Toronto – How It Works

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By David Nickle

Toronto is Canada’s largest city. It is also the city where most newcomers to Canada come to settle first. There are 2.4 million people in Toronto and according to the 1996 census 1,125,000 are newcomers. That is nearly half of Toronto’s population and more than a quarter of all the immigrants in Canada.
Toronto’s city government works hard to serve that population. The city’s motto, Diversity Our Strength, is meant to celebrate and welcome newcomers who have come here from more than 100 countries around the world.

The city government is one of three governments that represent Toronto. The other two are the Province of Ontario, our provincial government – one of ten in Canada – and the Government of Canada, our national government. If you were to stack the governments one on top of the other, you would have the Government of Canada on top; the province below that; and the City of Toronto at the very bottom.

As well as being the lowest level of government, Toronto is also very young. In 1997, the Ontario provincial government ordered that six smaller cities (North York, Scarborough, Etobicoke, York, East York and Toronto) would come together into one big city – Toronto. Many people in Toronto thought this was a bad idea. But the provincial government at the time had the final say and the change – called amalgamation – happened officially on January 1, 1998.

Now, Toronto is the sixth largest government in Canada. The city’s mayor and 44 councillors must decide how to spend a budget of $7 billion every year. That money goes to all sorts of services, from buses and subways, to policing and fire fighting, to road repairs and garbage collection, and to parks and recreation services. The city also has to pay a part of welfare for people who are not able to work. And it must maintain affordable housing for people who cannot pay high rents, and a shelter system for people who cannot find housing at all. The city manages Toronto’s public library system. And the city pays for a public health department that makes sure restaurants are clean and children are vaccinated – and last year helped save people’s lives when the sickness, SARS, came to Toronto. The city even operates homes for elderly people and runs 10 museums.
But the money to pay for that only comes from one place: taxes collected on houses and businesses in the city. The owner of every building inside the city must each year pay a small part of what it would likely sell for in that year. Because some people who own houses are elderly or out of work and don’t have much money on hand, the city can only raise those taxes so far before those people are driven from their homes.

The problem is that as the city grows older, it becomes more and more expensive to run. The buses wear out and need to be replaced, the roads become uneven, and the city’s libraries and community centres become run-down and ugly.Toronto politicians say they need more money, and for the past six years they have been talking with the other two levels of government – the Province of Ontario and the federal government – to try and get more money coming into Toronto. The talks are going better lately. But there never seems to be enough money at budget time.

But in spite of the city’s money problems, for ordinary people the City of Toronto is the easiest government to talk to if you have a problem. Because, as many city councillors like to say, Toronto is the level of government that delivers services directly to people. And that means that it is the government that has to listen the most.

The government here – known as City Council – is made up of one mayor and 44 councillors. The councillors each represent a Ward – a small collection of neighbourhoods in one part of the city. The councillors and the mayor have their hands full figuring out how to spend the tax dollars they collect. But they are also there to help the people who live in their wards – their constituents.

That means if you, as a constituent, have a problem with your garbage not being picked up or the snow not being cleared on your street, you can call your councillor and get help. And if you want to have a say in the laws that the city passes – called bylaws – you can come down to Toronto City Hall at 100 Queen Street West and talk to councillors on committees.

Committees are an important part of the decision making process at City Hall. Once a month, councillors who sit on the five main committees of council meet to go through their agendas and make recommendations to the whole city council. Issues are talked about in great detail at the committees. As well as hearing from the public, councillors are also able to question the city staff who know the technical details about the issue and then debate it among themselves.

The five major committees cover all the work the city does. Here are the five:

  • The Works Committee, which deals with garbage collection, the water and sewer system, road repair in the summer and snow clearing in the winter;
  • The Planning and Transportation Committee, which sets the rules for building and sometimes looks at very big building projects;
  • The Economic Development and Parks Committee, which looks after the city’s parks and the city’s recreation programs, such as basketball or fitness classes in community centres, and also tries to plan ways to bring more business to Toronto;
  • The Administration Committee, which makes decisions on how the workers at the city do their jobs, and also decides when to sell city-owned lands and for how much;
  • The Community Services Committee, which looks after Toronto’s social programs – including many programs to help newcomers adjust to the city. The Community Services Committee also gives out Community Services Grants to organizations across the city that provide help to small organizations that want to make things better for small communities in the city. Many groups helping newcomers are funded with these grants.

Those are five main committees, but the city also has local planning committees called Community Councils. There are four of these – representing the north, south, east and west portions of Toronto – and councillors who represent those areas sit on those councils and make decisions about applications to build townhouses and apartment buildings and office towers. They also decide on very local things like requests to widen a driveway or permission to cut down a tree.

Council also controls a number of Agencies, Boards and Commissions – ABCs for short – such as the Toronto Transit Commission, the Public Health Department, the Toronto Police Service and the Toronto Zoo. These ABCs are not part of the city government even though they get money from it. The Toronto Transit Commission, for example, operates as a business – not just maintaining and running the buses and subways, but marketing the service to people who would otherwise clog up the roads with their cars.

The city has one committee that spends all its time on issues that newcomers face: the Working Group on Immigration and Refugee Issues. The group has, among other things, come up with Toronto’s Plan of Action for the Elimination of Racism and Discrimination. This program helps newcomers access professions and trades here in Canada and finds ways to make city services easier for newcomers to access.

And finally, there are two very important committees: The Policy and Finance Committee, and the Budget Advisory Committee. These committees are chaired by the two most powerful politicians at city hall: the mayor, who chairs Policy and Finance, and the Budget Chief, who chairs the Budget Advisory Committee.

The Policy and Finance Committee meets just before council and takes a second look at the recommendations that came from those other five main committees before sending them on to the full Council meeting. The Budget Advisory Committee makes recommendations once a year on how the city will spend its budget and whether property taxes will go up.

This year, the Budget Advisory Committee has a big challenge. If the city just keeps doing all the things that it did last year, it will be $344 million short of what it needs. The Budget Advisory Committee, chaired by city councillor David Soknacki, will be staying up late at night trying to cut down the city’s programs to avoid a big property tax hike when council itself approves the budget in April.

Council meetings to approve city budgets go on for many days. But in Toronto, council meetings to talk about anything can go on for many days.

It is not hard to understand why. With five minute speeches from as many as 44 councillors and one mayor, debating even a simple issue can take hours – and one council meeting will often cover hundreds of issues. If you have cable television, you can watch those debates carry on live, or you can come down to the council chambers yourself and watch them in person.

Not many people do, though, because the debates are very slow and can be frustrating to sit through. But really, it is no different from any other large democratic government where elected politicians are able to debate issues. As the old saying goes: “Democracy isn’t pretty.”

Yet, if it’s not pretty, sometimes the politics behind the debates can be very interesting.

When David Miller was elected Mayor last fall, he called a council meeting within days of the election to try and put a stop to construction of a bridge to the Toronto City Centre Airport on the Toronto Islands. In the election, Miller had promised to stop the bridge construction. But to do it, he had to win the support of the newly-elected council, because in Ontario the mayor cannot make decisions like that on his own.

If Toronto were a government like the provincial or the federal government, the mayor would have an easier time pulling together votes, because those two levels of government operate under what is known as a party system. So if Miller were a New Democratic Party mayor elected with a majority of New Democratic Party councillors, they would have to vote with him and he could win the vote every time.

But on Toronto Council, there is not a majority of New Democrats. Even if there were, Miller would not be able to force them to side with him on an unpopular issue.

So Miller had to use other methods to make sure he had the votes. One of the ways he did that was to hold the Island airport vote before he put forward the list of councillors who would sit on committees. Councillors knew that if they voted against the mayor’s wishes, they might not get the committee appointments they were hoping for. In the end, Miller’s tough political strategy won him his bridge vote.

But getting councillors to agree doesn’t always mean getting tough. Earlier this month, every Toronto councillor voted to approve a plan to make communities safer from crime and gangs, and another plan to clean up Toronto’s streets of trash and litter. Because it was something that everyone could agree on, everyone supported the mayor.

Not everything is going to be so easy. This coming year promises to be an interesting one at city hall. David Miller and his council will have to get through that difficult budget – which could turn out to be very difficult indeed if the city does not get the help it needs from the provincial and federal governments. Toronto Council is getting some of what it’s asking for – Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin has agreed to give Toronto back the Goods and Services Tax that it paid, for example. That will mean $52 million for Toronto this year. And Martin also agreed to pay for what is known as infrastructure – the purchase of buses and the repair and growth of subway trains – for $1 billion over five years.

But that won’t be much help this year. Council is still looking for $193 million from the provincial government and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has still not said whether or not that money will come in time. If it doesn’t come, then council will have to make big cuts to the services the city provides. Or it will have to raise taxes by much more than the three per cent that the Mayor promised.

And whatever happens, the city will have lots to talk about with the federal and provincial government over the whole year. You may have heard the term “New Deal” on the news over the past year or two.

That “New Deal” involves giving the city more power to raise its own tax revenue. It also involves the federal and provincial governments in long-term funding for the city. This way the city will know how much it will get from those levels of government each year – and if that amount will be enough. Some people think the New Deal should go farther and give Toronto the powers of a provincial government, given the city’s size.

The city will also be making big decisions about garbage. Right now, all of Toronto’s garbage is carried by truck to a landfill site in Michigan, an American state. This is becoming more and more of a problem at the border between Canada and the United States, and the Americans are working on laws to stop Toronto from sending its garbage there. Toronto Council has been working on a plan to be able to stop sending any garbage to landfill sites by 2010 and this year, the city’s Works Committee will look at different ways to do that.

In some parts of the city, they are already taking garbage that is organic – left-over food for the most part – in a separate collection and breaking it down for fertilizer. And Toronto residents have been recycling newspaper and glass for many years. But getting rid of the rest of the garbage without putting it in the ground means the city has to look at new ways to just dispose of garbage. Burning the garbage is something that many councillors are in favour of – but Mayor David Miller does not like that idea because he’s worried that the smoke will poison the air that we breathe.

Those who are in favour of burning say that new technology means the smoke isn’t that dirty at all and that the city has to move quickly before the border is closed for good.

It will be interesting to see who wins that political debate when it comes to Toronto Council.

This year, some decisions that Toronto Council made in the past will be coming into effect. In 1999, Toronto Council passed a bylaw that first made it against the law to smoke in restaurants. In June, the second part of that bylaw takes effect and smoking will be banned in bars as well. Another bylaw that stops people from spraying chemicals on their lawns and gardens will also come into effect. Both of those bylaws are meant to make Toronto healthier and safer. But city councillors will be getting a lot of telephone calls and emails from people who are angry about the new laws.

Of course listening to complaints just goes with the job of being a city councillor in Toronto

Find more information about the City of Toronto at the City’s website, at At the website, Toronto’s City Guide to Services is available in PDF format in French, Chinese, Greek, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Punjabi, Spanish, Tagalog, Tamil and Vietnamese. If you don’t have Internet service, you can call the city’s general information telephone line called Access Toronto at 416-338-0338.

Or you can go to Toronto City Hall or one of six civic centres around the city.

  • Toronto City Hall is located at 100 Queen Street West.
  • The East York Civic Centre is located at 850 Coxwell Avenue.
  • The Etobicoke Civic Centre is located at 399 The West Mall.
  • Metro Hall is located at 55 John Street.
  • The North York Civic Centre is located at 5100 Yonge Street.
  • The Scarborough Civic Centre is located at 150 Borough Drive.
  • The York Civic Centre is located at 1542 Keele Street.

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