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Committee backs plan to keep funding Toronto’s Riverdale Farm

A report by Toronto's city manager recommends selling or closing Riverdale Farm.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail/Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

The city's taxpayers can expect to keep funding Riverdale Farm indefinitely after an executive committee vote went against Mayor Rob Ford.

The committee of hand-picked Ford allies voted 5-4 Tuesday against setting a deadline of Jan. 1, 2014 to wean Riverdale Farm from its annual city budget allocation of nearly $500,000.

Instead, the executive backed a business plan from the Riverdale Farm Coalition, which asked the city to keep paying the farm's bills upfront while it raises money to partially pay back operating costs and for improvements to the property.

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Riverdale Farm is another in a long list of city services once recommended for culling that councillors have moved to spare. From library hours to swimming pools to leaf-blowing in Etobicoke, many of the contentious cost-saving opportunities identified in last summer's KPMG reports have been turned back at some point over the past year.

While city staff recommended $42.8-million in cuts and efficiencies in the 2012 budget, council approved only $24-million in cuts this year, according to the city manager. And some councillors have continued trying to pick away at the edges of the budget since it was approved in January.

That's left Budget Chief Mike Del Grande at his wit's end – he walked out of the Riverdale Farm vote in protest after it became clear his colleagues would vote in favour of the farm's business plan. His vote would have made it a tie, but under committee rules, the motion would have still failed.

"I went to the little boy's room and I just didn't rush back to go back in to the vote because [the result was] very self-evident," he said. "I'm just frustrated with the process here. I don't think anybody's really serious [about] wrestling this financial problem to the ground."

The mayor said after the meeting that he remained optimistic that the farm would become more financially independent, despite the vote.

"Hopefully they will come around. I support the farms. I support High Park, I support Riverdale, Centre Island. I enjoy taking my kids there. So I know what it means to Toronto," he said. "I'm the last person that ever wants things to shut down. I want these farms to succeed. But obviously everybody has to help out."

The plan to keep funding Riverdale Farm must still be approved by the full city council.

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The Riverdale Farm Coalition, a community group working to save the 7.4-acre farm that is located in the central neighbourhood of Cabbagetown, is aiming to sell memberships and use donation boxes to rake in $100,000 for operating costs in 2013 and as much as $345,000 annually in "four or five years." It would be a significant infusion of cash for a beloved attraction that has traditionally relied primarily on city funding.

On top of that, the coalition says it could eventually attract as much as $650,000 for capital improvements and new programming from partners such as the Weston Family, Guelph University and Kellogg's.

"It's certainly a positive outcome for us," said Bill Holy, a member of the Riverdale Farm Coalition. "We're very happy to be moving forward."

Local councillor Pam McConnell said the challenge for Riverdale Farm is that the slew of corporate sponsors interested in donating to the farm won't commit unless they know the farm's city funding is secure.

Those donors aren't interested in paying to muck out stalls or buy feed, she added.

"[The city] will be putting the full cost in. We're not going to shortchange one animal. They need to be fed," she said.

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Asked whether she expected the city to keep funding the farm forever, Ms. McConnell replied: "Absolutely."

If council agrees with the executive recommendation as expected, Riverdale Farm will be treated differently from the High Park Zoo and Far Enough Farm, two other city-owned animal attractions that have been forced to rely on private donations to stay open.

"[Riverdale Farm] is very lucky," said Councillor Sarah Doucette, whose ward includes the High Park Zoo. "I could be bitter, I could be nasty, but we want them to succeed so we can go back to the city and say, 'Help us.'"

The city gave different instructions to the two facilities.

Council agreed to extend Riverdale Farm's funding to the end of 2012 while the coalition developed a business plan.

However, it gave the High Park Zoo only until the end of this month to raise enough money to stay open.

The zoo's annual budget is $227,000. Ms. Doucette said Friends of High Park has raised $255,000 so far, with more money rolling in weekly – enough to keep the zoo afloat until at least the end of 2013.

The executive committee also voted Tuesday to end the free use of city fields by children and youth leagues beginning in 2013. The new fees are greatly reduced from the levels that staff first recommended be imposed this year and will be earmarked specifically for field maintenance.

Even so, representatives from several leagues told councillors more study is needed before any fee is imposed. Given those objections, the new fees are likely to meet with opposition at council next month.

With a report from Elizabeth Church

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


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