Reports say that the mayor and several councillors are holding a series of meetings this week in an attempt to figure out what should be next on the agenda at City Hall. Here’s an idea: let’s admit that Mayor Rob Ford’s gravy hunt was a failure and move on to the business of finding a sustainable budget that can help Toronto grow into the city residents want.

It’s time for an adult conversation about our city’s finances.

OpenFile Toronto’s David Hains asked the big question this week, while recapping the Ford Brothers Radio Spectacular. Responding to Doug Ford’s relentless cheerleading of the state of Toronto’s economy and hot development environment, Hains asks: “If Toronto’s economy is humming along as well as it is, why do we still struggle with our budget? Are we prepared for when it will not be this strong?”

It’s a really important question. In an era where Toronto has more high-rises under construction than any city in North America – and more than several of the biggest U.S. cities combined – why is our civic government looking at selling petting zoo animals to make up budget shortfalls? With over a decade of strong growth and a resilient core business environment on Bay Street, how is it that we don’t have two nickels to rub together for real transit improvements? Why is Toronto forever at the mercy of the provincial government to cover the costs of basic municipal needs?

If the name of the game is to run this city like a business, this business model sucks. Toronto’s got a hot product that everybody wants – land and development rights – and yet municipal revenues are stagnant and city assets crumble.

Something is fundamentally broken.

To find solutions, council has to go beyond boring slogans and pointless anger at government bureaucracy and organized labour. The Ford-led search for billions in government waste came up way short and recent labour deals weren’t a magic budget-fixing bullet. It’s time for councillors to ask tough questions.

Start with these:

  • Why are City of Toronto development charges set at $9,040 for a large condo unit while Mississauga gets more than $25,000 and Markham more than $30,000? Doesn’t it cost more to provide municipal services in Toronto?
  • What does it cost, on average, to provide services to a new Toronto resident? And conversely: how much tax revenue does each new residential dwelling bring in? Are our residential property tax rates – among the lowest in the GTA – too low?
  • Is the current explosion of residential development coming at the expense of developable employment lands? Given that there are still fewer jobs in the city today than there were in the late 1980s, are we adding enough jobs in the 416?
  • It’s now trendy to want to live downtown and in more urban parts of the city, so why are so many businesses still opting for commercial space in office parks near highway off-ramps in the 905? Why are some developers finding it so hard to find tenants for first-floor retail in new condo projects? Should the city be more aggressive about reducing its commercial property tax rates, which are the highest in the GTA?
  • Has Toronto maximized any benefits that might come from booming condo development? Have we missed an opportunity to work with our new private sector pals to provide more parkland, public art, affordable housing and other infrastructure and neighbourhood improvements?
  • Most critically: thinking long-term and about sustainability, what kind of revenues are really needed to build the city residents want? During the light rail debate, Toronto came together and admitted a need for a comprehensive, expanded transit network. It’s time to be realistic about how to pay for it. Big cities with impressive transit networks tend to have things like sales or payroll taxes – and this is a big city, right?

These are weighty, complicated questions. They’ll make your head hurt. But coming off the waste of time that was last year’s consultant-heavy Core Service Review, it’s high time for a real look at the city’s financial situation. A perpetual austerity budget is not the answer.

A recent poll by Spacing Magazine and Environics shows overwhelming support for finding new revenues for transit, even if it means broaching the uncomfortable issue of new taxes. That’s a good sign. The public has shown a willingness to listen and involve themselves in a real conversation about responsible budgeting and city building.

Let’s get started.

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