Former mayor of Toronto John Tory’s time in office was marked by a level of financial imprudence that rivals that of even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Photo credit: CBC/Evan Mitsui
It’s time to dispel a yearslong myth: former mayor John Tory was no friend to Toronto taxpayers. He shouldn’t let the door hit him on his way out of city hall.
Tory ran for mayor as a moderate. He pledged to be a prudent manager of the city’s finances and never increase property taxes above the rate of inflation. On both fronts, Tory failed miserably.
During Tory’s first year in office alone, Toronto saw operating spending skyrocket from $9.6 billion in former mayor Rob Ford’s final year in office to $11.5 billon. That’s a 20 per cent increase in just a single year.
Things didn’t get much better as Tory’s time in office lengthened. The city’s operating spending grew at an average annual rate of 7.6 per cent. Toronto went from a $9.6 billion operating budget in 2014 to a $16.1 billion operating budget nine years later.
Tory’s out-of-control spending rivals even that of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. And it makes Ontario Premier Doug Ford look like a penny pincher.
While Toronto’s operating spending grew at an average annual rate of 7.6 per cent, that obscures even more concerning numbers. Cities in Ontario cannot run deficits when it comes to operating budgets, which pays for things like daily transit and policing, but they can borrow money to fund capital projects, such as new infrastructure.
Tory allowed Toronto’s debt to increase at an alarming pace. Toronto’s financial liabilities sat at $13.8 billion in 2014. As of 2021, that number was up to $23.3 billion.
These numbers are shocking. Tory ran as a safe choice to sit in the mayor’s chair, but he increased spending at over three times the rate of inflation. That spending binge makes the days of former mayor David Miller seem prudent by comparison.
And then there’s the tax front.
Tory promised Toronto taxpayers that he wouldn’t increase property taxes above the rate of inflation. But once Tory got to city hall, he became a crafty wordsmith.
In 2017, Tory created what he called a “city building levy.” That levy is just a second property tax charged to Toronto property owners. It works exactly the same as property tax, but the tax revenue is targeted toward infrastructure projects instead of general revenue.
Call it what you want, but if it walks like a property tax and talks like a property tax, it’s a property tax.
By inventing this “city building levy,” Tory was able to claim to keep property tax hikes below the rate of inflation because he had a second property tax in his back pocket.
Just a couple of weeks ago, Tory pushed his latest budget through council. In it, Tory raised the normal property tax by 5.5 per cent, which he claims is below the rate of inflation. But add in Tory’s second property tax of 1.5 per cent, and you get a seven per cent hike.
That, my friends, is above the rate of inflation.
And what does Toronto have to show for all of this new spending and taxing?
Transit remains a disaster. New projects are behind schedule and over budget. The Eglinton Crosstown LRT, for example, was supposed to be completed in 2020. But the project is still under construction today and has run hundreds of millions of dollars over budget.
Homelessness is also on the rise, having crossed the 18,000 mark in 2021.
And Tory has recklessly committed Toronto to hosting five World Cup games in 2026, which will cost the city $644,000 for every minute of soccer played on BMO Field.
Now that Tory has resigned and a new election is looming, it’s time to move past his legacy of uncontrolled spending and higher taxes and elect a new mayor to clean up city hall.
Jay Goldberg is the Ontario Director at the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. He previously served as a policy fellow at the Munk School of Public Policy and Global Affairs. Jay holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Toronto.