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‘We screwed up’: Toronto admits major flaws in vacant home tax rollout

After being inundated with complaints from frustrated and stressed residents who received incorrect bills, many saying they owed the city thousands of dollars, Toronto city councillors grilled city staffers over the botched rollout of this year’s vacant home tax before voting in favour of an overhaul.

The city has already apologized for the implementation of this year’s program after tens of thousands of homes were erroneously declared vacant. Many residents said they didn’t understand that the city required them to make a declaration every year, while others said they were billed even after making the declaration.

York South-Weston Coun. Frances Nunziata said the situation never should have gotten to this point. “We screwed up,” she said. “That’s the bottom line; I think we should have put a pause on the program when we realized that there was a problem.”

Staff have admitted there were fundamental problems in the design of the program itself, which prevented countermeasures when problems began making an appearance, especially red flags with a dramatic rise in vacant homes in the second year of the program after only around 11,000 homes were deemed vacant last year.

“It should not have been sent out to 167,000 people,” said the city’s chief financial officer, Stephen Conforti.

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He said the way the vacant home tax (VHT) was designed required a bill to be issued by the end of March if someone hadn’t made a declaration.

“That is an absolute flaw in the program design. There needs to be discretion to hold off on the issuance of those bills if we do not achieve a declaration target,” Conforti said.

Other councillors, like Paula Fletcher, questioned why there wasn’t a confirmation number given to residents when they did fill out a declaration. Fletcher said when someone pays a parking ticket, they’re given a record to prove they settled their bill and was incredulous the same feature wasn’t included with regard to someone’s largest piece of equity.

The communications surrounding the rollout of the VHT have also been called into question. Coun. James Pasternak quizzed staff over why last year’s bright yellow form highlighting the need to make a declaration was eschewed for a plain white notice, which he said could easily be missed.

Council ultimately voted in favour of a complete overhaul of the program, with staff reporting back later in the year to detail their progress.

While she disagreed with some councillors who said the VHT was a program beyond redemption, Nunziata said the city had better be sure there aren’t any issues before pressing ahead in the upcoming tax season.

“If we feel at that time that it’s still not (ready), the program has not been set up properly, then yes, we should put a pause on it,” she said. “I don’t think we should be sending any bills out, tax bills or late fees, unless we know it’s correct.”

Meanwhile, the quest for accountability looms large. On Wednesday, Mayor Olivia Chow said the person who designed the program was no longer with the city. The city’s manager said in council that no one was fired over the VHT’s rollout, but further questions over whether any staffer was disciplined were shut down over human resources rules.

That didn’t satisfy Coun. Brad Bradford, who insisted the buck should stop with Chow.

“When you’re mayor, you run this ship and you need to take the time and invest the energy and have those meetings to make sure the civil service is implementing council direction accordingly,” he said.

Chow countered that she only took office in July 2023, which she said was after the VHT’s wheels were already in motion. If the problems repeat next year, she said it will be an entirely different matter.

“If it has no common-sense approach, if it’s communicated poorly, the design of the program is flawed, then absolutely I will take full responsibility,” Chow said.

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