On New Year’s Day in 2019, Mayor John Tory made his priorities clear: Tackling the city’s transit needs and boosting the supply of affordable housing.
“Our city is booming,” he said in a social media address, “and I’m determined to continue that success.”
Close to a full year later, he’s made one of the biggest moves of his mayoralty: A significant tax hike on homeowners, backed by councillors from across the spectrum, which could bring more than $6 billion into city coffers.
With that, Tory’s mollifying, middle-of-the-road approach to city-building — polarizing though it may be — led him to a political win to cap off 2019.
“Which says to me: I’ve ended up in the perfect place,” Tory told CBC Toronto.
Leading into the holidays, Tory frustrated both the left and right-wing factions of council with his evolving stance on tax hikes, but wound up winning votes from both. He’s been accused of not fighting back against the sweeping cuts from Queen’s Park, but remained a thorn in Premier Doug Ford’s side as many of those cuts were, eventually, rolled back.
During a year-end interview earlier this month, he cited media criticism — that he’s a big spender or, on the flip-side, running austerity budgets — as proof that by aiming to please neither camp, he’s charting his own course.
“That’s the style of leadership that I bring,” he said. “People know that by now. I’m not going to change that much.”
So what will his approach mean for 2020 and beyond?
When it comes to Tory’s tax hike, the ripple-effect will be felt for years to come. Homeowners across the city will see the special city building levy, first introduced as a smaller version in 2017, go up by an extra eight per cent by 2025, totalling a hike of around $280 over the six-year period.
It’s a move that makes fiscal conservatives wince. Multiple low-tax advocates on council begrudgingly backed the hike, suggesting inflation-based property tax increases just aren’t cutting it anymore, given the huge sum the city needs to function. But it wasn’t an “easy decision,” said Coun. Gary Crawford, council’s budget chief.
Against that backdrop, Tory is vowing to maintain base property taxes at or below the rate of inflation next year, much like he did during the last two election campaigns — to the chagrin of council’s progressive camp.
Some caution his stance will leave the city increasingly short-changed as Toronto moves forward on sweeping plans to build housing and transit, which need far more than what his levy can provide. The TTC needs to fill a $33-billion hole just to keep the system up and running, which isn’t counting the hundreds of millions more needed to buy new vehicles in the years ahead.
“Everybody understands that this property tax increase the mayor has put forward will not pay for our transit system or housing proposals,” Coun. Gord Perks told CBC Toronto.
Tory shrugs off this kind of criticism, saying most people believe he’s on the right track.
“The debate people have about my leadership is that it’s activist, but it’s incrementalist at the same time,” he said.
“So in other words, I’m not a person who’s likely to come out and get way out in front of the public. I’ll try to get out in front of them a little bit, and bring them along and get them to accept some of the things we have to do.”
It’s a similar approach to how he handled tension with the Ford government throughout 2019.
For much of the year, city officials battled Queen’s Park over sweeping cuts to public health and child care, coupled with a looming proposal for the province to takeover Toronto’s subway network. Tory grew increasingly outspoken, but combined the rhetoric with a refusal to walk away from behind-the-scenes discussions.
He now credits his leadership with the province walking back many of the changes, including the so-called subway “upload,” which is now off the table thanks to a transit deal negotiated with the city which sees Toronto backing Ford’s priority projects.
“We had to get involved in a huge fight with them,” Tory said. “To be honest, I think people in Queen’s Park, in that government, thought I wouldn’t fight. I think people in this building thought I wouldn’t fight.”
But fight he did, albeit in his distinctly Tory way — in meetings and letters instead of opting to light his hair on fire and throw himself “down in the traffic on Queen’s Park Crescent,” as he puts it.
As Tory gears up to lead council into a new decade, it’s clear he’ll be staying the course. But the ongoing issues facing the city show no signs of changing either.
When it comes to housing, Toronto is still grappling with sky-high rents, lengthy wait-lists for affordable units, and a jam-packed shelter system. For the city’s transit network, uncertainty surrounds the province’s plans while the current system continually crumbles. On the public safety front, deaths caused by both gun violence and driver behaviour remain alarmingly high.
Will Tory’s incremental activism be enough to tackle these ever-growing challenges?
“If I’m offering myself again,” he said. “People will have a chance to judge that in the next election.”