Sarah for Mayor

Taxes – Could We All Have a Say?

How much do you love paying taxes on a scale of one to ten?

A one would mean you detest them and never want to pay another dime. Ten means you feel only joy in your heart at the sight of a tax bill and would welcome more taxes anytime, anywhere. 

My answer? It hovers between four on a bad day, six on a good one. I appreciate that taxes are the price I pay to receive all the incredible services that the city gives me – my clean drinking water, my waste disposal and treatment, the bus I ride on, the sidewalks and roads I walk, cycle or drive on, the police and firefighters who I can call on in an emergency – the list of benefits I receive from my government is huge. However, I can’t quite bring myself to fully embrace taxes yet – I see too much waste around me, I see too much being spent on things I don’t want to pay for, but most of all, I feel I don’t have a say in how my taxes are spent. In fact, I don’t even really know the full details on where my money goes after I hit “confirm payment” on my online banking app.

I know the rough outline: Toronto’s 2022 operating budget is a whopping 15 billion dollars, which residents pay for through a combination of property taxes, provincial and federal taxes, and user fees for TTC fares, water and waste treatment, and parking – the full breakdown is here. Beyond that basic knowledge, most of us are in the dark.

As residents, we can speak to the budget committee to try and have a say in how taxes are spent – I’ve tried that as a strategy in the past. And we could read the 905 pages of the city budget summary (if that’s the summary, what’s the long version?!) something that I don’t especially look forward to but will certainly do before I take office if elected. The problem is, most people are like me in that they don’t want to have to do a doctorate in the Toronto budget to understand it, or take days out of their work and household schedule to speak to a group of busy city councillors in the hopes that one of them will pay attention to their requests.

While the best things in life may be free – love, community, the sunrise over the water – we live in a world where revenue is critical in order to pay for both the materials and the services that make our lives easier. That revenue has to come from somewhere, and, as we see from the budget breakdown, the buck stops with us residents. So what if we knew what we were paying for, and felt like we had a choice?

Participatory budgeting is a fancy name for that choice. With participatory budgeting, we residents choose how much to pay, and what we spend it on. And unlike voting, which requires us to be over the age of 18 and Canadian citizens – which excludes a pretty large group of tax paying residents – it’s possible to give every single resident who can speak, hold a pencil or access a computer, a voice in city spending. 

Residents have been involved in spending budgets ranging from a few thousand to $200 million dollars everywhere from Halifax to New York City to Porto Alegre in Brazil – the place where the participatory budgeting concept was popularized. Here in Toronto we have dipped our baby toes in the waters of choice for residents but some efforts have been cancelled or are still in the report stage as staff and city politicians try to fit the unwieldy nature of full participation into the fixed structures of centralized control.

Can I as mayor turn over the entire $15 billion operating budget fully over to the residents of Toronto? Can I cancel all property taxes and user fees and start from a blank slate that allows each of us to have a say in how much we hand over to politicians and city staff to spend? To do it all in one fell swoop in say, my first month of office, has the potential for quite a lot of chaos, chaos I’m not sure that I or most residents would welcome. But could it be a goal for me to achieve in four years? Or to have halfway done so that I or my successor could finish the job in eight? With the full involvement of people who have valuable expertise in the best ways to involve residents in both budgets and decision making in general? 

I believe it’s possible to revolutionize how we raise and spend money in this city, if that’s what residents want. Imagine a budget that is fully accountable to the people who pay for it?  Imagine what we could create if all felt a 9 or 10 on that scale of how much we loved – or at least valued – paying taxes? What kind of beautiful, creative and life affirming city could we have – and demonstrate to the rest of the world? I don’t know the answers, but I see wonderful possibilities when I consider the questions.



Its the choice that matters