Horses and pigs, flowers and trees and an office dedicated to the environment are the latest targets in the hunt for savings at Toronto City Hall.
The High Park Zoo, Riverdale Farm and the Far Enough Farm on Toronto Island have all been singled out as discretionary spending – as has the Toronto Environmental Office – in the latest report by consultants hired by the city to comb through the more than 150 services it offers with the aim of identifying options for possible cuts.
The city faces an estimated $774-million funding gap in next year’s budget and Mayor Rob Ford has made it his mission to ferret out the extra spending, the so-called “gravy.” However, most of the services reviewed so far have been deemed essential by the consultants, and the possible cuts they have zeroed in on – in such areas as snow removal and street cleaning, daycare centres and long-term care facilities – have raised questions inside City Hall and out.
On Thursday the fourth instalment by KPMG – its report on the $187-million spent on parks and environment services – was released. The study finds 83 per cent of city services in this area are essential, but suggests that tapping volunteers from sports and gardening clubs to maintain playing fields and flower beds could cut costs. Alternatively, it says, these services could be contracted out.
Word of the report travelled quickly around Riverdale Farm once the TV cameras and photographers began showing up in the barnyard along with the preschoolers and summer campers.
“It’s good to have a farm in the city,” said Marisela Jimenz as she watched her four-year-old daughter toss crumbs to a rooster. “Otherwise they only see animals in picture books.”
Whether the city should be footing the bills for Riverdale’s pigs and pastures will be at the heart of the debates that unfold over the next two weeks as council committees hash out what is core to the city’s business. Full council will get the final call on all cuts at a special meeting in September.
Councillor Norm Kelly, chair of the parks and environment committee that will consider the latest proposals in a week’s time, would not tip his hand, but did offer that about $30-million of surplus spending “has to be looked at very closely.”
“The goal for me is to use this to enhance public engagement, create a more flexible government and save some money to boot,” he said.
Asked about closing the neighbourhood zoos, he said his starting point is to maintain services. “I would feel very uncomfortable going to people and saying that we’re not going to cut grass, we’re not going to plant trees.”
In the case of Riverdale Farm, long-time Cabbagetown resident Mary Mahoney said that a partnership with local volunteers already exists. The Friends of Riverdale Farm was founded more than a decade ago by Elizabeth Harris, a well-known community advocate who died this year. The funds generated by the non-profit group, which runs the farm’s snack bar and gift shop, started the weekly farmers market and built a brick oven, help to support the farm, she said.
If the farm is shut down, Ms. Mahoney said, her neighbourhood and the city would lose part of its identity. “I think we will lose what Toronto is about.”
The consultants’ findings also focus on the Environment Office, with a budget of $11.5-million, a legacy of former mayor David Miller. The zoo and farms located in the city’s parks – the Toronto Zoo is a separate corporation – are “above standard services,” that represent a “high” potential savings and cost the city $1.3-million annually, the report says.
Fewer trees and flowers, reduced litter pickup and longer grass are also given as options by the report, which notes that horticultural activities are “aesthetic in nature” and do “not relate to maintaining the safety of parks.” It also singles out a program that gives access to parkland to local residents to plant gardens, which costs the city less than half a million dollars.
“This is really a Scrooge special from KPMG to city council,” Councillor Paula Fletcher said. “People will be shocked when they hear what the suggestions are – that in order to save money we would shut the zoos, shut the farms, reduce tree planting, reduce grass cutting, reduce litter pickup, eliminate flowers in our parks and eliminate community gardens. What kind of a 21st-century plan is that?”
The lineup of possible cuts will continue next week with reports for the Licensing and Standards Committee, Government Management, Planning and Growth and the Executive Committee, which will consider the options for the city’s agencies, boards and commissions.
–With a report from Patrick White