By Kristyn Wong-Tam, Guest Contributor –
As City Councillor for Ward 13 (Toronto Centre) for almost 12 years, I offer some modest observations to the new one soon to be elected.
A strong and effective councillor brings attentiveness to any tasks and an unwavering ability to secure large investments for the ward. This has always been easier said than done, especially in the Downtown East.
Only a handful of city councillors fully understood downtown, and even fewer cared about the Downtown East. They were too busy attending to their own wards. Even though our current mayor lives in Yorkville, he always understood that to control City Council, he only needed to appease the suburban-minded, fiscally- stunted majority.
It’s already late in the fiscal year and the city still faces a $857-milion deficit, with high interest rates and worse to come. This is the financial crisis or iceberg that every city manager warned council about for my entire time at City Hall. Council was told to change course or our ship will crash into the bottom of the iceberg, the ninety percent under water that we could not see.
Budget pressure in 2023 is expected to be larger – and Toronto is already running a current and illegal deficit, since by law the operating budget must be balanced. The new councillor will have to stand firm and loudly defend Ward 13 against budget cuts or caps to public investment in our communities.
Already the mayor and City Council have deferred $300-million in maintenance and civic improvements, hoping the federal and provincial governments will bail them out before December. This means severely restricted funds for road repairs, parkland and recreation facility improvements, flood protection and transit infrastructure.
Having listened carefully during every city manager’s budget presentation, I understand that the apex of all policy tools is the budget. This is why every year I hosted the city’s largest public consultation, right here in Ward 13, during budget season. Local residents and business owners should know that if we want investments to flow into our neighbourhoods, we have to fight together.
This is how I got the Downtown East Action Plan funded, which gives our neighbourhoods a higher service standard for 311 calls, waste management and community grants than elsewhere. Through perseverance I was able to get new playgrounds built in Allan Gardens and Ramsden Park well ahead of their original schedules.
Rebuilding College Park and installing the first exterior skating path in North America that uses state-of-the-art carbon dioxide technology in its refrigeration system is another point of pride. As are the new service and housing partnerships I helped create with Habitat for Humanity, Artscape, Egale, Na-Me-Res, YWCA and Fife House, to list a few organizations I worked with.
None of those projects were initiated by the mayor, council or staff, but rather by an eager rookie councillor who refused to accept “no” for an answer.
Our new councillor will have to fight to ensure that long-time plans to rebuild critical assets in our neighbourhoods continue as planned. A few examples follow.
After a private donor reversed a $33-million donation in 2019, I got John Innes Community Centre and Moss Park improvements back on track with a scaled-down 2020 budget of $60-million, with final designs plus council approval expected in the new year.
Construction on YongeTomorrow, our one-in-a-lifetime revitalization of the historic street that City Council adopted in 2021, is supposed to start in 2023. It’s expected to cost $70-million.
The Seaton House redevelopment over almost half of its block on George Street , is expected to inject over $500-million into our neighbourhood. This needs final approval from City Council soon.
The historic funding I secured for the Five-Year Downtown East Action Plan will expire in 2023. It’s not certain to be renewed unless the new councillor fights against its silent and unceremonial death.
Ward 13 is the most urban part of Toronto and even Canada. Our new councillor should proudly and unapologetically promote the ward’s ambitious urbanism. All downtown councillors in Ontario’s biggest cities have to be braver than their suburban counterparts, and always move from strength to strength.
Kristyn Wong-Tam served on Toronto Council from 2010-2022 and is currently representing Toronto Centre in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario since 2022 as a member of the Ontario NDP.