Toronto’s 2023 By-Election for Mayor adds millions of dollars to city deficit

The byelection is an unexpected cost that doesn't help the city's financial situation, a city hall bureau chief says

Toronto city hall.
John Tory’s scandalous resignation forced Toronto into an unexpected and expensive byelection, adding to the city’s existing financial deficit. (Ashok Lamichhane/Toronto Observer) 

The cost of Toronto’s mayoral byelection will add onto the economic challenges for the city’s new mayor, a veteran city hall journalist says.

“We are in a financial crisis,” said David Rider, city hall bureau chief for the Toronto Star. “Adding $13 million doesn’t help.”

Toronto’s 2023 By-Election for Mayor, scheduled for June 26, is estimated to cost the city approximately CAD $13 million, said Erin George with the city media relations, in an email.

Former mayor John Tory was elected for a third term as city’s guardian in the Oct. municipal election. However, his subsequent resignation in February, prompted by revelations of an affair with a staffer, forced the city into an unexpected byelection process.

The byelection was triggered four months after the municipal elections in Oct. 2022. George said the Oct. election cost the city CAD $14.5 million.

Rider said $13 million is a lot of money that the city was not expecting to spend. He said, although it is a “tiny fraction” of the city’s operating budget of more than $16 billion, it is a huge amount considering the city’s current financial state.

City asked for provincial, federal help

A city news release said the 2023 budget implemented a range of spending restraints and measures to offset the financial impact of the pandemic and global economic volatility.

The budget, proposed by Tory, also asked for support from other levels of government.

According to the release, “the 2023 operating budget expects $1.08 billion in necessary funding from the Government of Canada and the Province of Ontario to address the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

There was a pandemic-related shortfall of $484 million in 2022, the city said, which brings the total funding ask to $1.56 billion.

“Under provincial legislation, the city is not allowed to run a deficit,” said Rider.

Deficit is a long-term issue: McKelvie

Rider said the city is still trying to get emergency bailout money from the federal and provincial governments, but both have said no.

“At the moment, there is no clear path to the city solving this financial crisis,” Rider said.

According to a CBC report while the city has been appealing to Ottawa, the federal government’s 2023 budget offered nothing to help Toronto’s budget hole.

Toronto deputy mayor Jennifer McKelvie said in the March 29 council meeting at the city hall that Toronto’s new mayor would have to face the responsibility of implementing cutting city services and increasing taxes.

McKelvie said the deficit is a long-term issue and according to the city report on long term financial update and outlook, increasing taxes or slashing services is not a sustainable framework. She said Toronto needs new fiscal plan.

Election costs and logistics

Elections costs include various logistical challenges and fulfillments. According to the fact sheet for the byelection, there are 102 candidates for mayor certified by the city clerk.

April Engelberg, city councillor candidate for ward 10 in the Oct. municipal elections, said that each mayoral candidate is allowed to raise more than $1.6 million for their campaign, of which around 75 per cent is paid back through city rebates.

“I think the spending limit should be much lower than it is, because it’s not just the cost of the people that are contributing; since the city gives back up to 75 per cent, [it] is actually a cost of taxpayers,” said Engelberg.

According to city of Toronto, the Contribution Rebate Program as defined in the Municipal Code, Chapter 53-3, says that individuals who provide financial support to councillor or mayoral candidates in either regular elections or byelections would be eligible to receive a portion of their contribution(s) refunded.

All contributions between $25.01 and $300 receive a return of 75 per cent of their contribution amount, according to the 2023 mayoral byelection rebate guide for contributors.

The city has confirmed 1,445 election day voting locations to accommodate more than 1.89 million voters in Toronto, and close to 15,000 election positions filled to support the byelection.

The challenges include securing appropriate polling locations, training and education, appropriate scheduling leading up to the actual voting day, said Rider.

The other consideration here is engaging voters given the extremely low turnout of 29 per cent in the Oct. municipal election.

Rider said after Tory’s resignation, the city office had to quickly scramble and figure out how to hold a city-wide election in a very short time.     

Who pays for the byelection?

Although Tory’s scandal pushed the city into a byelection, George said the city has no legal provisions to hold Tory accountable for the byelection cost incurred by the city and taxpayers for his abuse of power.

Rider said there have been politicians who have resigned for all kinds of reasons, like family or health, but he has never known of a situation or a mechanism where somebody was made to pay the cost of replacing themselves. “I just don’t know of any precedent in Canada for that,” he said.

While it may sound like an interesting idea, the risk to creating such policies and mechanisms is that it would dissuade people from entering public office, said Rider. This would deter people from running for office with the fear of situations where they not only lose their job, but also have to end up paying millions of dollars for replacement.

The only argument here is moral, and there is no practical mechanism to implement that, he said.

Engelberg said people resign for variety of reasons, and asking them to pay for a byelection if they resign is not the solution. She said such provisions may rather dissuade a person from willfully resigning with the fear of having to bear the cost of byelection.

‘Like taking out of your RRSP’

According to the city, the cost of the byelection will be paid from the city reserve established by the council for elections and byelections.

The problem, Rider said, is that once those reserves are gone, that’s like emptying the savings account, it does not get filled back up.

McKelvie in the March 29 press conference said, the city is able to use the reserves, but doing so is not a good strategy. “Its like taking out your RRSP to pay your mortgage,” she said.

McKelvie expects support from other level of governments and said the city has been very clear of the city’s need with the government of Canada and the importance of supporting Toronto “the country’s economic engine.”

Riders said the financial crisis is going to continue for years, owing to economic impacts from the pandemic. The city will continue to accumulate costs, and the byelection adds another to the list.

“But I guess you would argue: the mayor resigns; you have to replace them,” Rider said. “What else do you do?”

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Posted: Jun 26 2023 10:00 am
Filed under: News Politics