The battle over Toronto's budget is entering the home stretch with the Ford administration holding firm on demands for a 10-per-cent cut to libraries, but finding some last-minute cash to save two school pools.
Opponents of Mayor Rob Ford have branded the budget – which includes a 2.5-per-cent residential tax increase, the elimination of more than 1,000 jobs and about $86-million in cuts – as a "radical conservative" document, and predict it will not get the approval of council in its current form.
But over the past five days, Mr. Ford and city staff have moved to defang much of the left, removing controversial cuts to school nutrition programs, recreation centres and transportation for dialysis patients – in an effort to paint the budget as tough but responsible. On Monday, they added two school pools to that list of concessions, both in wards represented by members of Mr. Ford's cabinet-like executive committee.
The fiscal blueprint will likely shift even more in the days before it goes to the executive on Thursday and, finally, city council next week.
"I'm sure there's a lot of jockeying that's still going to happen back and forth," Councillor Doug Ford said. "We're probably a couple million dollars separating the two parties. We aren't that far away."
But the gap is far wider than Mr. Ford lets on.
On the issue of libraries alone, the two sides are $7-million apart thanks to a motion from budget committee chair Mike Del Grande in a meeting on Monday that the library board comply with Mayor Ford's demand to squeeze 10 per cent out of its budget. That's 4 per cent more than the agency has said it can shed without reducing 19,000 hours at 54 branches and cutting collections by 150,000 items.
"It's 10 per cent," Mr. Del Grande said with a judge's finality. "Leave it to the library board, in terms of: It's their responsibility to determine how they're going to use that envelope."
The library board has been grappling with the demand of a 10-per-cent trim for months, repeatedly voting against cutting hours. But Mr. Del Grande's motion may leave little choice.
Board chairman Paul Ainslie, a Ford ally, said he will ask members to revisit the hour cuts and argued that libraries are not a big concern for Torontonians.
"I don't think libraries are an A-1 top priority for a lot of people," he said. "Libraries are important for society, but I think they are in the general mix of having a stable community."
While he put the squeeze on books, Mr. Del Grande released pressure on pools, introducing a measure that would save city programs at two of seven school pools facing cuts – Bedford Park Community Centre and Sir Wilfrid Laurier Collegiate.
The cost, $295,000, will come from the $8.8-million in additional revenue the city will collect because of increases in Toronto's property-tax base. That's the same pot of new-found money used to save the community centres and school food programs. Mr. Del Grande has argued long and hard that none of the city's one-time savings and revenues in 2011 – estimated to be about $154-million – should be used to save city services.
Despite recent concessions, some controversial budget items remain untouched: closing three daycares and three homeless shelters, reducing arena hours, cancelling mechanical leaf collection, eliminating sidewalk snow removal in parts of the city and terminating programs for HIV prevention and the arts.
Late during Monday's meeting, another subject of future horse-trading arose: property taxes. While the 2.5-per-cent increase in the budget proposal is described by staff as inflationary, some council members, such as Janet Davis, pointed out that inflation is running at about 2.8 per cent, hinting at furtive efforts to save a few more programs from the chopping block with a slight adjustment to the tax hike.
Councillor Josh Matlow said he doubts the budget proposal in its current form will get the 23 votes it needs to pass at council, especially with the increased library cut.
"I doubt any one of the independent councillors would support it," he said. "It doesn't make any sense. Asking for a 10-per-cent cut seems so arbitrary and so wrong."
Councillors also heard on Monday that the push to find savings will not end with this year's budget. Projections for 2013 show that the city will need to cut $174-million more to balance its books, even with a 10-cent TTC fare increase and a 2.5-per-cent tax increase. In 2014, $80-million in savings will be needed. The budget also proposes that the city continue to offer a voluntary separation package to reduce the number of people it employs.
Editor's note: The print version of this article and an earlier online version indicated five school pools were facing cuts. In fact, seven school pools are facing cuts. This version has been corrected.