(photo by Dominic Ali)

New IMFG report highlights key election issues in six Ontario cities

As municipal politicians across the province vie for votes, transit is a key issue for four of Ontario's six biggest cities, says a new report from the University of Toronto’s Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance (IMFG).

“There will be plenty of political intrigue in the run up to the municipal elections,” said Zachary Spicer. “More important for residents, however, are the critical issues on the agenda – from financial management, transit investment and renewing the local economy, to rebuilding trust in city governments that have been hit by scandal.”

A former post-doctoral fellow at the IMFG, Spicer is the editor of The Times They Are A-Changin' (Mostly), a new report released this week by the IMFG at U of T's Munk School of Global Affairs. (Read the full report)

And while some communities, such as the Region of Waterloo, are preparing for construction of their rapid transit projects, Spicer said, others, such as Hamilton and Toronto appear hopelessly deadlocked over their transit futures.

“Transit is a central issue in Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa and Mississauga,” Spicer said.

The IMFG recruited six local experts to analyze the unique economic, demographic and fiscal conditions in Ontario’s six largest cities before municipal elections October 27. Former IMFG manager of research and programs André Côté wrote about Toronto, Peter Graefe (McMaster University) analyzed issues in Hamilton, Andrew Sancton (Western University) examined London, Tom Urbaniak (Cape Breton University) tackled Mississauga, Caroline Andrew (University of Ottawa) analyzed Ottawa and John Sutcliffe (University of Windsor) wrote about Windsor.

In Toronto, Côté wrote, the political dysfunction at Toronto City Hall over the past four years, caused largely by the scandals engulfing Mayor Rob Ford, not only made news around the world, but was a barrier to effective governance. Transportation planning, driven by political agendas rather than evidence, is in shambles.” 

And in Hamilton, said Graefe, Council has generally failed to see transit as an economic development tool or as a key support to women's labour force participation (women represent a higher share of public transit commuters and nearly 70 per cent of users of the affordable transit pass).

This is the third pre-election report released by the IMFG, a renowned academic research hub and think tank that focuses on the fiscal and governance challenges facing large cities and city-regions. (Read the previous reports.) 

“We hope that these reports inspire candidates and voters to think about and discuss the major issues facing cities in Ontario before heading to the ballot box to cast their votes,” said IMFG Director Enid Slack.

Although the province has pledged $29 billion for transportation infrastructure across Ontario, solutions at the local level appear elusive in many regions, the study found.

Mississauga, for example, has erred in not planning for transit, said Urbaniuk, author of three books related to Mississauga and Peel Region. 

"Drivers fume under gridlock, as a built-out city has little room in which to widen already wide thoroughfares," Urbaniuk said. "Except in the older neighbourhoods – which have a more urban feel – walkabilty is low.”

Local Economy
The state of local economies is also expected to be a prominent issue during this election, due in part to the loss of manufacturing jobs over the last decade.

“Although the worst of the post-2008 recession is over, and the danger of one or more of the Big Three automobile manufacturers going bankrupt has receded, the overall health of the automotive sector remains a central issue in Windsor’s municipal politics,” said Sutcliffe. 

Income Inequality
Growing income inequality is a pressing issue in several Canadian cities, researchers found, with cost of living and housing emerging as key concerns. 

The University of Ottawa’s Andrew said the aging of that city’s population combined with rising housing costs means a substantial part of the senior population is ‘property-rich and cash-poor,’ and tends to vote for lower taxes.

This trend has a substantial political impact as seniors vote in large numbers,” said Andrews. “Rather than supporting city services adapted to an aging population, they usually vote for lower taxes (that will likely result in service cuts).”

Calling this “an important issue that has been on the backburner,” Spicer said greater regional coordination is needed for some cities, pointing out that, post-amalgamation, challenges remain in reconciling urban, suburban and even rural factions.

However, the mayors of Hamilton, London, Toronto and Windsor aren’t seeking re-election, said Spicer, and Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion is retiring after 36 years in office. 

“A change in local leadership and a provincial government that has indicated a desire to settle many long-standing disagreements such as those over social services and transit, offer Ontario cities a real opportunity to break with the past.”

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