Toronto begins 2024 budget consultations

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow urged people to get involved with the city’s budget deliberations Wednesday ahead of public consultations that will help shape both the city’s priorities and its property tax rate.

Both in-person and virtual consultations with the public are set a kick off later this month in order to gain feedback from the public in terms of the city’s priorities for the 2024 budget.

“The more people feel they engage in the city, the better our services; the more they feel they have the power to make a difference, the better we are; the more they’re going to be involved, the better we can deliver results for everyone,” Chow told reporters at city hall Wednesday. “So this is what it means. It means that you roll up your sleeves, take an hour and a half of your time or less. If it’s online, probably, I don’t know, 15 minutes. Yeah, tell us what you want.”

While many of her adversaries in the mayoral election promised to peg property tax increases at or below the rate of inflation, Chow insisted that it made no sense to set property tax rates before assessing the city’s needs.

Toronto is under enormous financial pressure, with an operating budget deficit of $1.5 billion.

The city’s financial pressures come at a time when many of its citizens are facing daunting financial pressures of their own, with skyrocketing mortgage costs, rental costs and runaway food inflation.

In tough financial times, Chow said, city services may be more important than ever for residents.

“In these difficult times though —  because the library is free, because it has internet services, because you can print things and there’s community centres and there’s parks, a ravine that is free — we provide a really good net, a place where people can feel they belong, and it matters to them,” Chow said. “So we want to hear from people that are also struggling to make ends meet. City services matter to people to keep life affordable.”

Chow said that while she’s engaging with other levels of government, she needs to hear from people so that she can make their voices heard.

Municipal and provincial officials have been meeting twice a week since September in order to work on a new fiscal deal for Toronto that would help solve some of the city’s chronic funding issues. Just this week, the federal government agreed to join the discussions. An interim report on the working group’s progress is due out late this month.

While a new deal for Toronto would help to alleviate some of the budget pressure, it is likely city council will still have tough decisions to make.

For example, TTC service cuts were reversed this year by utilizing operating funds which had been set aside for the indefinitely-delayed Eglinton Crosstown. Going forward, it’s not clear where the city will get the money to maintain service levels on public transit.

Speaking alongside Chow Wednesday, Budget Chief Shelley Carroll said the aim of the public engagement sessions is to create a joint set of priorities for the city to move forward with as it crafts its next budget.

Carroll said that department heads are already going through their budgets line by line to try to find efficiencies, but that input from the public will be essential in helping city officials decide how much they need and where to spend scarce dollars.

“This is about a conversation that has been missing,” Carroll said.

She said councillors “genuinely don’t have that bottom line figured out yet” despite the public tendency to focus on the property tax number without necessarily thinking about what they want from the city.

“Yes, staff are going through draft budgets for each division right now, and looking at them and they know that affordability is definitely a top of mind concern. And so they’re going through it with that lens on it,” Carroll said. “But we really do need to get back to that shared understanding in the community — that we talk outside of that cycle of ‘here’s the tax increase.’ So we’ll start with that conversation and work our way back.”

She said the essential question is “what is the city you want, and what are you willing to do to get there.”

Consultations begin Nov. 20. A full list of in-person and virtual public consultations can be found on the City of Toronto’s budget website.

The Budget Committee will consider recommendations from the public in January and use that input to help craft a budget that Chow will present on Feb 1. 

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