The prospect of a battle for his job looming, Mayor Rob Ford began his day as a statesman, outlining the virtues of his budget in a carefully scripted address. But by lunch, Toronto’s embattled leader was courting controversy, wandering off message and going against parts of his own fiscal plan.
And by day’s end, a grim-faced Mr. Ford appeared to have lost a key battle to hold the line on spending in critical areas such as fire services, with millions in initiatives poised to gain approval when council continues its budget debate Wednesday.
As the debate on the city’s $9.4-billion operating budget for 2013 and $15-billion 10-year capital plan stretched into the evening, Mr. Ford stood at the edges of the council floor when it became apparent he did not have the support to stop a push by councillors to add money for more firefighters – dozens of whom packed the council chamber.
“It’s a bunch of nonsense,” Mr. Ford said, telling reporters who were hovering nearby he could not back the compromise being brokered by some of his allies, including his brother.
Mr. Ford could be facing the voters as early as this spring if his appeal of a conflict of interest ruling is unsuccessful. Against that backdrop of a possible election or a battle at council for reappointment, Tuesday’s budget debate took on added significance. Councillors jockeyed for position and the city’s tax-fighting mayor balked at the prospect of opposing a freeze in property taxes – even if it meant going against the budget he had been praising for days.
“It is always interesting and helpful to identify the link between budgets and elections,” observed Councillor Joe Mihevc, who, with assistance from the mayor’s office, is heading into the second day of budget debates with what appears to be firm support for $1.16-million in new funding for school nutrition programs.
After Tuesday’s meeting, Councillor Doug Ford said the deal on the budget for fire services, which will likely be voted on Wednesday along with the other budget measures, shows his brother has learned “the art of compromise.” The proposed changes will add about $3-million to the fire budget to fund 63 front-line positions, avoid a station closing and keep five trucks on the road until July, enough time to get the results of several reports.
“You know when you have a great compromise is when both parties aren’t too happy,” said Doug Ford when asked about the mayor’s demeanour on the council floor. “Everyone has to give a little bit.”
Earlier in the day, the mayor broke ranks with his executive committee – and his own budget chair – in a vote over property taxes, endorsing a far-fetched and unsuccessful attempt to freeze rates.
“If anyone can show me savings. I’m going to support it, absolutely,” Mr. Ford explained later to reporters.
Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti proposed the city could make up the lost revenue from the rate freeze with the money generated by a temporary casino housed in a boat that could be tied up at the waterfront. The casino could be up and running in a matter of months, he told snickering councillors, and if the casino concept did not work out, the boat could just be floated away.
The move was defeated 40 to 4, with the mayor and councillors Mammoliti, Glenn de Baeremaeker and Frances Nunziata voting for it.
After the motion to hold the increase to zero failed, the mayor endorsed the 2 per-cent tax hike he had recommended earlier in the day, which passed 36 to 8.
“I don’t think any mayor in the history of the City of Toronto has proposed a budget and then voted against his own tax-rate increase,” said Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong. The councillor for Don Valley East is a member of the mayor’s executive who is considered a contender in a possible by-election.
“It seems to me that some of us are more supportive of his budget than he is,” he said.
Mr. Ford began the day describing the budget as a “great collaboration” among councillors from all sides.
“Two years ago, we were elected to reduce the size and cost of government,” he said.”Ladies and gentlemen, that’s what we’ve done.”