So, $27.6-million down. About $472-million to $746-million to go (depending on what shortfall figures you believe). City council signed off on several budgetary cuts on the long and winding road to balancing its books by January. The list was first scaled back by the Mayor’s executive, and then whittled down further on Tuesday. The National Post’s Natalie Alcoba takes you through the final tally.
What goes, what stays
Council sided with the executive on some of the more controversial proposals, so libraries are not slated to close next year, suburban residents will still enjoy windrow clearing and arts grants are in tact. Councillors did vote to stop offering four free garbage tags, to eliminate horticulture programs and plant fewer trees. They scrapped the requirement to have police officers at construction sites, where possible, and will ask an outside group to run the Christmas Bureau. Council also voted to sell, privatize or come up with another operating model for the Toronto Zoo and the city’s three theatres, plus make Heritage Toronto a not-for profit organization. Instead of closing low-attendance museums, it asked staff to look at having Heritage Toronto run the small facilities. Council also voted against the Mayor and saved community environment days, preserved the public realm program, and continued to staff the Toronto Youth Cabinet and the Seniors Forum. At the end of the day, council balked at about $600,000 worth of cuts, said city manager Joseph Pennachetti, making the ultimate savings about $27.6-million. Other cost-cutting proposals for affordable housing, shelter animal pickup, environmental programs, heritage grants, dental programs for the poor and library-hour reductions will be considered as part of the upcoming budget process.
Victory for all
As usual, both sides claimed victory. Mayor Rob Ford called it a “huge victory for the taxpayers of the city of Toronto” and the city manager said the city was on its way to balancing its books. Joseph Pennachetti noted council referred another $65-million in “efficiencies” to the budget process. Those cuts still require council approval. “At the beginning they were saying nothing was going to get through, and the proof is in the pudding,” Mayor Ford said after the vote. Councillor Adam Vaughan, speaking on behalf of the opposition, said there were “significant victories,” but also “disturbing defeats,” namely the possible end of the Christmas Bureau, which hands out donated gifts to needy children. How to keep score in such circumstances, then? Take everyone at their word. “The Mayor is declaring a win today, and Councillor Vaughan is declaring a win today. So it looks like we all thought there was a win today,” said Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, a member of the mayor’s executive.
City council sent the message it doesn’t want to talk about toll roads. Councillors rejected requests to study charging a fee to use certain roads, 26 to 19 against Councillor Josh Matlow’s motion to explore charging out-of-towners to use the Gardiner Expressway and the Don Valley Parkway, and 31 to 14 against considering adding two toll lanes to the DVP, as proposed by Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday. Earlier in the day, the Mayor reiterated that he is against tolls because he says they hurt the economy, penalize drivers and snarl traffic on neighbouring streets. Ford allies have been criticizing political opponents for a dearth of ideas to solve the budget crunch, which is one reason why Mr. Matlow proposed tolls. “Thus far we’ve only been focusing on cuts. Every sector of society is scared right now. I’ve heard from everyone from arts groups to kosher meals on wheels, everybody is frightened right now,” he said. “We need to also consider realistic proposals to bring in revenue right now, that don’t just focus on the property tax base… ideas like road tolls are championed in states like Florida where you have Jeb Bush a few years ago championing them.”
Solving the budget is easy
At least according to Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti. “I know how to solve it. We need to lay off 7,000 people,” Mr. Mammoliti told reporters. “I know how to solve it, it’s to put pressure on the province to come to the table with the proper money that they are responsible for.” Actually reducing the workforce is more complicated, because the so-called “jobs for life” clause in some contracts guarantees union workers whose job is contracted out another equal or lower position at the city. When questioned later, Mayor Ford said Mr. Mammoliti might be on to something, but the city’s not there yet. “But you never know what the future holds,” said Mr. Ford.
Selling assets to pay for assets
Aside from the Toronto Parking Authority, which council voted to keep in public hands, “virtually everything” is on the table to sell off, according to budget chief Mike Del Grande. Mr. Del Grande said the proceeds from the sale of assets don’t go to plug an operating budget, although they could be used to pay down the debt, which costs Toronto more than $400-million a year to service. But the city has a few big capital purchases coming up, such as the new streetcar order, that it has to find the cash to pay for. “We’re going to have to find capital assets to pay for capital assets,” he said.
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