Toronto needs 1 thing in the federal budget — money, and lots of it

Hey, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the City of Toronto needs $45 million from the federal government — and if you could put a rush on it, that would be great.

Earlier this month, Toronto Mayor John Tory and city council voted to approve the 2019 budget. Municipal budgets are supposed to be balanced (no deficits allowed) but this one doesn't quite get there.

It's only nominally balanced in part thanks to an assumption — so far unconfirmed — that the city will receive that $45 million in federal funding for the city's homeless shelters. The city's rationale behind the request is that Toronto shelters are currently housing about 2,500 asylum seekers, and immigration is a federal responsibility.

That $45 million figure will be the first thing Toronto looks for when Finance Minister Bill Morneau unveils the Liberal government's 2019 budget Tuesday.

But while shelter funding may be Toronto's most pressing need, it's only the first item at the top of a very long list that includes a need for billions of dollars to pay for transit expansion, the maintenance and creation of affordable housing and the delivery of other key municipal services. 

But, with a federal election coming this fall, it's not clear how much help the city should realistically expect in the months and years ahead.

Trudeau government quick to announce funding, slow to deliver

Last Thursday, Jean-Yves Duclos, the federal minister of children, families and social development, announced $89 million in federal funding for a 16-storey apartment building in Etobicoke with 259 affordable rental units.

The project will come through the Liberal government's $40-billion National Housing Strategy (NHS). But while Duclos's announcement was welcome news to Tory, the NHS — announced in 2017 to much fanfare — has been slow to deliver actual funds. A February budget briefing note to Toronto councillors noted that, more than a year into the 10-year strategy, the city had received no funding through it. Zero dollars.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press

With the unfunded repair bill for Toronto Community Housing projected to grow to more than $3 billion by 2028, the city is hoping that number increases fast.

On transit, the federal government has been quicker to contribute. The federal Public Transit Infrastructure Fund is funding about $2 billion in Toronto transit projects over the next decade, through a formula that doles out funding to municipalities based on transit ridership.

That sounds like a lot, but it still leaves the TTC way short. A recent TTC report revealed that the transit agency needs $23.7 billion in funds it does not have to maintain the existing transit system over the next 15 years. The city will need a federal partner to keep the transit system on the rails.

Opposition leaders have a chance to offer their own solutions for Toronto

David Donnelly/CBC

With an election looming this fall, politicians in Toronto will be looking to see if the new federal budget indicates whether Trudeau has plans to increase municipal investments if given a new term. As the writ gets closer, they'll also be looking to see what the other major parties have on offer.

For his part, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh has pledged to build 500,000 affordable housing units over the next decade. His party will be hoping to appeal to Toronto voters — especially those in and around the city core — who turned out for the provincial NDP in last year's election.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has also highlighted housing as a key policy issue. In a town hall held in North York in January, he told an audience that his government would lower real estate costs by bringing more units to market, while also changing mortgage qualification rules.

Scheer's best pitch to Toronto voters might be his ability to work more productively with Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who has clashed with Trudeau on a range of issues since he took office last year.

But policy and politics aside, what Toronto will really be looking for from whomever holds control is Ottawa is simple: cash. Start with $45 million — then keep it coming.