Mayor Rob Ford’s public works chair is calling the mayor’s city council push for a Scarborough subway a fiscally irresponsible “vote-buying exercise.”
Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong made the provocative comments Tuesday morning as city council started debating whether to tell the province it now favours replacing the Scarborough Rapid Transit System with a partly funded subway instead of a surface light rail line fully funded by the province.
“To go forward with this is wrong on so many levels,” said Minnan-Wong, the conservative Ward 34 Don Valley East councillor considered a possible rival for Ford in the 2014 mayoral election, said of the subway vote.
“Fiscal conservatives will have to turn in their membership cards. I think this is a vote-buying exercise and the facts aren’t in the (city manager’s) report,” suggesting ways to fund the huge gap between LRT and subway costs, he said.
In that report released last week, city manager Joe Pennachetti said tools to cover subway costs of $1.1 billion to $1.6 billion should include a “minimum” property tax increase of 0.5 per cent in 2014 and between 1.1 per cent and 2.4 per cent over the next three years.
Residents across the city would also pay development charges while the province and Ottawa would be expected to pony up significant contributions.
Ford, for the first time, is endorsing a dedicated property tax increase to pay part of the cost of the switch. However he is advocating hikes of only 0.25 per cent for four years starting in 2015.
TTC Chair Karen Stintz, another potential 2014 mayoral candidate, is urging council to support the bigger tax hike Pennachetti says would be necessary.
Minnan-Wong, a Ford ally and former TTC commissioner, said the projected $3.2 billion cost of building a Scarborough subway could balloon to more $4 billion, pointing to a 30 per cent funding “cushion” for overruns.
Councillors don’t know how the size of federal or provincial contributions to subway conversion, said Minnan-Wong, who is worried funding it with property taxes could lead to budget cuts or big tax hikes down the line.
“If we were to do the right thing and not simply look to next year and the election, the right thing to the voters of the city of Toronto would be defer this, get all the information,” Minnan-Wong said.
“This clearly is a vote-buying exercise. Reason and rationality have left the room and approaching government decisions in a businesslike way — those principles aren’t part of this debate for the individuals who want to move forward.”
Asked specifically if his criticism includes Ford, Minnan-Wong said: “If you want to run the city in a businesslike way, you’ve got to get the facts and you have to have the impacts.”
Councillor Doug Ford, the mayor’s brother, defended a pro-subway vote as fiscally responsible and suggested Ottawa might shift $330 million now committed to the Sheppard East LRT to the SRT subway conversion.
Neither Mayor Ford nor any other government officials have said that. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, after meeting with Mayor Ford on Saturday, would only say the federal government has money earmarked for transit infrastructure but it needs a specific request from Toronto.
Councillor Doug Holyday, the veteran fiscal conservative who in the past has railed against council backing unfunded plans, said he will vote to endorse a subway conversion supported by modest property tax hikes.
Asked about Minnan-Wong’s comments about fiscal conservatives turning in their membership cards, Holyday, who is the Progressive Conservative candidate in the Etobicoke-Lakeshore byelection, snapped: “If he wants to turn his card in, it’s up to him.”