Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Food for Thought

John Sewell is running for Council in the City of Toronto. Sewell, author, columnist and former Toronto mayor, believes - I mean he really believes - in local government. Hi s book “A New City Agenda (Zephyr Press - 2004) is instructive in framing the issues facing municipalities and is worth a look as we approach local elections on November 13th.

The problem: The provincial and federal governments have the power and the money but can’t deliver the goods.

Sewell argues, our city governments “excite significant expectation” but don’t have the authority or resources to meet them. For most of us significant expectations are reserved for Roll-up-the-Rim-Days, not public policy ideas. Nonetheless Sewell’s, admittedly Torontocentric book, is full of good ideas and insights.

Sewell makes the case for more power at the local level. To the cities he’d transfer control of welfare, childcare and legislative power over roads. He would reallocate “a large chunk” of health dollars so that the “more efficient and less expensive” community health care model becomes “firmly established.“ Drawing on Transitions, an 1988 report which looked at social assistance, Sewell recommends establishing an advisory committee to plan the coordination of delivery of income support programs for women, children and youth.


Looking for ideas? John Sewell has many.

Who could argue with municipalities getting financial tools to respond to the needs of immigrants, reducing vehicular traffic or strengthening the oversight function of police boards? Other arguments, like allowing cities to establish rent controls, as Toronto asked the province to do in 1974, will meet with significant opposition.

You can’t talk about local government without looking at the unfair property tax system. Sewell would reform that 19th century relic so that properties are assessed based on the services they consume rather than their presumed market value.

It is noteworthy that only 10% of all tax revenues generated in the country go to cities. Studies show that the difference between the value of taxes collected and the value of services provided results in cities subsidizing senior government. This very large “tax surplus” means Toronto funds the senior levels by about $10 billion a year (or $4,000 per person). Sewell’s solution would be to return that surplus to the cities or, at the very least, give the locals more taxing powers.

That mainstay of local government - planning and development - would also change by freeing the city of provincial control and allowing the local level to create their own review panel. This “downloading” of the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) will certainly pique the interest of those development industry suits who haunt the corridors of local government.

Borrowing from Marshall McLuahan (“Decentralization can’t be done centrally.“) Sewell understands that those with power won‘t willingly give it up. How then would he get new powers for municipalities? Put simply, city huggers must make a “compelling case about solutions they have in mind.” You’ll find the beginning of a case in these pages.

Is Local Government Ready?

It seems though, before embarking on a reform agenda, someone has to make the case that local government is up to the task. Sewell hasn’t done that. To be taken seriously we need more diversity on our councils. Funding needs to be put in place so that potential candidates don’t need huge resources and/or friends in the development business to get elected. If we’re talking about giving more powers to local government we need to find ways to make local politics more accessible and more democratic.