COVID financial crunch puts spotlight on Toronto politician pay

Author: 2020/05/06

This article was originally published in the Toronto Sun on May 6, 2020. 

The coronavirus lockdown has brought crushing financial uncertainty and stress. Tenants worry about rent, homeowners worry about mortgages, employers worry about bills, and employees worry about their jobs. But there’s one group that hasn’t lost sleep over its next paycheque: politicians on Toronto’s city council.

Politicians around the world have taken voluntary salary reductions to show solidarity with struggling taxpayers.

“We feel acutely the struggle that many New Zealanders are facing,” said Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, explaining why she – along with her cabinet colleagues and top bureaucrats – took a 20 per cent salary reduction for the next six months. “While in itself it won’t shift the overall fiscal position, it is about leadership.”

As for Canadian examples, Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister took a voluntary 25 per cent cut to his base salary. At the municipal level, Vancouver’s mayor and city councillors have all taken a voluntary 10 per cent pay cut. In Halifax, a city councillor reduced his salary by 10 per cent while Mayor Mike Savage took a 20 per cent reduction, saying “I make a decent income compared to many people in the municipality we live in.”

While Torontonians struggle, their politicians have so far been unwilling to help shoulder the burden and take a pay cut. The city’s 2019 remuneration report shows that Mayor John Tory – who has not volunteered to take a pay cut – received a total compensation (including salary and benefits) valued at more than $242,000 last year.

Toronto city councillors earn a salary of $117,614 per year, in addition to benefits worth up to $28,785 for a total annual compensation over $146,000.

To put those numbers into perspective, the median after-tax household income in Canada is $59,800. The mayor’s salary after taxes is still more than double that amount, not including his $44,400 annual benefits.

As New Zealand’s prime minister aptly pointed out, temporary salary reductions won’t do much to move the fiscal needle. But voluntary salary reductions could help restore taxpayers’ faith in a city council with a long track record of wasting money.  

The examples are easy to list. Tory broke his promise not to raise property taxes in the same year city council needlessly inflated the cost of city construction projects by restricting bids to a few select unions.

Tory said finding efficiencies alone wouldn't be enough to fund his plans, but 375 city employees receive not one – but two – pensions, and a freedom of information response from the city revealed that at least one city employee spent 186-pages worth of time pestering a seniors’ euchre league for “illegal gambling.” Clearly, there are more efficiencies to be found. 

Perhaps the silliest example of Toronto politicians wasting tax dollars was when they voted to increase their total staffing budget, even after Premier Doug Ford had reduced the number of councillors from 44 to 25. It was originally set to $10.5 million, split between 44 councillors. They raised that amount to $12 million now split among 25 councillors.

But city hall can’t carry on pretending it’s business as usual. Economist David Rosenburg described the current economic downturn as a “depression” that’s “10 times worse” than the recession of 2008. It’s time for Toronto politicians to demonstrate leadership and restore trust with taxpayers.

Taxpayers shouldn’t have to bear the burden of the downturn alone. As a very first step, Tory and Toronto city councillors should voluntarily reduce their pay to show some solidarity with taxpayers.