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Bed bugs among budget pests biting into Ford's hold-the-line plans

As penny-pinching Mayor Rob Ford prepares to unveil his first budget next week, two city boards asked Thursday for more money this year.

The Toronto Public Library board rejected calls to close its urban affairs branch at Metro Hall and slash its book-buying budget, elements of a proposal that would have cut the library's request to 2-per-cent more than it received in 2010, down from 3.3 per cent.

Instead, the board settled on a branch-saving deal that brought the total request in at about $171.5-million, 2.6-per-cent or just over $1.1-million more than last year.

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Only Ford allies Councillor Paul Ainslie and Councillor Cesar Palacio voted against the compromise.

"For a writer like me, this library is a real jewel," said former Toronto mayor John Sewell, one of half a dozen people who pleaded with the board to save the location.

"Don't pretend for a minute this is anything other than a major service cut," added Councillor Adam Vaughan, in whose ward the branch is located.

Pressed to find savings, library finance staff had recommended moving the urban affairs collection to the downtown reference library in part because the Metro Hall branch has one of the lowest circulation rates in the system, and in-person research requests have dropped dramatically in the last decade.

However, the nearby condo boom has increased the number of people picking up holds there, with more than 50,000 pickups in 2010.

The Board of Health, meanwhile, approved a 1.49-per-cent net budget increase Thursday, a hike made larger by a last-minute request for $500,000 in city cash to tackle bedbugs.

"Mayor [Rob]Ford has said that he wants to solve the bed-bug problem," said Councillor John Filion, who was re-elected chair of the board. "Why wouldn't he do it at 25 cents on the dollar?"

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Queen's Park typically provides three dollars for every one the municipal government spends on public-health programs; that means the city can buy $2-million in bedbug control for $500,000.

With infestations of the blood-sucking critters on the rise, Toronto Public Health has been shifting staff from other duties - such as inspections and mental-health nursing - to deal with them.

Toronto Public Health originally asked for an increase of 0.4-per-cent over 2010, bringing the net budget to just over $44.3-million. The 0.4-per-cent increase would have amounted to an extra $160, 900, all of it in contract-mandated salary and benefit hikes.

But Councillor Paula Fletcher, a member of the board, moved a motion raising the budget request by $500,000 for bedbugs.

Mr. Ford's press secretary said the mayor was not available to comment on the proposal.

The mayor has directed city staff to produce a budget that is no larger than last year's with a property-tax freeze and no major service cuts.

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In late 2009, city manager Joe Pennachetti asked all parts of the city to slash their budgets by 5 per cent in 2010 and 2011.

Toronto homeowners got a taste of possible minor cuts to come this week.

The city distributed two garbage tags per household instead of four along with a note saying the remaining tags would be mailed out if council approved an increase to the solid-waste budget.

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Health reporter

Kelly Grant is a health reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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