With his political future hanging in the balance, Toronto’s cost-cutting mayor has added $6.8-million in new spending to this year’s budget, saying he is responding to the demands of taxpayers and his fellow councillors.
The last-minute changes, introduced after more than two hours of closed-door discussions of the mayor’s executive committee, will create new positions for 20 firefighters and 40 paramedics, and include a sprinkling of new spending in other areas that amount to tweaks in a $9.4-billion operating budget.
They stop short of reversing a controversial plan to close one fire station and take five fire trucks off the road.
“It was the right thing to do,” Mr. Ford told reporters when asked why he personally put forward the list of changes. “You have to listen to the taxpayers, listen to other councillors. We worked as a team today and we got it through.”
This time last year, a group of rookie councillors tried and failed to float a similar list of budget changes with Mr. Ford.
This time around, with several councillors – and Mr. Ford – jockeying for position in a possible battle for the mayor’s job, the budget debate has taken on a significance that goes beyond the 2013 financial plan. If the three-judge panel rejects Mr. Ford’s appeal of a conflict-of-interest ruling that boots him from office, his fate will rest in the hands of 44 councillors who must decide whether to reappoint the mayor, fill his job with someone else or call a by-election. Against that backdrop, Mr. Ford appeared Thursday to be trying to respond to councillors’ demands.
The mayor opened the meeting Thursday morning with an election-style address that included a list of his administration’s accomplishments in taming the city’s spending and cutting staff. Mr. Ford characterized the budget as a “turning point” for the city – a reference to the fact that it does not, as in the past, use surplus funds from the previous year to balance the operating budget.
Some councillors suggest Thursday’s budget debate also was a breakthrough for the city’s embattled mayor, after a year full of instances when he dug in his heels and refused to compromise even in the face of certain defeat.
“It’s good to see. It is an encouraging sign,” said Councillor Josh Colle, who last year became the man of the hour after introducing a list of budget changes on the council floor.
Councillor Ana Bailao, another centrist whose vote the mayor will need to pass his budget, said Mr. Ford listened to the “strong signals” sent to his office. The councillors who belong to the political middle, a group she said numbers between six and nine, will meet before next week’s council debate to decide if the changes go far enough.
Among the additions is a cost-of-living increase for the acquisition budget of the Toronto Public Libraries, the reinstatement of the leaf collection service and more money for student nutrition programs. The changes also eliminate fees for adults at recreation centres in priority neighbourhoods.
Some councillors were quick to dismiss the mayor’s changes as inadequate. “These changes are absolutely not enough,” said Councillor Gord Perks, who usually takes the lead on financial matters for the left. “It is going to be a vigorous debate,” he predicted about next week’s council discussion.
Councillor Mike Layton, a leader in the fight to prevent the elimination of firefighter jobs, said he still has “serious concerns” about the budget, especially in relation to fire services.
The changes introduced Thursday add $3-million to the fire department’s budget, money that will be used to hire 15 fire-prevention officers and 20 firefighters. Fire chief Jim Sales said the funding is in response to a draft received this week of a new underwriters survey that gives the city 12 months to make improvements or risk a downgrade in its rating for commercial properties – a category that includes multiresidential buildings. Such a downgrade would result in increased fire-insurance premiums, he said.
Ed Kennedy, head of the union that represents firefighters that has raised safety concerns over the planned fire budget said the new funding was “absolutely not enough.”
Mr. Ford said he will be “shocked” if the revised fiscal plan does not get the support of council, saying he cannot support other changes, including using some of the expected $232-million surplus from 2012 to save or enhance programs.
“This is final, absolutely,” he said.