If 2019 was the year Toronto decided to get real, 2020 will be the year the city starts to find out what that actually means.
The floodgates opened this past December when Mayor John Tory, who hasn’t changed his mind in decades, unexpectedly announced he would hike property taxes -- make that a special building levy -- over the next five years.
That will cost Torontonians $43 in 2020, and increase to $326 by 2025, well above the rate of inflation.
This, of course, flies in the face of everything Tory has stood for since being elected mayor in 2014. All along he has insisted that Toronto home-owners shouldn’t be made to pay more than they already do. Accepted political wisdom has it that raising taxes is political suicide.
The fact that property tax rates in the city are the lowest in the Greater Toronto Area meant nothing. It turns out it his words also meant nothing.
After half a decade of decline, however, His Worship has apparently woken up to the fact that a city gets what its residents are willing to pay for. And it turns out that Torontonians are willing to pay more to halt that decline, or at least slow it down.
That’s what was most surprising -- Tory’s tax hike was greeted with widespread approval. Despite opposition from Etobicoke councillors Mike Ford and Stephen Holyday, his proposal sailed through city council by a vote of 21 to 3.
In this way, Tory revealed conventional assumptions about tax increases for the nonsense they are. Indeed, he inadvertently taught us an important lesson: raising taxes need not be a career-ender.
To the contrary, the mayor’s willingness to break with his own conservative history has clearly gained him new respect and enhanced his reputation as a leader. Even long-time Tory critic Councillor Gord Perks was seen cozying up to the mayor.
Still, the hard work lies ahead. 2020 will be the year Tory must go out and sell his tax increase. Given that it starts at $43, that shouldn’t be too hard. In fact, now that taxes have become acceptable, one can’t help but wonder whether the mayor won’t be criticized for not going far enough.
It’s unlikely we’ll see demonstrators at Nathan Phillips Square demanding higher taxes, but you never know. In recent years, Torontonians have learned the hard way what happens to a city that does everything on the cheap. We have gone from the City That Works to the City That Wants.
Simply put, taxes buy us civilization. This is easy to forget at a time when many feel overwhelmed by huge issues – climate crisis, low wages, unaffordable housing, precarious employment, economic inequality, growing violence. But as the social and economic safety net that so many Torontonians rely on disappears, tax hikes have become inevitable.
Perhaps only Tory, a former leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, could get away with such a move. Had a leftie like, say, David Miller done the same, conservative anger would have been palpable.
But having unleashed the forces of truthfulness, Tory will find out just how much truth his constituents are willing to tolerate. He might also have to answer for having presided over a city that has been allowed to decline so precipitously, a city defined by daily TTC delays, an incompetent police force that stands by while drivers kill record numbers of pedestrians, growing gun crime and shocking levels of homelessness.
Let’s be frank, the increase is at best a small step in the right direction. To put things in perspective, the TTC alone will need $33 billion of the next 15 years, three-quarters of that just to maintain a state of good repair. Sadly, it can only count on $10 billion.
Still, Tory’s sudden conversion to reality will be the story of 2020. Having admitted he’s been wrong for years, the question will be whether he has gone far enough. The fact is that Toronto has reached the point where the necessity of taxes is painfully clear. Mike Harris taught us the same lesson in the 1990s, but that was quickly forgotten.
In 2020, Torontonians will have an opportunity to remind themselves that we get what we pay for.