Proposals to eliminate fluoride from Toronto tap-water, scale back snowplowing and terminate windrow clearing have cleared a round one of City Hall scrutiny unscathed, setting the stage for an epic battle over city services during round two this September.
At a special Public Works committee meeting on Monday, members balked at public pressure to delete even the most politically toxic of suggestions arising from a KPMG review of core city services, deciding instead to punt all responsibility to Mayor Rob Ford's all-powerful Executive Committee.
"Well, that was a waste of a day," said left-leaning committee member Gord Perks soon after the meeting broke around 5 p.m. "We just went through a month of public consultations, 16,000 people filling out a survey, a whole day of deputations - to do absolutely nothing."
That decision to refer presents, at long last, the strategy Mr. Ford and his allies on council will deploy in ramming the KPMG report through City Hall: Wresting the consultant's proposals out of standing committees, where left-wing councillors hold some political sway, and placing them in the hands Mr. Ford's executive inner circle.
"We had an opportunity today to take things off the table for special interests, and we didn't do that," said committee member David Shiner. "We didn't do that because we have to look everywhere for ways to balance the budget in the city."
The meeting met to debate a single agenda item: a 43-page KPMG report on excess services in the $1-billion Public Works and Infrastructure budget.
That report, released last week, proposed a spate of cost-cutting measures that immediately raised hackles among councillors and residents: reducing Toronto's much-praised 70-per-cent waste diversion target, reducing snow-plowing on residential streets, charging fees for all street event permits, eliminating windrow snow clearing in the suburbs, outsourcing grass cutting, reducing street cleaning and trimming the scale of Toronto's bicycle infrastructure.
The committee heard from nearly 30 speakers, ranging from a professor of pediatric dentistry who warned of an increase in dental problems if fluoride is removed from drinking water, to an environmental activist who labelled figures in the report "misleading" for focusing on what programs such as recycling cost but not what revenues they may generate.
"Not only is there incomplete information here, but the information that is presented is either deliberately misleading or a consequence of sloppy research," said Franz Hartmann, executive director of the Toronto Environmental Alliance.
Councillors questioned the KPMG consultants at length, highlighting several perceived flaws in their work, including its narrow range of comparisons to other cities, lack of hard figures enumerating the total cost savings of each proposal and absence of thorough health impact assessments.
Left-leaning councillors introduced a several motions that would have forced city staff to fill some of these factual voids, most of which were voted down.
"We're still at sea and the Mayor of Toronto won't tell us what he wants to do," complained Mr. Perks.
Mr. Shiner dropped a final procedural bomb his motion to refer the entire KPMG report to the Executive Committee with a few minor tweaks that will compel city staff to find savings in budgets for snow-plowing, windrow clearing and street sweeping, as well as study the effects of ending fluoride in tap water.
Councillor Adam Vaughan called it a case of "gutless" indecision.
Mr. Shiner drew an inverse conclusion. "The tough decision is to keep things on the table," he said. "The tough decision is to keep looking at those projects and those services you know people appreciate."
The Executive Committee will meet to review core-service-review recommendations from standing committees on Sept. 19 before passing them along to Council the following week.