Urban Political Landscape – Follow up

Many thanks to Don Stevenson for sharing his wealth of experience with the Why Should I Care? salon.  Everyone left with a better appreciation of the role of municipal government and a sense of how certain policies historically have affected our city.  Moving forward, we need to keep this history in mind to make good decisions in the future.

Darla Campbell has graciously summarized her thoughts from the discussion.  Thanks Darla!

Please feel free to share your thoughts from the evening as well.


We were delighted to have the voice of experience in our speaker for the evening, Don Stevenson.  Stevenson is a distinguished civil servant who has served under many governments and participated in reform at all levels of government.  He was in the line of duty when significant decisions were made with respect to urban planning.  He openly shared his experiences at all levels of government and invited questions on any issue he touched in his opening remarks.

Stevenson started his interest in public affairs as a teenager when he had the paper route for Owen Sound for the Globe and Mail.  He made it a practice to read the paper, cover to cover, before delivering it to the community.  That way he was the first informed in the community about the newsworthy issues of the day.  (To show his honesty, he did confess that the paper was much smaller back then!)
He went on to a 30 year career at Queen´s Park, where he admitted that the first 15 years were most exciting.  In 1972, the government combined intergovernmental affairs and municipal affairs.  In 1970, there was a report to put a stop to sprawl in the 905.  He saw the future as increasingly global and local.

Specifically for Toronto governance, in 1961 Fred Gardiner (Chair of Metro) and Leslie Frost were instrumental in creating a governance structure that was recognized by the world who looked at Toronto for good governance of a large urban area.  The role of Metro (i.e. Regional Municipality of Metropolitan Toronto) was equalization responsibility across the various municipalities and neighbourhoods.  When Metro was created in 1953, it was agreed that every decade or so to review Metro´s responsibilities.  The first review in 1965 recommended to no touch the outer boundaries of Metro.  The second review recommended direct election to Metro.  The province set up Metro Services Board and then abolished it.

Now, the Mayor of Toronto is moving into a party system.  There is a need for more accountability for the more than 2 million residents of the City.  Initially community councils of four were established.  Stevenson suggested that we need 20 community councils (or one per ward) and this would match better with neighbourhoods.  Paul Bedford looked at the New York City model with district board with a share of city budget to deal with local priorities like parks, heritage buildings, etc.

In the group discussion, taxation was a hot topic and new sources of revenue for municipalities.  Stevenson agreed that the property tax system is fair, yet limiting to a local municipality when that is the only source of sustainable income.  He advocated for a better distribution of revenue capacity.  The group discussed environmental impact of the bag tax and other value-added taxes.  Stevenson agreed with user fees, yet cautioned that there is a limit to what is reasonable.  For example, do you really want to have a user fee for recreation facilities and libraries?  Stevenson come around to appreciate toll roads and saw evidence of this in China where toll roads on super highways pay for super transit.

The gas tax was a good tax.  Income tax, sales tax and growth taxes are sustainable taxes.  Paul Martin and Paul Godfrey supported this new approach for municipalities, which was 7 or 8 years ago.  Not since have we had a political leader with that level of commitment.  Propose a higher tax on higher wealth and consideration for a higher tax on high value properties.  Back in the 60´s we lost our death taxes, due to Alberta´s decision to get rid of this tax and other jurisdictions had to follow to stay competitive.

A problem in our system is that politicians can win elections by promising to cut taxes.  How does that become viable for delivering services and infrastructure in the short and long-term?

Stevenson mentioned that Frankfurt, Germany is a city with significant financial institutions which is similar to Toronto.  The City of Frankfurt invests some $400million/year for cultural projects.  In Sweden, municipalities have the power to collect tax and the responsibility to deliver social programs.

There has been a shift in philosophies since 1950´s.  In the 50´s, we still remembered the depression and massive poverty.  in th 60´s, there was a belief in government in their role in planning.  In the late 60´s we got medicare, assuming it would lead to pharmacare and dentacare.  Why wouldn´t it?  The belief that government has that role has dissipated in the last 10 years.  Huge increase in income disparity and huge societal problem.

Amazed that the financial business sector has been able to ignore the side effects and be totally reliant on the market.  Advisors to the Finance Minister, bank economists, look at aggregate GDP which has not sector evaluation.  This doesn´t take into account what is happening is northern Ontario or north Etobicoke.  There needs to be a greater alignment of expenditures and a realignment of revenue sources.

We also discussed energy and the benefits of locally generated energy solutions.  Stevenson proudly shared his involvement at the provincial government in the success of Toronto District Heating Corporation and their Deep Lake Water Cooling project.

There was also a discussion about starting civics in high school as a required subject as a way to engage future voters.

Toronto gets 70% revenue from the transit fare boxes, which is the highest percentage of any city in North America.  It was mentioned that public transit subsidizes the usage of cars.  Transit has a net benefit for society.  It´s worth it for the province to support transit.

Stevenson strongly advocated for a role for the federal government in debating urban issues.  He called for a reinstatement of the Ministry of State-Urban Affairs (that ended in the 70´s)

This post was written by

2 Comments on "Urban Political Landscape – Follow up"

  • Jason says

    Sorry I missed this meeting.Thanks for the summary Darla. Almost as if I was able to make it!

  • Peter says

    There are many comments that I could make about this wide ranging discussion but I will mention only two.

    First, we engaged citizens should insist that those politicians who propose tax cuts should be required to identify those services that would be reduced or eliminated and provide estimates to show that reduced costs would match the loss in tax revenues. Failing such information we should treat these politicians as irresponsible or at least non transparent and therefore unworthy of election or re election and put the onus on them to prove otherwise. By acting this way we might eventually change the current behaviour of many politicians. In this context I believe it is important to add economics and public finance to civics as elements of secondary school curriculum. This is important because more than a fifth of the expenditures in our economy is made or procured by all government levels.

    Secondly, the residential property tax in Toronto (which as Don Stevenson said represents a tax on wealth) is low relative to the tax rate on income. The comparison of the two taxes can be made because the wealth represented by the value of an owner occupied house can generate income if the house is rented. So, in Toronto, the property tax of $3,383.53 on an average house worth $407,374 represents 0.83% of the assessed value of the house. If the house were rented, it would generate annual rent of around $20,368 – typically about 5% of the value of the house. Thus the ratio of property tax to rental income on the house is 16.6%. However, the 16.6% rate is almost half the marginal income tax rate of 31% on the $52,833 median family income in Toronto. In other words the property tax rate on the economic benefit of an owner-occupied house is not much more than half the income tax rate.

    All the best to you for your organization´s encouragement of grass roots civic engagement.

Leave Your Comment