Ask Your Candidate: Youth

By: Lauren Simmons, with files from Ali Chatur

Electoral candidates often talk about making Toronto better for the “citizens of tomorrow”, but concrete action from City Council on issues that impact youth in Toronto can be hard to come by. While youth under 18 aren’t able to vote, those who we elect on their behalf will make many decisions that affect them. Here are few ways you can glean just how supportive of youth your potential City Councillors are. One on One 1. What do your candidates plan to do about youth homelessness? Recent evidence suggests that more and more young people in Toronto are using the city’s homeless shelters. This trend, coupled with the increase in need for youth-oriented mental health services and more support for LGBTQ youth in shelters in Toronto, presents a problem on which City Council can no longer remain inactive. Ask your candidates what they plan to do increase affordable housing and transition support for youth in Toronto, especially those with mental health concerns and those who are members of the LGBTQ community.

2. What are your candidates’ strategies for supporting youth who are immigrants or who belong to racialized groups? Data from the Ontario Trillium Foundation suggests that more than one-third of youth in Toronto are immigrants and more than half of youth are members of a racialized group. These young people are often underserved by the current settlement supports for newcomers, which are themselves underfunded and difficult to navigate. While we regularly see media coverage about youth violence (sometimes with racist undertones), we hear less about the degree of support City Council offers for youth activities and programs in racialized communities. Do your candidates have any specific ideas for supporting newcomer and/or racialized youth in your Ward? If so, how do they plan to fund and implement them?

3. What are your candidates’ views of lowering transit fares? Many young people travel on public transit to school and work. The young people we spoke to clearly emphasized the need for Council to work to keep fares low so that youth, many of whom are only able to find precarious or part-time employment, can afford to travel in Toronto. What do you the potential candidates in your ward think about the idea of low transit fares? Are they interested in lowering fares, keeping the status quo, or raising them to pay for improvements? If they propose to keep fares as they are or lower them, how do they intend to pay for services in the future?

4. What are your candidates’ views on the Youth Equity Strategy? Earlier this year, as a result of a motion from Councillor Josh Matlow, Council received the Youth Equity Strategy, which included 28 concrete suggestions to improve life for youth and to reduce violence amongst young people in Toronto. Among the suggestions are the creation of a “youth equity champion” position, to be appointed from within Council, and the creation of a city-wide committee to combat the problem, which would include members from all the other committees of council. The initiatives proposed by the Youth Equity Strategy do amount to additional budget expenditures, but they’re ones that youth in Toronto are clamouring for. Do your council candidates support the Youth Equity Strategy? Are the dedicated to working at Council to advocate on behalf of youth to see it through?

Council candidates should be voices for all Toronto’s marginalized citizens, but arguably no one needs to have Council on their side more than our youth. Ask the right questions to find out if your prospective Councillors are indeed onside.

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Ask Your Candidate: Environment

By: Heather Jackson

Toronto has many environmental concerns and issues, but the two that are top of mind heading into this municipal election are: 1) air quality, and 2) storm infrastructure.

AIR QUALITY

Way back in 1991, the City of Toronto established the Toronto Atmospheric Fund to focus on reducing local greenhouse gas and air pollution emissions. TAF currently operates as an arms-length agency at no cost to the City. It helps Toronto achieve the targets set in the Climate Change Action Plan that city council unanimously approved in 2007, and later The Power to Live Green, Toronto’s Sustainable Energy Strategy that was drafted in 2009.

As of 2013, Toronto surpassed its goal of reducing greenhouse gases to 6% below 1990 levels by reducing them to 15% below 1990 levels! Waste, electricity and natural gas emissions are all down (largely thanks to Toronto’s recycling and organic waste programs and Ontario’s closure of coal plants), but transportation emissions are up. Transportation now accounts for a whopping 36% of Toronto’s emissions! However, electricity and natural gas used to power and heat our buildings accounts for a combined 53% of Toronto’s emissions.

With these numbers in mind, here are some questions to ask your candidate:

1. Do you support investment in public transit and active transportation infrastructure (walking, cycling) as a way to get commuters out of cars whenever possible and lessen transportation emissions?

2. Do you support incentives to help homeowners and businesses retrofit their buildings to be more energy efficient?

3. Do you think the city should require better energy efficiency for new construction projects?

STORM INFRASTRUCTURE

After last summer’s floods, this winter’s ice storm, and the floods and tornados we’ve already experienced this spring in southern Ontario, citizens are concerned about Toronto’s ability to cope with severe weather.

-- Swire Licensed under: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

— Swire
Licensed under: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

In 2008, City Council unanimously endorsed a climate adaptation strategy, Ahead of the Stormthat outlines actions that will improve the City’s resilience to climate change and extreme weather events. Actions include increasing the size of storm sewers and culverts to handle more runoff, pruning trees to reduce damage to property and electrical lines during the storm, and installation of basement backflow preventers and window well guards to reduce flooding risk.

But is the plan being put into action quickly enough? Is Toronto ready for the storms? According to the this article in The Star the answer seems to be no. Franz Hartmann of the Toronto Environmental Alliance criticized the City for focusing on emergency response after storms instead of upgrading infrastructure before storms hit. And Toronto City Manager Joe Pennachetti agrees that extreme weather needs to be more of a priority at City Hall. As of this winter, it was ranked around number 10, but Pennachetti feels it should probably move up to number 3 after transit and social housing.

But, of course, there is a lack of money, as this article in the NOW points out. Part of the problem is that declining water use by both residents and industry has cut Toronto Water’s revenues by 10% in the last decade, leaving a $350 million shortfall in infrastructure upgrades.

So with that all in mind, here are questions to ask your candidate about Toronto’s storm preparedness:

1. Are you in favour of keeping annual water increases at 9%? Or do you think it should be lowered to 3%? If lowered, how do you propose the City pay for water infrastructure upgrades?

2. Do you think extreme weather needs to be more of a priority at City Hall? If so, how do you propose making that happen?

 

Ask Your Candidate: User Fees

By: Seb FoxAllen

User fees are charges people pay to access services the City feels are important to provide but cannot afford to pay for with taxes alone. These can include anything from fees for sports leagues, community centre classes, and zoo admission, to road tolls, TTC fare increases, or a Vehicle Registration Fee. It’s not just so-called “optional” activities that are funded this way: several core City services, including garbage collection and water, are also supported with user fees.

The City of Toronto charges over 3000 different user fees, representing $2.8 billion in revenues each year.

Tom Raftery Licensed under: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic; https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

Tom Raftery
Licensed under: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic; https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/

In order to keep delivering services at the same levels as today, the City will need more revenue over the next several years. Are new user fees or increased taxes a better way to achieve these increases?

This year, City Manager Joe Pennachetti told City Council that “[i]nflationary rates aren’t going to maintain services into the future.” This means that the next City Council will have to increase the amount of money it collects from Torontonians.

Taxes and user fees represent different ideas for how government should collect money from residents.

Taxes spread the financial burden for providing services across the entire population. They allow the City to collect more money from high-income earners and ask people to indirectly fund even services they don’t use. The result: higher taxes for everyone, but cheaper and more accessible services for users.

User fees are based on the idea of charging individual residents directly for the specific services. This is a less efficient way to collect money, because the money comes in a bit at a time. In addition these fees disproportionately impact groups (including women and low-income earners) that typically use city services. The result: taxes do not need to be raised above inflation, but service-users bear more expensive out-of-pocket costs.

As an example, the TTC is funded by both tax revenue (in the form of a yearly municipal subsidy) and user fees (in the form of fares, metropasses, etc.). Increasing the contribution from taxes would maintain the price of individual fares and metropasses, but require a tax increase for everyone (even for those who never use the TTC). Increasing the contribution from user fees would mean a lower tax bill for everyone, but would significantly increase the cost for TTC users in the form of more expensive tokens and metropasses. In the case of transit specifically, data shows that a user fee model places a disproportionate burden on women, who are the primary users and purchasers of fares and metropasses.

Ask your candidate what types of user fees they support and what, if any, types of services they think might be better-secured by a pooled tax base model.

Are there ways to make current user fees fairer?

A common argument against user fees is that they are harder to apply fairly across different income groups: A computer class with a $50 user fee costs the same for a lawyer as it does for a service worker, even though the $50 represents a much higher percentage of the service worker’s income.

Ask your candidate whether they consider this gap to be a problem and, if so, what kinds of tools (subsidized spaces for low-income participants, youth and senior rates, etc) can be used to apply current user fees more fairly.

Ask Your Candidate: LGBTQ Community

By: Lauryn Kronick

It’s hard to miss the rainbows that have recently taken over many parts of Toronto. With World Pride coming to Toronto at the end of June, this is a good time to engage your candidates in conversation about what they think the issues facing the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual, transgender and queer) communities are and how they can keep supporting them once Pride is over. Pride is a time of year when more attention is paid to human rights issues that affect the queer and trans communities, often at a national and global level. But these diverse communities face ongoing pressing issues that demand more support from city councillors who can be the ones to help drive change.

Jarek Piórkowski, Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en

How does your ward candidate support and participate in Pride?

Over the past few years, Pride Toronto has made headlines on a number of occasions: when Rob Ford ditched the festivities and headed to his cottage, when the participation of Queers Against Israeli Apartheid was up for debate and when TDSB Trustee Sam Sotiropoulos announced that he wanted nude people at Pride arrested. But, for an incumbent city councillor or a municipal candidate, Pride is an important time to get out and meet members of the city’s diverse LGBTQ community and show their support in many ways, one of them by participating in the Trans* March, the Dyke March and/or the Pride Parade. Support from the City is essential for Pride Toronto to offer its full ranges of programmes. (Pride Toronto currently receives city funding as a Major Cultural Organization). Ask your ward candidate if they have ever marched in one of the Pride marches or in the Pride Parade. If not, would they consider doing so? You can gauge support by suggesting your ward candidate hold a Pride celebration in their ward and seeing if this is something of interest to them.

LGBTQ homeless youth and seniors are two communities who remain under-serviced in the city. What are your plans to further advance work being done with these communities?

When LGBTQ youth who access shelters in Toronto continue to experience discrimination because of their sexual and/or gender expression, identity and orientation, it is evident that there is need for a safe(r) space. Last December, Ward 27 Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam brought forward a motion to develop a working group to discuss the opportunity for a queer and trans youth shelter, which was adopted by City Council’s Community Development and Recreation Committee. The goal for this shelter is to be created and operating within a 12-month time period. When this working group moves forward with its plans and recommendations, the more support from City Council, the better chance this shelter has in its development.

Toronto’s aging LGBTQ population does have care and housing resources available to them, but there have been reports of trans* seniors experiencing abuse in their residences. This absolutely needs to be addressed; if queer and trans seniors are facing abusive situations in their homes, ask your ward candidate how they plan on addressing this and if they would allocate resources to train senior centre workers on how to better educate their residents on building a more inclusive environment.

Toronto is a self-declared “sanctuary city” for undocumented migrants, whose numbers include LGBTQ members who have arrived in Canada to seek asylum or fled dangerous situations in their home countries. How will your ward candidate ensure that LGBTQ newcomers are included in the process of gaining access to city resources and obtaining documentation?

The city has recently made headway in moving forward with its “sanctuary city” status, which gives basic rights to people without full immigration status. Toronto is a major hub for new immigrants with approximately 78,000 settling in the GTA each year, many of whom identify as queer and trans individuals. These individuals may have left their homes because of homophobic and transphobic laws that endanger their lives. While there are programs for LGBTQ newcomers offered through the city, dealing with the trauma of having left everything behind due to discrimination based on one’s gender and sexuality, coupled with the newness of a city, makes a challenge all the more overwhelming. There may be fear of continued discrimination within a new community and unfamiliarity to access resources and programs on top of the other challenges and struggles that new immigrants face, especially those without documents and status. With the sanctuary city motion moving forward, it’s important to remember that LGBTQ newcomers are a vulnerable population within an already vulnerable community.

Ask Your Candidate: Toronto Police Service

Toronto Police | TAV59

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

By Lauren Atmore

With a city as dense and diverse as Toronto, it’s important that our police services are able to handle a wide range of community issues with tact and sensitivity while continuing to maintain order. While there is no doubt that our men and women in blue are a crucial force, several problems have arisen since the last election.

There is no better time to learn your candidates’ stance on these matters than now. With approximately 9,150 officers in the Toronto, York and Peel forces and a budget close to $1 billion dollars annually for Toronto’s agency alone, every candidate should have something to say about this municipal service.

1. Where does your candidate stand on the increased access to and use of tasers by Toronto police?

Toronto Police Service (TPS) Chief Bill Blair has openly supported the idea that more use of tasers amongst his force “has the potential to save lives.” Looking back on the death of Sammy Yatim, an 18-year-old killed in a struggle with Toronto Police in 2013, access to a taser could have made all the difference. The officer who shot and killed Yatim was a constable. At this rank, he wasn’t allowed to have and use a taser. Some argue, however, that an increase in de-escalation training would be sufficient to complement the existing force police offers currently have. “What we’re worried about is that tasers will be used when police wouldn’t have used guns in the first place,” explains Sakura Saunders of Disarm Toronto Police. “We’re not suggesting that all police don’t have arms, but that specially trained officers have guns that can be called in.”

2. Mental distress calls to emergency services are increasing. Does your candidate have a plan to handle the costs associated with these special demands while remaining sensitive to the range of needs of those with mental illness?

With over 20,000 calls coming in annually “directly related to mental health”, tactics must be put in place to ensure the safety of the public as well as the individual involved. Arrests under Provision 28, which allows TPS to apprehend an individual believed to be mentally ill, have increased 16 per cent from 2010 to 2012. A renewed effort has taken place to partner with national mental health groups to combat the increase in these confrontations, but are the right steps being taken? Does your candidate support a long-term plan for deep-rooted change?

3. What does your candidate think of measures like carding and strip searches? Are they an undue burden, evidence of systemic bias, or a helpful tool in cleaning up our streets?

With almost one third of all arrests leading to a strip search, there has been concern for several years that this tactic is overused. It has been suggested by the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition that the Level 3 search rate should be closer to 5 per cent of all arrests, and that new technology such as scanners similar to those in airports can help fill in the gap. While those tools would certainly be less invasive, it could lead to more people being searched without grounds while bumping up general TPS budget costs.

Carding, the practise of police asking to see identification from just about anyone they choose to ask is a method designed to keep our communities safe. Whether this technique works in apprehending individuals carrying out crimes or in reminding people that at any moment they could be asked to identify themselves, there is no doubt that this request is not carried out equally among Toronto’s residents. For instance, though Black Canadians comprise about 8 percent of Toronto’s population, they represent 23 per cent of all random cardings – about three times that of white people. Though recent regulations have come into place regarding carding, including officers being required to let the targeted individual know their rights, it’s hard to know what measures are effective in preventing racial profiling. Does your candidate have any ideas to contribute to this debate?

4. Does your candidate have a stance on the TPS budget? Does their stance include specific areas to spend on and others to save on? 

In 2013, Toronto Police Services had a net budget of $927,740.50–almost one billion dollars–which also includes lifeguard and crossing guard programs across the city. To some, there is never enough funding available to those on our city’s front line. To others, TPS represents a force that obstructs individual liberties while adding little to community safety. Having to pay such high amounts adds insult to injury.

Whichever way you look at it, Toronto’s population is increasing year over year and as such, there are more people to keep an eye on and more situations to respond to. Could there be a better way to handle add-on costs, such as lifeguard and crossing guard services? Should wages be frozen to help cover growing costs of technology, or should the budget be expanded to cover the needs of both officers and citizens? When costs are spread out to the community as in the case of paid duty services, there appears to be a decrease in use when the costs go up. Is there any way this can be mitigated so events can properly supervised?

Finding a balance when it comes to community safety and those who enforce it can be difficult. It’s easy to say that you can’t put a price on health and safety but each year, requests are made to increase budgets, to increase benefits, to increase technologies designed to streamline procedures, and each year many of those requests are denied. The City doesn’t have infinite funds to cover all of the needs of this essential service. The candidates we elect, however, are the ones who decide what to spend on and where to save.

Ask Your Candidate: Housing

By: Cherise Seucharan

With a lack of affordable housing vacancies, rent prices on the rise, and social housing steadily deteriorating, housing is an urgent city issue that has not yet been addressed in this municipal race. It is all the more critical due to Ontario’s funding structure- unlike other provinces, social housing is municipally, not provincially funded, which puts pressure on the city to meet a variety of housing needs. Women, in particular, are uniquely affected by the lack of affordable housing in Toronto, as they are often the prime or single caregivers in a household, and face lower income prospects than men. Additionally, more affordable housing, particularly for mothers and newcomers, means children are less likely to be raised in poverty, which increases the overall prosperity and well-being of our city.

What is your strategy to provide more affordable housing?

The growth of condominium developments is a contentious issue for many Torontonians, representing the prioritization of higher-priced “lifestyle” housing. Meanwhile, the availability of affordable housing in the city is declining. Affordable housing is generally defined as housing that costs about “30 percent of a household’s before-tax income”, and government policies are designed to take this measure into account when planning housing developments. However, as the number of condos being built exceeds the number of affordable units, demand has increased for the affordable places, driving up overall rent prices. Ask your candidate if they are willing to work with higher levels of government, as well as public and private housing bodies, to ensure there is more affordable housing.

Would you vote in favour of requesting more funding from the federal and provincial government for housing projects?

Earlier this year city council voted almost unanimously to request funding from higher levels of government, in order to support an estimated $2.6 billion in much-needed repairs for Toronto Community Housing residences. Mayor Ford then travelled to Ottawa to make the request known, but was met with an unfavourable response from the federal government. The TCHC has a long backlog of repairs needed for their deteriorating properties, and the city currently cannot afford these repairs without extra funds. Ask if your candidate would support a push for the extra funding needed.

How would you shorten the social housing waitlist?

Despite the previously mentioned attempts at procuring funds, there are still over 165,000 people on the waitlist for social housing in Toronto. Social housing is defined as “housing that is owned and operated by government or non-profit organizations where a portion or full amounts of the rents are subsidized,” and can exist in the form of housing co-ops, and private and public non-profit residences. Province-wide, the “affordability gap” is widening, with more families having to pay a larger portion of their income on housing, indicating a likely increase in the amount of social housing needed. How do the candidates in your ward plan on addressing the ever-lengthening wait list for affordable housing in Toronto?

How would you restore credibility to the TCHC?

Described as the “largest landlord in the country”, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation manages all of the public non-profit housing in the city, with a total of 164,000 residents. The TCHC has come under fire in recent years for numerous human rights violations, including allegations of abusive treatment of seniors, detailed in a report from the Ombudsman. The controversy prompted a restructuring of TCHC staff, but this past April, Gene Jones, the newly chosen CEO, was ousted amidst another scandal. With a recent history marked by scandal, the city should focus on strategies to restore credibility and higher standards to the organization.

How would you help to meet the varied needs of Toronto’s homeless population?

There is high stress placed on Toronto’s shelters to provide for the needs of the homeless in ways for which they were not originally equipped. While occupancy for beds at shelters is consistently high, shelters are also adapting to provide longer-term and assisted-needs housing, and to address the specific needs of women and the increasing number of homeless youth.  Additionally, the high number of people on the social housing wait-list is an indicator of those who are at risk for homelessness. What plans does your candidate have for alleviating this stress on Toronto’s shelters?

 

Ask Your Candidate: Arts Funding

By: Lauren Simmons

The arts are integral to the fabric of a modern city like Toronto. Statistically, the arts employ more women than they do men, but Toronto lags woefully behind most major cities in its per-capita arts funding (by 2017 it will finally reach $25/capita, a figure first set in 2002, and which is still less than half that in cities like Montreal). Budget support for the arts has consistently been under attack in the last four years at City Council, most recently with a planned increase in funding being pushed back to as late as 2017. When you ask the candidates in your ward how they plan to support the arts, you’re also asking how they’ll support the important cultural contributions of some of our city’s most precariously employed citizens

1. Do you support privatized arts funding?

During Rob Ford’s tenure as Mayor, much of the city’s arts community has lived in fear of Council’s overwhelming support for privatized arts funding, which benefits large, highly visible and commercially viable endeavours (e.g. the Toronto International Film Festival), at the expense of smaller, more cutting-edge projects. Where do your candidates stand on privatized funding? Are financial benefits like tourist dollars a necessary condition for your candidates’ support of the arts, or do they have other reasons for doing so?

2. Where do you stand on the Beautiful City initiative?

In January 2013, Mayor Ford’s Executive Committee approved a budget that included restored funding in some areas, including funneling $6 million of billboard tax profits into programs for the arts. However, as recently as the last budget cycle, council pushed those increases back to 2017. Will your candidates support the existing practice of using the billboard tax for increased arts funding? User fees like water rates and TTC fares have increased beyond the rate of inflation in recent years but the billboard tax has been frozen. If your candidates are arts-friendly, they may support increasing the billboard tax by at least the rate of inflation retroactive to its introduction in 2009 so arts funding in real, inflation-adjusted dollars doesn’t decrease.

3. What is your stance on public art and graffiti?

Mayor Ford has made no bones about his public war on graffiti, but many, particularly youth in marginalized communities, have seen this as attack on the arts. Further, programs in such neighbourhoods have found themselves closed with little explanation. Where do your candidates stand on graffiti, and on public art in general? Toronto pales in comparison to many other major cities in terms of accessible public art. What do your potential councillors think can or should be done about that?

Funding for the arts may not get all the buzz on the campaign trail, but a candidate’s position on the arts can reveal much about the Toronto they envision.

With files from Adam Chaleff-Freudenthaler