-school spaces within existing community centres or libraries in low-income neighbourhoods — included in the budget plan or to pay for 10 new hubs, as staff have outlined in a new plan that is not funded. Or none.

Much of what’s headed to council has been thrice baked in at this point — first recommended by staff, then approved by the budget committee under Mayor John Tory’s budget chair Councillor Gary Crawford and on Monday receiving approval by Tory’s own executive committee.

But the final decisions are up to all 26 members of council.

The problem of capital funding is stark.

According to the most recent budget numbers from staff, the repairs backlog will grow from $7.8 billion in 2019 to $9.5 billion in 2028. A large portion of the capital budget is currently going toward the repair and rebuild of the Gardiner Expressway.

At the same time, the budget currently before council recommends transferring less money from the city’s general operating revenue to the capital plan, in order to cover an operating budget shortfall this year.

It also recommends keeping residential property tax increases at the rate of inflation — a continuing trend promised by Tory during last year’s election.

A 2018 comparison of 24 municipalities in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton areas and Ottawa shows the city’s median property taxes are the second lowest — $867 less than the average. Even when accounting for the city’s municipal land transfer tax on the sale of properties, as well as garbage collection fees and water rates, Toronto’s taxes were still $245 below average.

“It is disappointing that the Gardiner appears to be the only city asset that has been given adequate funding to restore it to an acceptable level of repair while tracks on the subway are cracking and units in Toronto Community Housing are at risk of closing if the state-of-good-repair backlog and funding gap is not addressed as soon as possible,” Manu told budget committee members at a public consultation last month.

“This budget resembles a personal budget of an individual who is at the end of their respectable career but has failed to prepare for retirement.”

The city’s operating budget has also left many feeling squeezed. Despite more than $63 million added so far in new services championed by Tory and his budget chief, the amount of money the city is spending per resident has decreased from $4,598 in 2010 to $4,393 in 2019.

Mary Ann Scott, left, a mother of three, waited outside overnight in the freezing cold to sign her kids up for much-in-demand city recreation programs.
Mary Ann Scott, left, a mother of three, waited outside overnight in the freezing cold to sign her kids up for much-in-demand city recreation programs.  (Jennifer Pagliaro / Toronto Star)

“The burst of anxiety I feel started yesterday,” Mary Ann Scott, a mother of three, said Tuesday as she prepared to spend all night waiting outside a downtown community centre in hopes of getting her children into recreation programs.

For several years now she has waited, 12 hours in advance, to try to be one of the first in line to sign up for city-run programs at the popular new aquatic centre in Regent Park.

While council planned to add 25,000 new spaces across the city this year, the current budget only adds 7,500 — one of several promised strategies not fully funded by this budget. The wait-list has recorded up to 62,000 people in the past.

By 10 p.m. Tuesday, Scott was bundled under a blanket and several layers, seated in a folding chair outside the community centre’s front doors. It was -21 degrees Celsius.

“We care this much about our children and about their well-being,” Scott told the Star. “More spaces are needed. And it’s just unfortunate, it’s actually sad, that we have to stand out here and wait to get into programs in our own community.”

She and another mom were first in line when the centre’s doors opened the next morning at 6:30 and were grateful to get into all the programs on their lists.

Riley Peterson, the director of council relations for the youth cabinet, said she believes people are starting to feel the budgetary pressure in their everyday lives.

“People are becoming more aware and feeling the pinch unless you’re really part of the 1 per cent in Toronto,” she said.

She said council’s choices this budget cycle are vital ones.

“I think the choice that council has to make is whether or not they believe that poverty is inevitable,” Peterson said. “I think it’s getting to the point where people are dying on our streets and people are really struggling and I think they need to decide whether or not that’s OK.”

Getting it right on climate change and other strategies, youth have outlined during this budget process, is also about not losing site of the city’s core values.

“For our city to be Toronto the Good to meet the needs of those who need it the most, we need to invest deeply in affordable housing, better transit and (the climate change strategy), which this budget does not currently reflect,” Diana Yoon told budget committee members last month.

Manu said it comes down to council being proactive about the future.

There are smaller problems when looking at the larger issue of the city not planning ahead. He noticed, when reading through staff notes on the budget, that a reserve fund the city has to provide home computers to children whose low-income parents receive provincial subsidies will run out of money by the end of next year. No new funding has been identified.

“The way these budgets look,” Manu said, “this doesn’t seem like the council that wants to get ahead of the curve.”

Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags

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