Megacity looming

Megacity, the Cinderella municipality whose new-born domain will cover every acre east and west of Yonge Street from Steeles to the waterfront come midnight, Jan. 1, is now also being called “a once in a lifetime event.”

The analogy isn’t entirely frivolous. After all, 45 years have passed since Toronto and its neighboring communities last re-created themselves into what is now Metropolitan Toronto, thus saving money — as it’s hoped this latest transformation will — by uniting many common services and ridding itself of overlapping expenses.

But what does this latest reincarnation of Hogtown (by way of merging Toronto, North York, Scarborough, York, East York and Etobicoke into a single, 2.4-million-person, metropolis) mean for city-dwellers aged 50-plus?

The short answer is: not a great deal in itself. The real answer can only be found by examining the megacity deal in tandem with some other recent Ontario legislative moves — property tax reform, for example, the offloading of provincial government costs onto municipalities, and the closure of 11 Toronto-area hospitals. Why? Because many of these moves have become associated in Torontonians’ minds as part of Queen’s rk’s megacity legislation. And it’s from these sources, more than the megacity deal as such, that the real financial hurt now troubling the Greater Toronto Area springs.

Note that new term, “Greater Toronto Area.” It’s an area in addition to Metro Toronto stretching from Bowmanville in the east to Burlington in the west, and as far north as Lake Simcoe. Not affected by the megacity deal, its components — municipalities such as Mississauga, Markham and others —- have been earmarked by the province to cough up millions of dollars to help cover the cost of welfare and other programs in the inner megacity. This proposal, unsurprisingly, draws cheers from politicians in downtown Toronto but is vigorously attacked by those in the outlying regions.

That’s one example of how the province plans to offload several hundred million dollars in spending to municipal governments in its attempt to live up to its election promise of a 30 per cent cut in income tax rates — one which will hurt Toronto-area residents otherwise unaffected by the megacity plan.

And it leads neatly into how all this will impact on the property tax and municipal user-fee bills of both Torontonians and residents of the outlying area. Al Leach, Ontario’s Municipal Affairs Minister, insists his property tax reform plan (which would tax residences on their current value rather than one of half a century ago) should result in average cuts of five per cent to 10 per cent across the province. But the offloading of the millions in provincial costs onto cities like Toronto will almost certainly force property taxes to rise.

Another example: Parks and recreation services, such as swimming pools and other non-park services, would suddenly start to charge user fees. Indeed, not only have such moves begun, sceptics are now talking of putting some garbage collections on a cost-recovery basis, as some U.S. cities have.

Toronto-area and other municipalities aren’t shy about complaining about all this, or arguing how it will hurt 50-plus residents of their communities.

Most mayors at the recent annual meeting of the Association of Municipalities of Ontario didn’t buy Premier Mike Harris’ argument that the revenue municipalities will have to dedicate to social welfare and ambulance services will be found in savings they’ll benefit from when turning over the cost of maintaining educational institutions to Queen’s Park.

Indeed, one disgruntled local politician summed the whole tax transfer deal up by saying “For seniors, the bottom line is that services will decline and taxes will increase.”

This prospect, however, should be ameliorated by one of three major changes that CARP president Lillian Morgenthau recently got the Harris government to enact — the deferral of any property tax hike on a senior’s house until the dwelling is sold.

Plenty is known of the cost and inconvenience that has been incurred in the GTA by Ontario’s massive hospital cutback announcements this year. And that’s not to mention declines in ambulance services already in the works.

But Mrs. Morgenthau also persuaded the government not to offload the cost of long-term care to municipalities, and is now petitioning Queen’s Park not to abandon those hospitals it has ordered closed but to convert them into nursing homes.

The next major step takes place November 10 when candidates —- including 64-year-old Mayor Mel Lastman of North York and Mayor Barbara Hall, 51, of Toronto — vie for the mayoralty of what will be the mother of all Canadian cities. Lastman, if only because of his flamboyancy, business background and track-record of building North York from a big-city suburb into a significant business centre, appears to have the lead. But Hall, a community worker skilled in building partnerships, isn’t far behind.

While the political realignment of Toronto may be a singular occurrence, as an observer, Mrs. Morgenthau says one thing about Toronto isn’t likely to change —- the character of its existing municipalities and its neighborhoods. “Regardless of its pros and cons, Megacity will be here to stay. So, we had better make the best of it and hope the politicians do what’s best. “Politically, many components of the metropolitan area we know today will be gone. But local identities will remain. Forest Hill didn’t lose its identity when Metropolitan Toronto came into being. Neither did Cabbagetown, Rosedale, or Etobicoke.”

Whatever transpires, Toronto’s megacity project will be “a once in a lifetime” experience. And with so many legislative moves on the go, no one — not Mike Harris, Al Leach, Mel Lastman or Barbara Hall — can be sure what the outcome will be. All that Mrs. Morgenthau can say at this stage is that she, like others, will be watching closely to see that one of her paramount concerns is monitored — “that seniors will not find their everyday lifestyle threatened.”