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Toronto city council votes to keep vacant home tax amid calls to scrap the program after 'fiasco'

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Despite a number of councillors calling for the cancellation or suspension of Toronto's Vacant Home Tax Thursday, the program will live to see another year with city council ordering staff to revamp the process in the wake of a disastrous rollout which saw tens of thousands of property owners receive bills, even though their homes are lived in.

During Thursday’s meeting, councillors considered a motion to scrap the Vacant Home Tax but it was defeated with a vote of 5-18. Instead, councillors adopted a report from city staff that will look into completely revising the Vacant Home Tax program design for the next year.

Before the vote, some councillors pushed to eliminate the program entirely.

"I think it should be scrapped," Coun. Jon Burnside told CTV News Toronto. "I'm not into that level of social engineering and we've seen the problems that it's caused, not only for residents of the city, but city staff as well. The huge cost, the inconvenience, the anguish – I just don't think it's worth it."

Coun. Chris Moise echoed that sentiment. "I think we should scrap it, quite frankly," he said. "The rollout was terrible. A lot of people were harmed by it, I think psychologically."

While just around 11,000 property owners had to pay the tax last year, the city sent out 167,346 notices to property owners this year telling them that they had to pay up.

The program started last year. Many of the people who received the bills this year said they didn’t realize they had to fill out a declaration every single year.

Approximately 108,000 of those charges have already been reversed. However the messy implementation led to long lineups of distraught property owners who had been handed bills for thousands of dollars, as the tax equates to one per cent of a property's assessed value.

Councillors Stephen Holyday, Vincent Crisanti and Brad Bradford also said the program should be axed, while Coun. Frances Nunziata said it should at least be "paused" to allow staff to make significant changes.

"I had seniors calling me crying 'I got this tax bill,'" Nunziata said. "Just after we approved the budget this year over nine per cent (property tax increase), they get a nine to ten-thousand-dollar tax bill. You know, we screwed up. I mean, that's the bottom line. I think we should have put a pause on the program when we realized that there was a problem."

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) also called on the city to scrap the program.

"Toronto’s vacant home tax has been a complete fiasco," CTF Ontario Director Jay Goldberg said in a news release. "Taxpayers in every corner of the city have wrongly received massive tax bills and it’s time to recognize that a vacant home tax is not the answer to Toronto’s housing affordability problems."

Chow faces questions over comments about staff

Mayor Olivia Chow has acknowledged that the program was a mess, but said it was designed before she came to office and has vowed to fix it.

She faced questions from reporters Thursday over comments she made which led people to believe someone had been fired over the fiasco.

CTV News Toronto asked Chow Wednesday: Were there any consequences or changes among your staff as a result of this debacle?

Chow replied that "the person that designed the program is no longer with the city."

Asked in a follow-up whether it was because of the sloppy rollout, she said she couldn't go into details about a "human resources matter."

But during questioning from councillors Thursday, city staff confirmed nobody had been fired over the matter.

Asked by reporters afterward whether she had mischaracterized the staff member's departure from city hall to make it seem as if she was managing the issue, Chow defended her comments.

"The only thing I said is that while I've already commented on it, it was very clear that the person that designed the program is not with the city anymore," Chow said.

Pressed further, she said again that she should not be commenting on human resources matters.

Chow acknowledged that the program was a "complete mess" but said that she wants to work to fix it rather than scrap it altogether.

She said the program is meant to help ensure that homes are not simply being bought up as investments by speculators and left idle while there is a housing crisis in the city.

- With files from CTV News Toronto Reporter Natalie Johnson.

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