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Winning the battle, losing the war?

Ford loses control of council; City loses millions in budget fiasco

by Justin SaundersEnid Godtree

City Hall file photo
City Hall file photo

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford was dealt several major losses during Tuesday's budget meeting, as Council's 'mushy middle' rejected a radically conservative, anti-government budget and joined forces with opposition councillors to save a host of City services. In roughly 10 different motions, money was put back into services en masse. Yet, in spite of this seeming victory, one of the most conservative budgets in Toronto's history was still passed in council chambers.

Ford had put forth a budget which proposed massive cuts to city jobs and services. But he went too far, even for his own allies; the budget and executive committees revolted, rejecting cuts to arts, libraries, social services and other programs worth roughly $20 million. Council went even further by restoring almost $25 million more.

The impact is major, even beyond the dollar figure. The mayor and his supporters were obviously caught off guard, with councillors Stintz and Robinson working the room trying to keep service cuts in the budget. The opposition now knows that Ford can be beat at a budget meeting, which is very rare for a Toronto mayor. From a practical standpoint, the services saved were crucial for a wide cross-section of City residents. They include:

  • $2.5 million in childcare
  • $1.3 million in youth programs
  • $0.8 million for ice rinks and pools
  • $2.3 million in community grants
  • $5 million in TTC services
  • $2 million in shelters
  • $50,000 for Immigrant Women's Health Centre
  • $300,000 in Toronto Environmental Office positions
  • $4 million for libraries
  • $300,000 for community animator programs
  • the elimination of new pool fees

Offices of the opposition councillors told the Toronto Media Co-op that the amendments to save services had been in the works for roughly three months. However, the coalition was seen as extremely shaky up until the afternoon of the council vote. The motions themselves reflect this, as many were passed by razor-thin margins (23-21 and 22-21).

Even more surprising was the makeup of councillors in opposition.  A number of traditional Ford supporters voted against the mayor, although the anti-Ford votes changed from motion to motion, with a total of seven councillors jumping to and from the opposition at various points.

As a result, Ford may have lost control of City Council. Before leaving office during the last election, former City Councillor Kyle Rae predicted that Ford would eventually lose the ability to keep allies on council, prompting a new power structure and 'shadow' mayor which could run the City.

The emergence of Josh Colle (who moved the major $15 Million omnibus motion saving most of the services) and Ana Balaio (who helped craft the motion and worked hard during the session to bring other councillors on board), could mean that centrist councillors will be in a position of power in the future, relying on the support of either the mayor or the opposition depending on their mood.

While council horse-trading was important in how the votes played out, the budget revolt had much to do with public opposition. Both labour-dominated groups and social movements worked hard to regionally coordinate opposition to the budget cuts.  Participation from the public was heavy at committee deputations, breaking records in terms of meeting length and numbers of deputants in 2011.

Ford turned out to be his own worst enemy in whipping up opposition to the budget. His Core Service Review, run by KPMG consultants, targeted every City service - including traditional supporters like the Toronto Police. His moves around the fully-funded Transit City project angered some of his own allies, while his poor maneuvering around the Port Lands alienated councillors, and resulted in his first defeat on a major issue.

"We [were] waiting for this for years," said Gord Perks, an opposition councillor, regarding the July, 2011 blockbuster KPMG report hearings which went until five in the morning. The long public deputations served as networking opportunities for those opposed to the budget cuts. Turnout was also large during councillor meetings in individual wards.

However, the gains made in the lead up to Tuesday, and during the vote itself, should not be overstated. The budget was still an under-appreciated disaster for the City and a partial victory for a conservative agenda.

Ford managed to get an overall reduction in City spending in dollar terms (unheard of for a Toronto budget), mainly by mandating massive job losses by forcing 5%-10% cuts to all City departments.  Over 1,100 jobs were cut and numerous services stayed on the chopping block, amounting to over $375 million in cuts, job losses and 'found efficiencies'. These effects will be long term and difficult to guage immediately.

In addition, many of the cuts could have been eliminated with the $154 million surplus, which remained largely intact - only $40 million of it was used to save services. The remainder will go instead to capital projects and debt reduction.

Important City revenues were also lost. Tax increases in the GTA amount to 3% on average (which the board of trade recommended to Ford). Ford proposed only 2.5% after previously reducing hundreds of million in tax revenues in 2011.

No councillors mounted opposition to the mayor's 2.5% property tax increase, even though the public had suggested a 5% increase during the mayor's Core Services Review.

Meanwhile, opposition to City workers continues to run high in council. Though Labour can claim success in their role in helping to 'save' the budget, one key loss was an unsuccessful motion by opposition councillors to defer contracting custodial services at City Hall. So, although services were indeed saved on Tuesday, the road to privatization remains wide open.

City attempts to eliminate job security provisions for CUPE 416 City workers continues.  The proposal to give up wage increases for City workers, in exchange for more services, did not make its way into the budgeting process.


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