Ask Your Candidate: The Economy

By: Seb FoxAllen

Should the City have the right to create a municipal sales or hotel tax?

The Toronto region is a major contributor to Ontario’s overall economy, representing almost half of the province’s GDP. The Province collects revenue from this output through their share of the HST (8% provincial, 5% federal), but also places limits on the ability for the City to consider creating its own sales tax.

A municipal sales tax would work almost exactly like the provincial and federal HST (currently 13%), except the money would go directly to the City. It would be comparatively low, likely 1 or 2 percent, bringing Toronto’s sales tax to roughly where it was before the federal government reduced the GST from 7% to 5% back in 2008. In practice, this would mean that the actual cost of, say, a $2 cup of coffee would rise from $2.26 to $2.30.

The proceeds of the tax could be used for whatever purpose City Council decided, and could even be isolated for a specific purpose, like transit spending or debt reduction.

The implementation of a sales taxes could, however, have drawbacks. Critics argue that new municipal taxes discourage consumer spending, investment and tourism (Data from Austin, TX, which levies hotel, venue, and a sales tax, seems to ease some of those concerns).

More significantly, because sales taxes impose the same rate on everybody regardless of how much money they make, people with lower incomes end up paying a higher percentage of their earnings than people who earn more. In most cases, this is corrected by exempting basic items (groceries, clothing, gasoline, etc.) that lower income consumers spend more of their income on. Some jurisdictions also offer exemptions or credits for lower-income residents (many Canadians receive a quarterly HST rebate cheque depending on their yearly income, for instance).

Sales taxes (and/or hotel and visitor’s taxes, in place in cities like San Francisco, Chicago, and New York) could also be particularly efficient in raising revenue from Toronto’s expanding tourism industry. In 2012, 9.9 million hotel room nights were sold across the region (Toronto hotels do currently actually charge a 3% hotel tax, however all proceeds go directly to the Province’s Tourism Ontario).

Of the $5.1 billion visitors spend annually in Toronto, federal and provincial governments collect $1.8 billion in taxes. Yet, because of the limits placed on municipal revenue options, the City is only able to directly raise $14.4 million.

Outgoing City Manager Joe Pennachetti has been increasingly blunt in his insistence that the current set of options the Province allows Council are not sufficient to sustain the service expectations of Torontonians. “We do not have the revenue tools we should have,” he told a crowd this spring. The provincial government considered giving City Council these new powers as recently as last year, but opted instead to find revenue in corporate and gas taxes.

Ask your candidate whether they support provincial legislation to give Toronto the same range of revenue options available to other major cities across North America and, if so, what types of proposals they would explore if given that power.

With files from Christina Marciano.

Ask Your Candidate: Public Spaces

By: Heather Jackson

We humans are social animals. It’s why we live with other people and form communities. If our neighbourhoods have thriving public spaces (parks, squares, markets, waterfronts, gardens, etc.) for us all to frequent and enjoy, we tend to consider these places more “livable” than places without such amenities. Public spaces also have economic benefits for real estate (higher property values), local businesses (increased pedestrian traffic means more customers for shops and restaurants) and tourism (think Central Park in New York or Las Ramblas in Barcelona). And of course there are the environmental benefits that come with more green space and fewer motor vehicles.

As the condo boom continues in Toronto, public spaces are becoming even more coveted, especially by families. The question for many parents living in high-rise buildings becomes, “Where do we take the kids to play?” Public spaces such as libraries, community centres and parks are essential, as are private-public spaces like courtyards, condo party rooms and rooftop patios. Here are some questions to ask your candidates about the use, creation and maintenance of public space in Toronto:

With all the new condos under construction, does Toronto in general and your ward in particular have enough public spaces to support the growing population? New condo buildings add thousands of residents to neighborhoods, which means more people using public spaces. Condo dwellers have less living space than those in houses with private yards, which some would argue makes public spaces even more important to these residents. Does your candidate have ideas on how to maintain existing public spaces or create new ones to meet this demand?

Is there a “Friends of the Park” group in your ward? Volunteer groups help maintain many of Toronto’s parks. Is your candidate aware of such a group or the need for park volunteers in a neglected or underused green space in your ward? Check out www.parkpeople.ca for a list of all the volunteer park groups in Toronto.

Should Toronto revise their parks policy? Currently the City requires a permit and insurance for community groups to host events in parks, and some feel that these local organizations should be exempt from fees and covered under the City’s insurance policy so that they are more likely to utilize public spaces for neighbourhood events. Does your candidate agree with this stance? Why or why not?

What spaces in your ward could benefit from POPS signs? Privately owned public spaces (POPS) such as parkettes, plazas, courtyards or walkways (a well-known example is Commerce Court in Toronto’s Financial District), which developers build in exchange for height bonuses or permission to bypass certain zoning restrictions, are open to the public though people aren’t always aware of this. So the City is making these POPS more accessible by adding signage to identify them, creating an online catalogue so people can find them, and establishing a set of guidelines to ensure that future POPS actually look like they are intended for public use. Does your candidate support this program?

Are the public spaces in your ward accessible? If not, what steps will your candidate take to rectify this problem? Some public spaces are more accessible than others, particularly in the wintertime when regular snow and ice clearing is required to ensure many residents can actually use their neighbourhood’s public spaces. From a human rights perspective it is vital to ensure equitable access to public space for those with sensory and mobility challenges – and the size of this group will only increase as our population ages. The City of Toronto has a set of Accessibility Design Guidelines for public spaces and infrastructure, but these guidelines serve as “best practices” rather than requirements. Does your candidate know whether the ward’s public spaces align with the Accessibility Design Guidelines? How will they work toward alignment over the course of their term in office?

For more information on everything to do with our city’s public space, check out these links:

Ask Your Candidate: Ethics and Conflict of Interest

By Lauren Atmore

The line between the personal and political can become blurry for politicians. Whether it’s a misuse of funds, inappropriate use of other resources or the exploitation of relationships, there are many different ways conflicts of interest or ethical violations could arise. We’ve seen a number of examples of all levels of government recently, making it a subject your local candidates should have given great consideration to.

What checkpoints would you put in place to make sure expense accounts are respected?

A number of in-office politicians have been accused of mishandling government funds to support a more lavish lifestyle. This misuse could range from over-priced meals, to expensive flight and hotel upgrades, to trips that weren’t required in the first place. Given the frequency of these occurrences, what do your council candidates think could be done to not only prevent misuse of expense accounts but to ensure the tax payers who pay for those errors are repaid what they’re due?

What can be done to aid those in office in understanding and respecting the finer points of conflict of interest?

Despite Toronto City Council already having a Code of Conduct, there have been a few recent instances of city councillors and even the Mayor himself misusing office resources and influence. Throughout much of 2012 and 2013, Mayor Rob Ford was battled lawsuits claiming that he “let himself off the hook for failing to repay $3,150 in improper donations to the Rob Ford Football Foundation” by voting on matters concerning himself during council proceedings. It was clear Ford didn’t understand conflicts then and has since continued to break the Code of Conduct. If such nuance can escape one of the most powerful people in office, what can be done to make sure the average councillor does not make similar mistakes?

Ethical conflicts do not just affect voter turnout – what do your candidates think can be done about the public perception of Toronto?

The 2014 Provincial election was decided on two main issues: the Liberals’ decision to move proposed gas plants, wasting billions of dollars in funding, and the Progressive Conservatives’ plan to slash jobs as part of a plan to create a million jobs for Ontarians. While the core of each issue is the policy perspective each party offers, the reality of either issue is based in ethics. Wasted money and threats of job cuts while claiming increased employment rates not only puts off voters, but can have economic implications as well.

According to a Bloomberg article, consumer doubts in Toronto’s debt and interest rates “could be seen as an indication of how Toronto is perceived, from a financial and business perspective.” Public doubt in the character of city officials can affect development and investments in the city as well as our global perception. Like any major city, many businesses in Toronto rely on tourist dollars to make ends meet. A bad reputation could mean money out of pocket for Torontonians. What, if anything, do your ward’s candidates think could be done to prevent this, or to restore our city’s reputation?

At the end of the day, conflicts of interested and ethical issues do much more than blow operating budgets and create distracting scandals. Low voter turnout primarily stems from general disinterest or from deprioritizing civic duties. When constituents see that their candidates and officials struggle so greatly with conflicts that seem obvious from the outside, it’s easy to question the moral fibre of all politicians. Distrust and fatigue can easily keep voters at home while headlines and sound bites often misrepresent the facts of the conflict, spreading the wrong information. An engaged, informed constituency is paramount in the creation of a healthy government.

Ask Your Candidate: Accessibility

by Cherise Seucharan

Many people are unaware of the often invisible barriers that contribute to making Toronto less accessible. In many ways, accessibility is a “lens in which to view the city”, highlighting how issues within our policies and programs impact marginalized groups. Ask if your candidates are knowledgeable about these key accessibility issues, so that they can help to make much-needed improvements that can benefit everyone.

How will you support continued accessibility improvements to the TTC?

With the new accessible streetcars rolling out slowly over the next few years, Toronto is set to significantly increase the overall accessibility of its transit system. However, improvements to other transit programs are needed for the system to be fully accessible. The Wheel-Trans system, which is a door to door transit service for those who can’t use the TTC, is in need of a budget overhaul and more vehicles to accommodate the growing numbers of people who depend on the service. Additionally, the TTC’s commitment to making all stations accessible has been pushed back until 2025, several years after it was originally promised. Ask your council candidates if they will support continued improvements to TTC accessibility.

Do you support reduced TTC fares for the disabled?

The TTC and the Advisory Committee on Accessible Transit (ACAT) have been debating the implementation of reduced TTC fares for those who receive Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) or Ontario Works funding, or those who use Wheel-Trans. However, since 201,3 the discussion on this issue has not moved forward. Other Canadian cities like Ottawa, Vancouver and Calgary already have reduced fares in place for the disabled. Ask if your candidates will add Toronto to that list.


Do you have  a plan to increase accessibility before the 2015 Pan Am and ParaPan Am Games?

Millions of dollars have been invested in Toronto in preparation for the Pan Am /Para Pan Am Games. Accessibility will be essential for those coming from around the world to attend this inclusive event.  However, despite the prominence of the ParaPan Am portion of the event, there has been little discussion on how to accommodate athletes and fans with disabilities. The AODA Alliance argues that the Games should help Toronto build an “accessibility legacy” with improvements to accessible tourist attractions and investment into accessible athletic programs.

Will you support improvements and funding for the TCHC?

Finding affordable and accessible housing is another major challenge that people with disabilities face. Working with the Responsible Personal Accessibility in Toronto Housing (R-Path) committee, the TCHC supports those in need of accessible housing. However,  as we have already covered in this series, the organization is in dire need of improvement. Ask if your candidate will fight for better TCHC funding and management, particularly for those with disabilities.

Ask Your Candidate: Tourism and Festivals

By: Lauryn Kronick

Toronto is known as a city of festivals. Whether it’s TIFF and Pride attracting tourists from all over the world or neighbourhood celebrations such as Dundas West Fest and Taste of the Danforth that unite residents and curious locals, there is a festival that caters to most Torontonians each weekend when the weather is on our side (or, ticks us off with the many street closures throughout the year). The following questions will help you figure out if the candidates in your ward support their neighbourhood’s and the city’s festivals, and if tourism is on their agenda:

Where do your ward candidate’s priorities stand with neighbourhood festivals?

Every spring through fall, hundreds of neighbourhood festivals take over the streets, shut them down and bring a community to life. Roncesvalles Village Polish Festival, Albion’s Fusion of Taste, Kensington Market’s Pedestrian Sundays are just a few of the many community events that drive traffic to an area, build neighbourhood cohesion and also stimulate local economies. If your ward has an annual festivals, are the residents engaged in the programming and generally excited and supportive about the events? How are businesses being encouraged to participate? If there is currently no street party or neighbourhood festival, does your ward candidate want to make this happen? What is your ward candidate’s relationship with the area’s Business Improvement Association? Do they find closing off streets disruptive or welcome the idea of bringing people out to liven up their area?

How enthusiastic is your ward candidate about attracting tourists to your area? Does tourism play a big role in your ward candidate’s platform?

With the Pan Am Games quickly approaching in 2015, Toronto is gearing up for a large influx of tourists, which will likely mean another busy summer of road closures and transit woes but also a large economic impact, and neighbourhoods playing host to new faces on their sidewalks. Do your ward candidates have an interest in attracting tourists to your neighbourhood? If you live in a central area that has been affected by construction because of the Games or will be in the coming months, how will your ward candidates keep in touch with city planners, contractors and other parties to minimize the impact on businesses.

In the event that your ward candidates do not support the idea of building community through neighbourhood celebrations, these feelings shouldn’t hinder a festival that already exists or create a barrier to starting one on your street or in your area. If your candidate is on board with a project like this and is committed to promoting your neighbourhood to the rest of the city and beyond, it sounds like you have someone who is passionate about keeping your fellow residents engaged and excited about the community they live in.

Ask Your Candidate: Labour

By: Cherise Seucharan

Issues related to labour, such as wages and employment, are generally governed at the provincial level, but city councillors can still have significant impact on labour conditions. Recently, the Ford administration has claimed the drop in Toronto’s unemployment rate as one of their major achievements, and while this may have been true for the first three years of Rob Ford’s term, statistics show that unemployment has actually been on the rise since May 2014, coupled with increased in the number of precarious workers. Sandy Houston, President of the Metcalf Foundation, which recently released a report on Toronto’s workforce, says that, “The increasing numbers of people working and poor in the Toronto Region paints a troubling picture. When people can’t fully participate in society, it costs us all.”

Women are especially affected by labour policies. The gender wage gap in Ontario is currently 28%, which means female workers earn 72 cents to every male worker’s dollar. Women are also more likely to be employed in the service sector, which is more vulnerable to cuts, and are more likely to be supporting families on their income. Ask your candidate about how they plan to address these issues.

2009 City of Toronto inside and outside workers strike Mel Lastman Square. By CeciliaPang (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3A2009TorontoStrikeNY.jpg

2009 City of Toronto inside and outside workers strike Mel Lastman Square. By CeciliaPang (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

Do you plan on making improvements to the City’s Fair Wage policies? Will you introduce policies to support the growing number of precarious workers, and address the gender pay gap?

Toronto’s Fair Wage Policy, established in 1893, guarantees that people employed by contractors for the city are paid market wage rates and benefits for their respective fields. The policy needs to be continually updated to account for inflation and other factors, but in 2013 the policy had its first update in 10 years. Despite the fact that wages now take into account the new minimum wage rates and market levels, many of the wage rates still fall below, $16.60, the rate recommended by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives as a living wage in Toronto. Ask your candidate if they will push for continuous updates to the Fair Wage Policy, and for wages that take into account the high cost of living in Toronto.

The Fair Wage Policy also represents the type of initiatives that can work with provincial and federal labour policies to improve worker conditions, especially for minority groups. As noted above, women in Ontario still earn less than men overall. Additionally, racialized workers earn 77.5 cents per dollar, while immigrant women earn even less, and are more likely to be working for minimum wage. Ask if your candidate would support expanding these policies to include provisions that help close the gender pay gap and support immigrant and racialized workers.

Would you privatize more city services?

While there are pros and cons to the privatization of city services, deciding to privatize any service would have a major impact on the labour force. With the numbers of precarious workers steadily rising across the GTA, unionized services address this issue by providing steady employment and a living wage for thousands of Torontonians. Under privatization, city workers have less power to negotiate and less protections overall, which have already come under fire during the past few years.

Ask if your candidate aims to privatize city services, and if so, are they willing to prioritize the right of workers in the process.

Does you support funding for Toronto’s libraries and public services?

Cuts to the infamous “gravy train” of funding to libraries and public services often translate to reductions in the staff that keep those programs running. The result is that public service workers have to take on a greater workload with the same resources. Often, full-time positions are downsized to part-time, non-salary jobs. In 2012, cuts to libraries reached a tipping point when Toronto Public Library workers held an 11-day strike in reaction to the increasing funding cuts, which greatly affected the employment of part-time workers (who were primarily women). The strike highlights the need for greater worker protection at these services which benefit many people across the city.

Ask if your candidate supports maintaining or increasing funding to Toronto’s public services.

Ultimately, the candidates we elect to City council are responsible for creating the labour climate that many of the city’s unionized workers will live in for the next four years, from outside workers to parks and recreation staff, from police officers to garbage collectors to library workers. Electing a council that will be fair and just when dealing with labour issues should be a priority for Toronto voters.