It’s one thing for City Hall to spend our tax dollars on services we all use.
Most people understand the need to pay property taxes to fund the police, fire and ambulance services, public transit, road repairs, libraries, parks, garbage collection, water and sewer mains, snow clearing and street cleaning.
Naturally, we want these services to make efficient use of our tax dollars and, sadly, that isn’t always the case.
But we accept in principle that property taxes pay for the services a city needs to thrive.
However, when it comes to using taxpayers’ money to dole out grants to select groups — for example on climate change initiatives — the issue of how and why the money is spent becomes far more controversial.
Particularly so, in these tough economic times.
Funding such programs means relatively few people benefit from the taxes all citizens pay.
Unlike special interest groups who constantly lobby City Hall for funds, most taxpayers are too busy working and getting on with their lives to make a second career of trekking down to City Hall, seeking a special piece of the pie for themselves.
That’s why the awarding of grants has to be a rigorous process.
And it’s why problems City Hall columnist Sue-Ann Levy reported last week about the city’s climate change fund are so concerning.
The fund, part of former mayor David Miller’s climate change agenda, started out with $130 million to finance environmental initiatives, although it grew to $158 million when hydro revenues came in higher than expected.
Using property taxpayers’ money to pay for such “green” initiatives as rooftop gardens, ads in ethnic newspapers, theatre projects and bike lockers would be controversial, even if the city was flush with cash.
But with the city in a financial crisis — facing a deficit of $774 million next year — this money would have been better spent helping to pay down Toronto’s humongous debt.
Especially when the city’s auditor general, commenting generally on the grants, cited the lack of a formalized process to determine if they were achieving their goals.
That’s not surprising, given that projects were up to a year late in submitting progress reports.
Last week at council there was also predictable grumbling by some councillors about Mayor Rob Ford’s decision to discontinue multi-million-dollar city subsidies for purchasing low-flow toilets and disconnecting downspouts from the sewer system in older neighbourhoods.
These are worthwhile initiatives property owners can choose to do on their own dime.
But they are not things the city can afford to keep doing on the taxpayers’ dime, despite claims that over the long term, they more than pay for themselves.
Funding too many programs that were supposed to pay for themselves over the long term is one reason the city is in the financial mess it is.
Now, we have to start digging ourselves out.