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Budget chief Mike Del Grande, left, and councillor Doug Ford are photographed during of the City of Toronto budget meeting at city hall in Toronto, Ont. Feb. 10, 2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Budget chief Mike Del Grande, left, and councillor Doug Ford are photographed during of the City of Toronto budget meeting at city hall in Toronto, Ont. Feb. 10, 2011. (Kevin Van Paassen/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

What would you cut, Toronto asks its residents Add to ...

Let the season of budgetary bloodletting begin.

On Tuesday night, the city held the first of eight public meetings planned for its service review, a six-month process during which Rob Ford's city hall will choose what to cut and what to keep as it tries to plug a $774-million budget hole.

While the review may not be as controversial as other Ford initiatives, such as privatizing garbage collection, it may end up being more significant.

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From now through October, a $3-million team of consultants will pore over every line item in the city budget, looking for items to axe. The results of their hunt - along with the advice gleaned from public consultations, both online and in person - could realign how the city administers everything from transit to police, libraries to courts.

"We're talking about the very direction of the city," said budget chief Mike Del Grande, who agreed the review will likely be painful for many involved. "We're trying to fix the overspending that has occurred the last number of years. We've hit the wall."

At the public meetings, residents will put themselves in the place of politicians making those decisions. According to a sample agenda for community consultations, participants will be asked to place 35 city departments in one of three categories: "necessary for our city", "less important" or "not required for the city."

They'll also get a chance to decide which city services should be farmed out to private contractors, and formulate a financing plan for their most-valued programs.

"This particular scenario asks the people of Toronto what kind of services they believe they should have and receive, what level of the service and how to pay for it," said Mr. Del Grande.

When the service review hits full tilt next month, the city will conduct three separate probes into its finances. First comes a core service review to determine the programs the city must provide by law and ranking the rest for potential trims and cancellations.

The second stage is a "service efficiency study" to find out whether departments and agencies are doing their jobs as economically as possible. This wave applies only to a select few branches, including City Planning, Solid Waste, Court Services, police, libraries and the TTC.

The latter, in particular, has caught the eye of Mr. Del Grande. "There's only so many of me, but I would love to go in and micromanage the [TTC]" he said. "We had a good subway system in the '70s and '80s and somehow that's deteriorated, our costs have gone up and our service miles have stayed basically the same."

The final phase is a user-fee review, exploring whether the city could jack up the more than 1,000 different fees it collects to the tune of $1.4-billion.

Dissenting councillors say the public aspect of the review is merely an exercise in optics.

"The Ford administration doesn't need public opinion to eliminate services," said Councillor Adam Vaughan. "They want to slash and cut everywhere. It's all about less government for them, so much less government you won't even have a government eventually."

So far, Torontonians are taking it seriously. More than 3,000 people have responded to an online survey asking what city services residents value most. Of eight public meetings scheduled to run through June 7, six are overbooked.

Recommendations from public consultations and the core service review will go to special standing committees in July. The full breadth of recommended cuts and increases won't be known until fall.

Mr. Del Grande has called dozens of department heads into his office, warning them to shape up. "This has never been done before," he said. "I've sat them down and read them the state of the union, and the state of the union is we're in rough shape. … I'm here to fix it."

Follow on Twitter: @Nut_Graf

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