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Toronto’s plan for ‘balanced’ budget has $79 million in unknown funding and cuts

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City staff say the budget can be balanced by raising property taxes in line with inflation, increasing TTC fares and relying on tens of millions in unknown cuts and yet-to-be secured funding.

The $13.46 billion operating budget was presented to members of council, the media and the public Monday morning. It is a first attempt at balancing the many services and programs the city provides — from snow-clearing to swim classes — with the various ways the city raises money, such as taxing property owners.

The residential property tax increase staff are recommending for 2019 is 2.55 per cent, which the city says is the rate of inflation.

But that first attempt by staff to put together a “balanced” budget includes $79 million in funding or cuts that have not been identified or received, putting that balancing act at risk of tumbling.

Still, Mayor John Tory’s hand-picked budget chief Councillor Gary Crawford claimed the budget is currently balanced at this early stage, saying he hopes the federal government steps up to help with the city’s housing crisis.

“It’s going to be a tough budget year. There are not a lot of extras,” said Crawford. “We will continue to provide the kind of investments that we have over the last number of years, whether it’s poverty reduction, youth hubs, child care, but there will be some challenges, no doubt.”

Crawford said that the city plans to invest in transit, community safety, libraries, Toronto Community Housing repairs and in child care. He said the city will also invest in speeding up the work on the relief line subway and hire an additional 300 police officers. Policing remains the biggest single line item in the budget.

The unclear balancing is the result of three separate issues.

The city is budgeting for $45 million in additional shelter costs but planning to cover that spending by requesting the funds from the federal government, which has not yet promised to cover those costs. Staff attribute the added pressure on the city’s already overcrowded shelters to number of refugees that have migrated to Toronto. City officials have maintained that the federal government has a responsibility to help offset those costs because they are responsible for the policies that control the flow of refugees across the border.

Also unclear is where the TTC will find $24 million in cuts — what senior staff acknowledged at a board meeting last week was required to actually achieve balance, calling it “undetermined corporate reductions.”

And on Monday, new city manager Chris Murray said they still need to find $10 million in additional savings to find balance, which he told committee members is not an insurmountable problem.

Part of the challenge this year is the fact that Toronto can no longer bank on an incredibly hot housing market as it has over the past four years. The MLTT, introduced in 2008, is a tax paid by homebuyers when they take ownership of a property. A slowing housing market has been cited as the reason for the decline.

The staff-attempted balancing also includes a plan to cut the rebates on garbage bins of all sizes. In 2019, cutting the rebate for large bins first would save the city $35 million, staff say.

Critics who have long opposed the strategy of making inflation the target for property tax increases note it does not account for the growing number of new residents moving to the city also rely on public libraries, road maintenance and other daily services.

“I think it’s uninspired,” said Councillor Mike Layton, who sits on the budget committee. “It’s not really leaving us with something that Torontonians can be proud of, that works towards long term solutions in our city around transit, around housing.”

“What I think that the people of Toronto want to see is a government that is wiling to be brave enough to make bold proposals to resolve these issues across our city that we’re seeing and not just hide behind the same old, same old, status quo budget which is what is reflected here.”

The budget launch Monday is just the first step in a process that begins anew each year. After making its way through debates at committee and being subject to comments from the public, the budget will be finalized by council in March.

Because last year was an election year, council has not yet provided staff with direction on the budget.

However, as in previous years, Murray asked all city divisions and agencies to try to keep their budgets at 2018 levels.

Murray said they looked at past direction from council to assume an inflationary-only increase in property taxes.

As he did in 2014, Tory promised to keep property taxes at or below the rate of inflation this term.

Councillors like Gord Perks say once again that plan is not good enough. He plans to propose an above-inflation tax increase.

Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags

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Anglais

‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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