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Mike Del Grande (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Mike Del Grande (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

politics

The quandary facing Rob Ford's budget chief Add to ...

Mike Del Grande is having a rough day.

It's been madness since he got in at 7:30 a.m., he says: Meetings with the mayor, chasing down councillors and staff, dealing with endless phone calls and supplications. It's barely noon, and the city's budget chief looks world-weary against a backdrop of budgetary binders and Knights of Columbus certificates.

But he likes the gig, right? Head of the budget he spent the David Miller years picking through and railing against?

"Do I like the job?" He grimaces. "That's a relative word. I have a hard job. And I have a job that is not enviable. But I'm not afraid to roll up my sleeves."

Mr. Del Grande is in the unenviable position of delivering a budget even he admits is not his. The parameters of the first budget of Toronto's Ford era - a property-tax freeze, the axing of the vehicle registration tax and no "major" service cuts - were dictated before he was even named chair. Once they pass their final hurdles at city council next week, they'll have been rushed through in record time.

"This is basically a direction to staff from the mayor, directed by the mayor," he says. "I'm overseeing it, but in terms of actually getting into the nitty-gritty and stuff, I haven't been able to do that."

It's frustrating, he says, for someone who would routinely preface his quibbles at fractious council meetings with his credentials as a chartered accountant to be prevented from diving into the nitty-gritty. But that appears unlikely to change.

The city's been told to gird itself for a 2012 budget that staff warn won't have the luxury of this year's surpluses and reserve funds to balance itself. But rather than decentralizing or ceding control over who pulls the strings at city hall, the mayor's influential brother Doug Ford wants to see even more power vested in the mayor's office.

"The mayor should have veto power," he said in an interview this week. "The mayor should be the mayor. At the end of the day … he's responsible for everything."

The Fords may never realize that wish - indeed, Mayor Ford laughed off his brother's veto aspirations, saying he doesn't share them - but it indicates their intention to keep calling the shots from their adjacent second-floor offices. And that puts people like budget chair Mike Del Grande in the awkward position of being straw chiefs of files over which they have no say.

Doug Ford strenuously denies this: The executive has "100-per-cent" input, he says. "And they're going to take more ownership as we move forward."

Mr. Ford's critics argue the centralized, expedited decision-making is undemocratic and unconsultative - that it sidesteps council's consensus-building imperative. Mr. Ford's office and his supporters counter that he was elected to shake things up, and he damn well intends to.

But it seems odd, says former budget chief Shelley Carroll, to have a budget chief who, well into January, professed near total ignorance as to what was actually in the budget.

"Once you know who your budget chief is, you want him to be in full briefings," she said. "It seems like that started late in the game."

It was perhaps a telling moment earlier this month when anti-poverty protesters stormed the last budget committee meeting and made a beeline for Doug Ford, rather than Mr. Del Grande. Of course they did, OCAP member Lisa Schofield said after the tense standoff. They know who's calling the shots.

THE BEAN COUNTER WITH BITE

For the first time since entering city hall in 2003 as a councillor for Ward 39 (Scarborough-Agincourt), Mr. Del Grande is finally on the inside. He admits it's frustrating not having as much autonomy as he'd like. "I'm one guy," he notes. "I don't have extra staff, okay?" But he adds he's not in it for fame or a high profile.

"The easy thing for me is to say, 'You know what? I quit.' Who's going to do the job, okay? It's not a glory job as far as I'm concerned, okay? I would prefer a low profile, rolling up my sleeves and doing what needs to be done."

Mr. Del Grande cut his teeth on the Toronto Catholic District School Board's budget in the 1990s, a job he juggled with his work as an accountant for Shoppers Drug Mart's Scarborough office. He still misses the school board, he says, and prefers trusteeship to his duties as councillor. "It was all about the kids," he says, sounding almost wistful.

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