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41 ice rinks to remain closed for March break Add to ...

A last-minute plea to reopen 41 outdoor rinks - beyond eight already staying open for next week's March break - failed at city council yesterday amid partisan bickering.

But council agreed unanimously to direct staff to look at "costs and opportunities" to keep rinks open during the school break in future years.

The rink fight came as council wrapped up a

three-day session, with the focus set to shift today to the budget committee as it puts the final touches on this year's $8.1-billion budget.

Today's session is the last stop before council votes later this month on a budget that calls for a tax hike of 3.75 per cent for residents and a 1.25 per cent for businesses, with an extra $11.4-million in user fees to pay for city programs.

Budget committee chairwoman Shelley Carroll (Ward 33 Don Valley East), who says she endorses the proposed budget package, praised the "Herculean efforts" of staff in generating a 2007 year-end surplus of $94.8-million (higher than earlier projections of $78-million).

A staff report on the surplus, to be discussed by Ms. Carroll's committee, proposes that $12-million of the surplus be used to replenish a depleted reserve fund for snow removal.

Another $4-million will be set aside for an extreme weather maintenance reserve to cover non-winter issues such as flooding and tree damage.

The push to reopen 41 outdoor rinks, closed last weekend as part of the city's normal schedule, came at the behest of Councillor Case Ootes (Ward 29, Toronto-Danforth).

"Council should do what the public expects us to do," he said, blaming the mayor's office for "stonewalling" his request to rehire 55 seasonal staff and rev up compressors at the rinks.

In other business, council agreed to appeal a recent provincial Assessment Review Board ruling that, if implemented, would give property tax relief to the city's big bank towers.

In an interim ruling, the board accepted the argument that the office towers should be valued as if they were vacant, rejecting a long-held practice of the Municipal Property Assessment Corp. of counting improvements when calculating a property's worth.

Meanwhile, in a 19-15 vote after a lengthy and passionate debate, councillors chose to reject a proposal to allow shopping in the downtown on all holidays, except Christmas.

The province recently gave Toronto the power to set its own rules, but council chose to stick with the status quo that allows shopping only in designated tourist areas, such as the Eaton Centre.

Mr. Ootes said there was no push from residents to open up stores on holidays, despite a survey cited by city bureaucrats.

"I didn't buy it, and council didn't buy it," he said.

"... Most people appreciate the fact that they can now be together with their families on those days."

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