If Rob Ford is seeking a microcosm of the challenge he'll face slashing Toronto's budget, he need only swing by his local library.
The Toronto Public Library Board adopted a 2010 budget request this week that seeks a 3.3-per-cent or $5.51-million increase over last year - a far cry from the spending reductions the mayor-elect promised during his campaign.
But the alternative, according to library staff, would be to buy fewer books, shutter some libraries on Sundays and impose shorter opening hours across the system.
The library board is the first of Toronto's major agencies, boards and commissions to pass a budget request since the penny-pinching Etobicoke councillor was elected mayor Oct. 25.
The board of management of the Toronto Zoo will tackle its own 2011 budget request Thursday at a meeting where scaled-down plans for a plant that would convert animal waste into power and costs of a panda paddock are also on the agenda.
When he was a candidate, Mr. Ford vowed to "reduce the cost of government" by 2.5 per cent or $230-million, on top of the $67.6-million he would save by replacing only half the workers who retire or quit.
He made a "guarantee" that he could achieve that without cutting any services.
But the Toronto Public Library's dilemma provides some insight into how hard it could be for Mr. Ford to cut costs without cutting services. The mayor-elect's office declined to comment on the library seeking more cash.
It's not uncommon at this early stage of Toronto's annual budget tug-of-war for boards and departments to ask for more money than they expect to get when council approves a final budget next spring.
The library's request is more like an opening salvo.
However, it wasn't an aggressive shot: The entire 3.3-per-cent increase is made up of inflation and contractual salary and benefit increases that are beyond the board's control, according to a staff report that went to the board.
"It was quite a straightforward budget ask. It was unavoidable [and]cost-driven," said Larry Hughsam, the director of finance for the Toronto Public Library.
"We recognize that there's a desire for us to find more efficiencies and to minimize any service reductions and we will try to do that again this year," said Jane Pyper, Toronto's chief librarian. "But that's the challenge for us."
The board isn't seeking any new hires or spending across a 99-branch system that saw an 8.1-per-cent increase in circulation of library materials and a 7.1-per-cent increase in visits between 2007 and 2009 without adding staff. The library system actually has fewer employees today that it did at amalgamation; it's down 182 bodies since 1998.
Toronto's top bureaucrat has directed every part of the city to cut its budget by 10 per cent from 2009 - five per cent in 2010 and five per cent in 2011.
But the rule wasn't hard and fast last year. The library, for example, asked for a 3.3-per-cent hike for 2010 and wound up settling for a 1.9-per-cent increase, not a five-per-cent cut.
The library board considered a report Monday that laid out how it could achieve a five-per-cent reduction: It could buy 116,000 fewer books and other materials next year; slash some morning and evening hours at 53 branches; and close all but five, or all but 11, branches on Sundays, depending on how much the library siphons from a reserve fund.
The board rejected that option and asked for the 3.3-per-cent increase instead. Now, the library's bosses are waiting to hear from city hall after the new mayor takes office Dec. 1.
"Certainly everybody is aware that the political climate is different at the city," Mr. Hughsam said. "We're certainly waiting to hear back from city staff on where it's going."