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Toronto city council approves 2016 budget

Toronto’s city council approved the 2016 budget Wednesday with little debate or discussion.

The 2016 operating budget of $10.1 billion and the $21 billion 10-year capital budget includes a number of plans for transit, alleviation of traffic congestion, public safety, poverty reduction, and child care subsidies, among other things.

It is rare that council only takes one day to discuss and debate a budget in session — two days were scheduled for this item, with a possibility of a third.

Council addressed the issue of property and residential taxes before approving the budget itself, two items that are usually adopted together as a package. Deputy city manager, Giuliana Carbone, said the 2016 budget was a challenge. City staff had to balance instruction about keeping spending low while committing to a number of long-term capital projects.

“Those are not compatible,” he said.

Taxes are always a controversial topic — certain city councillors felt like the suggested overall tax increase of 0.88 per cent was too low, while others recommended the city not increase taxes at all. Instead, they suggested, the city should consider other forms of revenue.

Council eventually adopted the original recommendation, which included the following:

Property tax increase: 1.3 per cent
Non-residential tax increase: o.43 per cent
Overall tax increase: o.88 per cent

An additional 0.6 per cent was also added on for the development of the Scarborough subway and 0.78 per cent for residential properties, bringing the total tax increase to 2.69 per cent. The tax increase is well below the rate of inflation, and remains the lowest residential property taxes in the GTHA.

The budget greatly depends on municipal land transfer taxes. The city is making an assumption that the tax will not be reduced or softened — essentially that it will hold constant. If the municipal land transfer tax wavers, Toronto could be left with a large hole in the budget going forward.

“At this point, we are able to expand the service level in 2016. Going forward, unless we have an increase in land transfer tax, that clearly becomes unsustainable” said Peter Wallace, city manager for Toronto, to council Wednesday afternoon.

The budget itself includes $8 million geared towards poverty reduction, $5.5 million to support the Mayor’s Task Force on Community Housing, and funds to help with improved streetcar reliability, Sunday morning subway service, and the hiring of additional seasonal inspectors of municipal construction to alleviate traffic disruption. It also includes $1.25 million for child-care subsidies, which was not in the original recommendations.

Screenshot 2016-02-18 14.19.44
Toronto city budget presentation

At the end of the day, council didn’t really consider changing or altering the budget, which is why it only took a day to pass. Important projects like the Yonge Relief Line, SmartTrack, and the revitalization of Toronto Community Housing are not being funded this year, despite the city’s insistence of their priority status. The budget is a very political process, and the mayor couldn’t be seen supporting a tax increase that was higher then inflation, despite the blatantly obvious positive effects it would have, because a) the status of the City’s labour negotiations and b) it’s not popular for re-election.

Council’s decision to not match tax increases to inflation will, ultimately, come back to haunt them. If taxes don’t match up to the rate of inflation, there will always be debt. In fact, the gap will continue to grow. So, Toronto needs to make a decision. It won’t be long until the budget planning process happens all over again. Let’s not make the same mistake next year — as the city manager said, Toronto just can’t afford to.

Why not use tolls and fees to fund green projects?

Over the last few months, the City of Toronto and the Ontario government have made some amazing announcement focused on green energy, infrastructure, and public transportation. The most recent announcement was made Tuesday: the Ontario government released $750 million in funding (in the form of a green bond) for environmentally friendly, low-carbon infrastructure projects, the majority of which would be dedicated to transit in the GTHA.

These investments are a good thing. A great thing, even. This city and this province must invest in infrastructure and transit. But, where is this money coming from?

A green bond is a great tool to raise capital for projects with environmental benefits, but eventually the bond holders need to be paid back. Investors provide funds for these projects and the government guarantees a return for each investor. When asked by Women’s Post if there was a plan to pay back these investors, this was the response given:

“Ontario’s Green Bonds rank equally with Ontario’s other bonds,” a spokesperson for the Ontario Minister of Finance said in a written statement. “Payments of principal and interest will be a charge on and payable out of the Consolidated Revenue Fund of Ontario and not tied to the revenues of any particular projects.”

Luckily, the maturity date for the green bond is in 2023, which means that the government has time to educate the public on the need to come up with the revenue for these investments. And it will be interesting to see what forms of repayment they create.

Tolling — while under both the provincial and municipal responsibility depending on the road — would be an ideal form of revenue. Ontario is starting a pilot project in the summer that will allow single-occupancy vehicles to use the High-Occupancy Vehicle lane meant for carpooling. Vehicle owners will be able to purchase a permit and pay a toll for its usage. This is the first time a responsible government has risked their positions to do the right thing.  Toronto is a long way off, with only a handful of councillors willing to stand up for the revenue tools Toronto needs to pay for the capital projects the city has committed to.

The money collected from these tolls can be used to fund the  the relief subway line which will provide an alternate east-west route to the Gardiner. Council has to make the bold move to call for other user fees – tolls, carbon tax, parking increase – so that property owners won’t carry the full burden of our capital deficit.

Both the city and the province are trying to find money in the budget — which amounts to shuffling through the same insufficient funds that caused our infrastructure deficit.   Toronto councillors will need to show the bravery their province counterparts have demonstrated in committing to high occupancy toll lanes.  The obvious solution is to use existing green projects such as tolling, congestion fees, or even a carbon-tax , to fund infrastructure investments.

The biggest problem facing all levels of government is that most Canadians want the infrastructure but they don’t want to pay for it.   The province is doing an amazing job ensuring that transit and green infrastructure is built, but Canadians have to start doing our part.

Let’s support the use of tolls, congestion fees, carbon taxes – whatever our council might bravely suggest — and start investing in Toronto’s long-term future.

Is SmartTrack a quick solution to a long-term problem?

The plan for SmartTrack tackles the need for a fast track solution to congestion in Toronto. The goal is to provide a quick solution for the hundreds of thousands of people trying to get across the city on a daily basis.

The key to SmartTrack is that is uses existing Regional Express Rail (RER) lines to provide service within Toronto, from Stouffville to the Airport Corporate Centre. Currently, the plan includes 22 new stations and is projected to be ready within seven years. The line will take over two existing GO routes and 90 per cent of its track will be on existing GO transit lines primarily the Kitchener and Stouffville Go lines.

SmartTrack is actively being pursued by the City of Toronto to help with congestion on the Yonge line by providing alternative options. Jennifer Keesmaat, chief planner and executive director for the City of Toronto, says in video for the relief line campaign: “In order for the network to be effective, we need to increase choice.” The Toronto Transit Commission currently has 535 million customers annually and this number is steadily growing. The hope is that by re-purposing exiting GO express lines SmartTrack  will provide relief for the over-capacity issue on the Yonge line and relocate 35 per cent of streetcar customers, clearing the way for a smoother commute.

But SmartTrack is still in the planning stages. Access to the airport corporate centre is essential for Torontonians who utilize transit, yet the cost of accessibility to this area could run extremely high. There is limited space for a transit station at the airport centre and steps are being taken to ensure the best plan is developed for this specific location. Metrolinx has approved a plan to extend the Eglinton Crosstown LRT from Mount Dennis to the centre. The City of Toronto has yet to approve this plan.

The city is conducting a feasibility review of the Eglinton Avenue West Corridor and waiting for the results of ridership modelling to further aide the analysis. The modelling is being conducted by the University of Toronto. The city has also met with Metrolinx over the last week to discuss the new stations across the RER network.

SmartTrack provides Torontonians with choice.  Is it the right choice? Mayor Tory , the city of Toronto and Metrolinx  are waiting for the results of these studies. With all wanting to deliver the right transit, not only for Toronto but for the entire region.

Woman of the Week: Anne Golden

Sitting in a Starbucks drinking a decaf flat white, Anne Golden recalls how she was “in the vanguard of women going on to have professional careers.”

Golden is an academic down to the bone. “I can’t just dive into a subject without understanding context,” she explained to Women’s Post in an interview. Her background is in American history, a subject she studied at the University of Toronto for both her BA and PhD.

Her own history is a bit of a roller-coaster, and Golden tells it with a hint of dry humour, almost as if she herself can’t believe how much she has done in her lifetime. She is now a distinguished visiting scholar and special advisor at Ryerson University, where she teaches a class on successful cities in the 21st century. She also holds a position on the board of Metrolinx and participates in a number of panels and task forces relating to issues of city building and transit.

Her career had a rocky start. First, she was discouraged from pursuing a career in law after one of the only women in the field told her she would never be allowed to work on any real cases. Then, she was convinced to give up a promotion in the department of history because she was married to a dentist and didn’t need the money.

“The interesting part was I said I understood. I didn’t say ‘injustice’,” Golden said. “I wasn’t bitter or angry. I just said [the other candidate] just got married and needs the job, and I was married to someone who was already a professional and I would survive. I mean, today, that would be cause for protest, but it wasn’t for me.”

From there, Golden took every opportunity she could get her hands on. She was always interested in politics, so when David Crombie ran for mayor in 1972, she was one of the first people to call and volunteer. Golden eventually coordinated the campaign that led to Crombie’s victory.

“New progressive ideas were coming on stream. There was an understanding that there was a new vision for cities beyond expressways, beyond sprawl, beyond imitating the American example.”

The jump from history major to politician, philanthropist, city builder, and transit aficionado was a relatively easy one for Golden. She describes it as “a result of very good luck,” but, in truth, she is an avid learner, ready to jump into any position that was offered to her.

As a board member at Metrolinx, Golden reads about 500-1,000 pages worth of contracts and files before every meeting. She also reads a daily roundup called a “Media Analysis Report”, which includes every single article or radio report published in Canada that relates to transit. Board members then go back and forth, discussing the issues and trying to find solutions to various problems. “I always felt that if the public saw how hard we worked they would be less cynical,” she said.

Some may argue that this cynicism comes from years of failed transit promises and miscommunications between politicians and transit agencies. According to Golden, the main reason for this lack of collaboration is that each institution is protective of its own turf.

“Where you stand is dictated by where you sit,” she said frankly. “If you are sitting in the [Toronto Transit Commission] building at Yonge and Davisville, you may see things differently than if you are sitting in Metrolinx on Front St. having to look at the whole region.”

In addition to city council, the TTC, and Metrolinx, there are about 160 organizations in the Greater Toronto Area dedicated to city issues, including transit. With so much competition, Golden says it is important to stress what makes each group unique. If an organization fails to do so, it may lose its voice and therefore its chance at being part of the formal discussion. She also suggests merging smaller organizations to gain legitimacy.

Despite the many interests of each decision-making power in Toronto, Golden acknowledges that there are good people running each of them, and that a lot of collaboration is happening to ensure the city gets the best possible transit system.

Golden is currently reading Margaret MacMillan’s History People and The Legacy of Grazia dei Rossi by Jacqueline Park.

Pollenize: Your Guide To The 2015 Canadian Federal Election

The Federal Election is just two months away.  Do you know who you are voting for yet? Let’s face it, some of us simply lack significant knowledge about the political process. Others could care less about the tedious promises and scripted speeches by the candidates (who almost always all look the same!). But fear not! Now you don’t have to vote for someone just ”because everyone else is.” 

Pollenize is a website an mobile application ‘designed to provide voters with an organized, unbiased overview of each candidate’s platform.’ I spoke with the co-founders, Miguel Barbosa and Trevor Blades, to find out some more information about their unique organization. Here’s what they had to say: 

1) What inspired you to create Pollenize? 

Miguel: I was watching a Toronto Mayoral Election debate and one of the candidates didn’t give a concrete answer on how they were going to encourage youth to vote. The main issue to me was that candidate websites are poorly designed and crammed with political rhetoric.

2) What sparked your interest in politics? 

Trevor: When we first started Pollenize, I wasn’t particularly interested in politics. I understood the importance of becoming involved, and the whole team could see that we had an opportunity to make it easier for other people to get involved. Since we’ve been working on this project however, it’s become a little bit more interesting to me because the storylines that play out throughout an election can be dramatic and fun to follow along with (see the 2014 Toronto Mayoral Election).

3) How do you plan to increase voter turnout with this app? 

Trevor: Everybod5y has a values and opinions regarding how they’d like their country to be run. We believe that people want to vote and make a difference, but it’s difficult to understand exactly how the candidates competing in an election align with their values. Pollenize compiles information, cuts out all of the political jargon that scares people away, and presents it in a simple and friendly design.

4) What tips do you have on how to get young adults involved in politics?  

Trevor: Make election day a national holiday. We need to create an event out of this day and make voting feel like more of a privilege than a right.

5) How do you plan on getting people to use your app? 

Miguel: We all volunteer our time on this and don’t have any capital for advertising. We have lots of original content to release that is the total opposite of the traditional election media narrative. Staying active on social media and providing a strong product was the key to our success in Toronto and we are confident this will be amplified due to this election being on a national level.

6) What can we do to break the ”Canadian politics is boring” mentality? 

Miguel: Elections Canada and the Canadian government are in a perfect position to innovate their digital services. Every government website and online tool could use a more thoughtful design approach. How people interact with things is sometimes more important than the content itself.Trevor: What seems like “boring” to one person could be really exciting to another.

7) Did you see positive results with voter turnout after the Toronto 2014 election?

Miguel: GTA voter turnout is on a 3-election high. Voter turnout skyrocketed in Toronto to 980,000. 60% voter turnout. I don’t feel comfortable with saying Pollenize had a definitive affect on that. We just hope it added to the election experience and sparked more political conversations among people of all ages.

8) What are your predictions on who will win the federal election? 

Trevor: I can’t predict how the election will turn out, but I know that there are a number of issues that Canadians have their focus on and could really set the tone for this election. Canada’s economic status, privacy-related issues (namely bill C-51), and environmental issues such as the Alberta tar sands, pipeline construction, and national park preservation will all be on the minds of voters as the election unfolds.

9) What is the voter turnout rate you’re hoping to see? 

Miguel: Let’s get back to April, 1963 where the turnout was 79.2%. That’d be spectacular.

Agreed. Download the app in your app store for free now!  

 

Bio: Trevor Blades is a web developer and designer. He spends his days at Planet Labs working towards imaging the entire planet every day using a flock of tiny satellites. He also created and maintains the addicting word game, Knoword. Miguel Barbosa is a film director, editor and producer.  He creates music videos, documentaries and commercials. Together, they co-founded  Pollenize. Check out for Pollenize Canada for up-to-date information on the 2015 Federal Election- launching August 24th.

Councillor Norm Kelly is Toronto’s #1 Tweeter

If you’re not following Councillor Norm Kelly on Twitter, you’re not following the right people.

Whether you’re looking for a daily dose of rap lyrics, Toronto culture, or some solid life advice, scroll through Kelly’s tweets. You may be surprised to know that they’re all written by the 73 year old himself.

And that pretty much makes him cooler than any of us will ever be.

His tweets have very little to do with politics, other than small tidbits on how to drive on the controversial HOV lanes , that is. (Note taken, Norm)

His lack of the conservative persona that many other politicians possess is seen through his light-hearted pokes at the law. In just 140 characters, Norm never fails to put a smile on your face. Or an idea in your head.

Norm’s unexpected knowledge of popular culture has struck a chord with millennials and… rappers? 

It’s safe to say he’s Drake’s #1 fan. Nothing prevents Norm from speaking from his mind. A valid quality needed for someone in politics, we’d say. While everyone’s busy being politically correct and trying not to offend anyone, Kelly is front row and center on debates he feels strongly about. He chooses sides openly and proudly, even when it comes to celebrity feuds.

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B: Norms tweets picture of a full battery in response to Drake’s diss track “Charged Up” #teamdrake 

And on days when rappers are calm and quiet and you might just need a quick pick-me-up, this Councillor will always be ready to cheer you up.

What a thought provoking question, Norm.

We even share the same taste in fine cuisine. Let’s not forget the time Norm fought for equality after finding out Reese’s Peanut Butter Spread was only available in America.

After months of anguish, Norm took another step into ensuring Toronto is provided with the best service.

He sought out to validate the information so we wouldn’t be left heartbroken. 

And with great leadership, comes great success. 

 

Well done, Norm. Well done.

It seems you always have our best interest at heart. Not to mention, you feel the same pain we feel. The empathy, my friends, is real.

The man is a man of many hats. He’s your Councillor, he’s your rap enthusiast, he’s your source for the latest happenings, but most importantly, he’s your friend.

Let’s grab coffee, Norm!

Follow Councillor Norm Kelly on Twitter @norm.

John Tory addresses PanAm Closing Ceremony controversy through song

Harder, better, faster, stronger. We agree, John Tory, we agree.

Following yesterday’s announcement that Grammy award winning rapper Kanye West will be performing at the PanAm 2015 closing ceremony’s, Toronto’s Mayor John Tory posted a video of himself bopping his head down into the subway to the singer’s hit single “Stronger.”

The decision to have Kanye West, an American and controversial performer, received mixed reviews due to the fact that he isn’t Canadian. Residents were equally worried about West doing something that can tarnish Toronto’s reputation.

In response to their sentiments (and pure excitement, it seems), John Tory’s video should be a reminder that we Canadians should make everyone feel at home, whether their ”Kim Kardashian’s husband” or not.

There may not be any igloos or moose in the video, but riding the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) while sporting a red and white hat is still about as Canadian as it gets. We do suggest some new reading material, though! 😉

Thank’s for showing us how it’s done, Tory.

The closing ceremonies will be on July 26th, 2015. Purchase tickets here.

 

Stephen Harper announces $2.6 billion in funding for SmartTrack Plan

It’s been a great day for the city of Toronto as Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced his plans today to provide more than $2 billion in funding from the federal government for up to one-third of the cost for Toronto’s SmartTrack transit line.

The announcement was made by Harper alongside Finance Minister Joe Oliver and Toronto Mayor John Tory today. The Smart Track, as stated on Mayor John Tory’s website, will provide service from the Airport Corporate Centre in the west, southeast to Union Station and northeast to Markham in the east. It will have 22 new station stops and five interchanges with the TTC rapid transit network.

Oliver said the funding is all about making Toronto a liveable place for citizens and efficient place for job-creating businesses at today’s announcement, which took place at the Toronto Transit Commission’s Hillcrest Complex in midtown Toronto.

That budget included $750 million over two years, starting in 2017-18, and $1 billion for each year after, for a new public transit fund to help cities fight traffic congestion by encouraging public-private infrastructure projects.

The City Council From A Millennial’s Perspective

With only a few years left before I graduate from post secondary education, I have taken it upon myself to experience as many things as possible before I’m expected to become an integral part of society. However, I’m beginning to realize that quenching my thirst for knowledge will never be possible as the opportunity to learn something never ends. So when I had the chance to attend my first City Council Meeting at City Hall yesterday- I went.

The atmosphere was serious; a large group of well informed citizens gathered to listen in on what their councillors had to say. Various issues from around the city were raised as each councillor took turns addressing them in a professional, timely manner. It was similar to stimulations we, students, take part in during debates in our Political Science classes. Except this time, the debaters were older, the topics were more current, and the results affected people instead of grades. The Key Matter of the day; the Gardiner Expressway.

My involvement in the Gardiner Expressway debate is fairly recent. As I began to learn more about the Hybrid and Boulevard options, I saw the importance of making the right decision. Being a Millennial, I am invested in the wellness of our future. Therefore, being informed on the environmental, economical, and health factors associated with the Gardiner East options allowed me to have an opinion on the matter. It is the reason I attended City Council. Preparing to live tweet the proceedings, I anxiously waited for some decisions to be made.

However, when City Council announced an in-camera session, I was immediately disappointed. As members of the city, we deserve the right to be informed and be involved in the matters that affect us. As the public paced outside Council Chambers, the 10 minute recess turned into a 3 hour wait. How can a matter affecting so many people be dealt with so privately?

Council was essentially preventing us from gaining the knowledge we need to be an integral part of society. Our need to be well informed citizens was demolished and our intent to be part of the decision was shattered. Not allowing the public to hear the arguments on such as important debate not only lacks transparency, but it effectively demonstrated the importance political power over expert advice.

My day at City Hall may not have revealed a lot about the Gardiner East, but it did reveal one thing; the debate will be a close one. Within a few hours, I was able to hear many different arguments from the public. While one citizen expressed interest in removing the Gardiner East due to the lack of use for it, another citizen deemed the hybrid a necessity as it allows him to come to the city from his home in Brantford.

Council is set to continue the debate today. Stay tuned for more updates.

The Gardiner Expressway Analysis

With the debate heating up around what to do about the Gardiner Expressway the Women’s Post encourages all city councilors to break free of political alliances and study the issue that will shape Toronto well into the future.  The decision to support the Boulevard or Hybrid options ties into so many other questions.
Does the decision to rebuild the East Gardier today lead to rebuilding rest of the crumbling expressway with a cost estimate of close to $2 Billion?  
How much more will it cost taxpayers to maintain an elevated highway  in comparison to maintaining a boulevard?
Why are major cities taking down their elevated highways on their waterfronts?
The truck association claims that their drivers won’t use the Gardiner Expressway – Don Valley Parkway route if a boulevard replaced the elevated highway — how many trucks will stop using it and will it speed up travel times for commuters?
Below are the pros and cons around the Gardiner Expressway issue.
 The Boulevard Option pros:
– push truck traffic away from the Gardiner and DVP – helping to alleviate gridlock on those highways
– save the city close to $500 million in initial cost and millions more in future maintenance
– reclaim the waterfront and add 12 more acres than the Hybrid option offers
– more reclaimed land creates more tax dollars for the city
– Toronto health believes it is the healthier choice for the citizens of Toronto 
– experts like Jan Gehl call for tear down of Gardiner East to enhance the waterfront
– make Toronto competitive with other world class cities that have taken down their elevated waterfront highways
The Boulevard Option cons:
– disrupt truck and freight traffic using the Gardiner Expressway – Don Valley Parkway route
– add 2-3 minutes in commute times for drivers
 The Hybrid Option pros:
– enable truck traffic to continue using both the Gardiner and DVP
– allow a continuous route along the waterfront
– maintain the same travel time for commuters
– trucking industry support
 The Hybrid Option cons:
– cause more pollution in the core
– cost more to build and maintain pushing costs onto our children and grandchildren
– smaller amount of reclaimed land will limit future tax intake for the city
– health risks for residents of  Toronto
– less competitive than other world class cities that are taking down their elevated waterfront highways to open up their waterfront to development
– increases the likelihood of Toronto having to rebuild entire Gardiner Expressway at estimated cost of $2 billion

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