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Today’s Tax Vote: Five unanswered questions

Today city council holds a final vote on whether to adopt Mayor David Miller’s proposal for a land-transfer tax and a vehicle-registration fee. Hopefully. Anything is possible. Now that Miller has announced a panel of experts to review city finances, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone moved a motion to defer a final vote yet again, pending the experts’ report in February. Even if the taxes are adopted today, it will only signal the beginning of a fresh round of teeth gnashing and garment rending among bickering councillors. To get us started on the post-vote chatter, here are my top five still-unanswered questions from Toronto’s Great Tax Debacle of 2007.

1.What flavour of Jell-O is Anthony Peruzza made of? The perpetually undecided councillor for Ward 8 - York West told the Star over the weekend that he would probably not make up his mind until minutes before the vote itself. At this point, any councillor who is still undecided this morning lacks spine. This debate has gone on for months. Despite its length, it has produced precious little in the way of new information or alternative proposals. The tax proposal on the table today is essentially the same one that was on the table in July, with a few concessions. You either favour them or you don’t.

2.When will council’s right-of-centre members propose some budget measures of their own? Miller’s opponents have successfully made him look inept this summer. They have been aided in their efforts by Miller’s own bungling of his proposed budget cuts. The spectacle of the pratfalling Mayor has relieved them of any duty to propose their own alternatives. Some councillors have proposed the odd idea or two, but they have not tried to propose an alternative package of budget measures, even though there’s clearly an appetite with the public for just that. And with council so badly divided, they could actually get it passed.

3.Why were the top ranks of the city’s bureaucracy so visible and prominent in this debate? City Treasurer Joe Pennachetti chaired the public consultations on new revenue tools back in June. Either Miller or Budget Chief Shelley Carroll should have done that job. City Manager Shirley Hoy was the public face of the budget cuts. All told, Torontonians have seen too much of their non-elected officials in this very political and partisan affair.

4.How will the city balance its budget? The taxes, if adopted, will generate about half the funds needed to meet the projected 2008 shortfall. Brian Ashton, the councillor who arguably got us into this mess by voting against the mayor in July, says this is exactly why he voted the way he did, and why he’ll do so again today: much as the city needs these taxes, in the absence of a long-term plan, they solve nothing.

5.What kind of city will we get? The most insidious aspect of this entire debate has been the frequent use, by Miller and his team, of the question, “What kind of city do you want?” The implication is that we can’t have a “great” city without these taxes. But Miller has avoided talking about exactly what his vision of greatness for Toronto looks like and on which priorities he would channel his new tax revenues into. It has been an appeal to empty ambition. And there’s a reason for his lack of specifics: these taxes won’t even balance the 2008 budget (see Question 4), let alone make Toronto great. The city’s common ambitions for its future prosperity remain on hold indefinitely. Whatever they are.

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