This campaign message in the Toronto mayoral election is nothing new — but there’s a genuinely interesting twist [Toronto Star]

Outside the No Frills at Jane and Lawrence Avenue West, a guy in baggy camo gear and a ball cap lights a cigarette.

“You gonna enjoy that smoke?” Anthony Perruzza, the city councillor and mayoral candidate, asks him.

Perruzza told the guy — Fitzroy is his name — he was running for mayor. “What are the big issues for you? What could the city do to help you?”

“Lower gas prices. Lower food prices,” Fitzroy says in a Caribbean accent, laughing a bit as though he might as well be asking Santa for world peace.

“Well, how about this: I think we should keep property taxes down, fees down, TTC fares down, no increases for a few years until people can get back on their feet. How does that sound?”

“That’s a good idea,” Fitzroy says. 

Perruzza, a fixture of local politics for decades (as a Toronto city councillor, North York city councillor, Member of Provincial Parliament, and school board trustee) is known more for windy speeches full of winding logic than for his leadership potential. Most observers don’t see him fighting in the heavyweight division of this crowded mayoral campaign — his name isn’t even included in most of the polls being conducted. But his goofy-uncle salesmanship is finding a receptive audience out here in the parking lot between the discount grocery store and the Salvation Army Thrift Shop.

“I’m Perruzza, I’m running for mayor,” he says, tucking his literature into the hands or shopping carts of people trying their best to squeeze past him quietly. Many of them stop to chat reluctantly, then wind up smiling, some telling him they’ll vote for him, some even literally embracing him. 

Doris starts out saying she doesn’t even plan to vote, because she’s disenchanted by politicians who don’t respond to her problems. After a few minutes, she’s telling Perruzza she’ll pray for him, and make sure her two kids vote for him. 

His glamorous campaign tour consists of ward-by-ward visits to discount supermarkets across the city, where he repeats a simple, maybe simplistic, message: people can’t afford to pay any more, so no property tax increases, no fee hikes, no TTC fare increases for at least three years.

Honestly, that familiar populist line is not all that interesting to me.

But what is kind of interesting is how he proposes to pay for things. Other anti-tax politicians promise to hunt waste and inefficiency. Instead, Perruzza is looking at the property taxes the city already collects. In particular, the $2.2 billion “education levy” that the city collects every year and then remits to the provincial government. He says the city should keep that cash. 

For perspective, the entire municipal land transfer tax in Toronto generates less than a billion dollars a year. More than $2 billion in new city revenue without raising taxes or introducing new ones? That’s got to be wishful thinking, right?

But it’s actually an idea some experts say is worth considering. The so-called “education levy” is not actually earmarked for education — it goes into the provincial general revenues — and it isn’t directly connected to the cost of schools or anything. Many experts agree, as outlined in a 2019 report by the University of Toronto’s Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance (IMFG), that property taxes are not an appropriate way to pay for education, and that income or sales taxes are better for that. 

“If you were to explain it to your average person, about the fact that it’s called ‘education property tax,’ but it doesn’t necessarily go to education, and that it’s levied on your local property tax bill but the city government has absolutely nothing to do with it, most people would say that’s not common sense,” says Gabriel Eidelman, the director of the Urban Policy Lab at U of T’s Munk School. 

Enid Slack, director of the IMFG and maybe the city’s foremost expert in municipal finance, who co-authored that 2019 paper, agrees. “I think the property tax is a good tax for local governments. It’s not a particularly good tax for education,” she says. “This route, you know, if the province stopped levying the property tax at the provincial level, that will give tax room to the municipalities to cover their costs. So I think it’s a good idea.”

In Toronto we’ve seen a lot of debates about new “revenue tools” — road tolls, municipal sales taxes, parking taxes or local liquor taxes. Most of those require setting up new bureaucratic systems to collect and distribute the money. But people are already paying these property taxes, and the city is already collecting them. This change would be streamlining the process, better connecting who collects the money to who spends it.

There’s a catch. Which is that the province would have to make up that revenue from its own sources — possibly raising income taxes — if it gave this cash to the city. And local politicians could respond by cutting property taxes and then crying poor again. 

But before you even get to those details, you’d need a premier who acknowledged Toronto needs more revenue, and saw this as a way the province could help. Many of us won’t think the current occupant of the premier’s office fits that description. 

Not for the first time, Perruzza doesn’t think like many of us. “Doug Ford does not want to see property taxes increased,” he says, explaining why he thinks the big guy would go for it. 

If you’re skeptical, of this or his entire run for mayor, that doesn’t bother him — Perruzza brushes off the perceived odds. He obviously enjoys being out here campaigning. He says this — shaking hands, meeting people, talking with voters in the street — is how he’s beaten incumbents in multiple previous races for the school board, the provincial legislature, and city council. 

He grins. “I’ve retired a few people.”