Mediocre Media Against the NDP


Showing some partisan colours, Royson James takes time out to assess Howard Hampton and the NDP’s proposal to ease the burden on Ontario’s cities. His verdict: all fine and good Howard, but where are you going to find the money?

Which is a fair question. But at least the task would be in the hands of a government that could actually do something about the services. The City of Toronto is in the mess it’s in because a number of provincial services were downloaded onto the municipalities. These provincially mandated services are obligations to the cities — these cannot be cut, but they have to be paid for from the property tax base. And on top of that comes the cost of garbage pick-up, police services, public transportation, road work, et cetera. You get the idea. If the province were to absorb the costs, they at least would have the power to decide whether to raise taxes, run a deficit, or make some tough cuts.

All three party leaders agree that the downloading that occurred in the mid 1990s was a mistake. The Toronto Star has been tireless in bringing this to the attention of the public. So it would seem ironic that Royson James would skewer arguments he himself made long and loud with these few paragraphs:

While everyone talks about how the province downloaded costs onto the cities, few remember Ontario relieved Toronto of $500 million of education costs. Or that subsequent fixes made the 1998 swap in services almost revenue neutral.

So, will the NDP send those education costs back to the city?

There is no plan to “repeal” those uploads, NDP researcher Ethan Phillips said yesterday.

Well, I guess when the Liberals promise to spend $11.8 billion over twelve years on public transportation, they’re making a needed investment, but when the upstart New Democrats threaten the Liberal hegemony with a plan to relieve costs while still retaining responsibility for $500 million a year in education spending, that’s grand largesse.

What’s even more embarrassing, though, is Royson James’ basic ignorance of the problem he — until now — had so tirelessly campaigned against. Yes, City of Toronto property taxpayers were wholly responsible for the costs of their education system and, yes, Mike Harris did take these costs under provincial responsibility. But the City of Toronto did not issue these taxes. No, that was the responsibility of the Toronto District School Board, a separate government body with the authority to raise taxes. The swap in services was far from revenue neutral where it counted.

So, when the province accepted responsibility for the costs of Toronto’s educational obligations, they took away costs that Toronto City Council had no responsibility to pay for. The “uploading” did not add a single penny to City Council coffers, and City Council couldn’t raise taxes to absorb the difference. For one thing, provincial edict prevented the City of Toronto from raising property taxes by more than the rate of inflation up until the end of the Harris/Eves administration. For another: despite the “upload”, citizens of Toronto continued to pay an education levy out of their property taxes.

Every citizen in Ontario still pays an education levy out of their property taxes (this is why a voter’s decision to route their monies to the public or secondary school systems is taken at the municipal level, and it’s related to how we continue to vote for school trustees at the same time as we vote for our municipal politicians); the only difference now is that this amount is decided by a bureaucrat working in Queen’s Park. Very little of that cost is managed by the School Board trustees we still elect.

And in addition to this, City of Toronto taxpayers are still required to pay $120 million per year in an education levy that goes to schools outside Toronto.

It really is remarkable how Royson James could get this so wrong, sabotaging the hard work he and his paper have done in bringing Toronto’s structural problems to the public eye, all in a rather blatant drive to make Howard Hampton’s admittedly optimistic plan seem totally unrealistic.

To be fair to Royson James, one line suggests that he is going to spread his ire evenly across the political spectrum. The Liberals are set to announce their own plan for fixing the municipal powers/responsibility mess on Monday, and James believes that Ontarians will be better able to afford it. Why? “[B]ecause it won’t go far enough in fixing the fiscal mess.”

Which, incidentally, Ontario taxpayers are all currently in.

And it’s also a fair point that both opposition leaders have been a little bit short on details about how they’ll pay for the fix. Tory himself has been even more coy about what he will actually do to get Ontario’s municipalities out of their mess, and Hampton enjoys a low likelihood of having to put his bold proposals into fiscal practise.

But I’ll give Hampton credit for going the furthest in acknowledging the problem, and being the most willing to put the responsibility for these downloaded services where they belong. I’m a little surprised that others aren’t willing to give him that benefit.

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