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Mark Richardson is photographed inside the Fairmount Community Centre in Toronto's east end on Dec 09 2011. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Mark Richardson is photographed inside the Fairmount Community Centre in Toronto's east end on Dec 09 2011. (Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Marcus Gee

Charge more and save programs, dad tells budget committee Add to ...

Mark Richardson came into city hall like a gust of fresh air into a stuffy room.

Mr. Richardson, 40, is on a mission to save the sports programs at his local community centre, endangered by proposed budget cuts. He arrived just before lunch on Thursday to give a deputation to the city’s budget committee, which was in the midst of two long days of public hearings.

An information-technology consultant with his own business, he has an 11-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son. They spend many hours in the Fairmount Park community centre in east-end Toronto, playing soccer and ball hockey or taking karate lessons and practising with the swim team.

If he had been like many of the others who addressed the committee, he would simply have railed against Mayor Rob Ford for daring to consider chopping his kids’ programs. Until Mr. Richardson appeared, the tone of the budget hearings had been negative. A parade of social agencies, arts groups, neighbourhood organizations and environmental lobbyists came before the committee to explain how the world would end if Mr. Ford trimmed even a dollar of the money they get from the city.

The long-haired, middle-aged gentleman who appeared just before Mr. Richardson called the mayor “a liar, a bully and a cheat” and described his budget as “small-minded,” “mean-spirited” and “Scrooge-like.”

Mr. Richardson took a different approach. Instead of preparing a rant, he booted up his home computer and did some research. He found that many other cities charge much more than Toronto for community programs. Kitchener charges $15 an hour and Mississauga $5.96 for kids’ ball hockey; Toronto charges $1.66. Barrie charges $7.20 an hour and Ottawa $5.46 for kids’ indoor soccer; Toronto charges $3.55.

Based on his research, he said, “the City of Toronto is considerably undercharging for the majority of its programs.” He calculated that 45 hours of weekly programs for his kids cost him a total of $146, or $3.12 an hour. “You can’t get a babysitter for $3.12 an hour.”

He woke up the jaded members of the budget committee by declaring he would be willing to pay more for his kids’ programs if that would help save them from the axe.

Were the city to raise fees for middle-class people like him (while keeping them lower for needy residents), he says, it could easily afford to maintain threatened programs and even expand them to meet demand. “All I am asking is: Give us the chance to pay for these programs. Those of us who can afford to pay should pay.”

That sounded like heresy to some left-wing councillors, who worried about stigmatizing lower-income residents and suggested higher taxes might be a better way of saving programs. To that Mr. Richardson has a simple answer: Get real.

Like it or not, Rob Ford is mayor and will be for at least the next three years. He is not going to change his mind and resurrect the vehicle registration tax, as some people told the committee he should. Nor can the city count on a bailout from a deficit-ridden provincial government.

So it won’t do to hope for miracles or try to change history.

“We can’t sit here and litigate the last election,” Mr. Richardson said. “There’s a thousand days until the next one.”

Throwing around wild charges won’t help either. As he sees it, to accuse the mayor of launching “a war on children,” as one left-wing councillor did this week, is as silly as claiming there is a “war on the car,” as right-wing councillors did under former Mayor David Miller.

Better to put aside partisan point-scoring, do some homework and work on pragmatic solutions. “You’ve got three years,” Mr. Richardson told the budget committee. “Grow up and solve these problems.” Fresh air indeed.

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Follow on Twitter: @marcusbgee

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