Reduced to a figurehead by council, Mayor Rob Ford tried to turn his new outsider status to his advantage by distancing himself from a budget he describes as "the gravy train all over again."
Toronto's embattled mayor showed up at the launch of the city's 2014 budget Monday morning and was relegated to a seat between two councillors, his nameplate quickly dug out from a drawer by city staff. Once given the floor, Mr. Ford railed against a staff-recommended 2.5-per-cent residential tax hike, claiming he had been blindsided by the proposal after telling senior officials for months that he wanted next year's increase no higher than 1.75 per cent. He also slammed senior officials for not including a cut to the land transfer tax, something he said they had promised him while he still had control of the budget process.
In what is likely to be a common theme in the 2014 campaign that begins in six weeks, Mr. Ford argued the city reverted to its old spending ways as soon as council took away his powers because of the continuing scandal over his admission to smoking crack cocaine. Senior officials said the budget plan was months in the making, with the numbers finalized before the votes to strip Mr. Ford of his authority. That didn't stop Mr. Ford and his brother Councillor Doug Ford from lambasting the plan and vowing to vote against it when it comes to council in January.
"It's so disappointing that in five days, in five days, as soon as they reduce my powers all they're doing is going back to the old tax and spend ways, getting back on the gravy train and spending and spending and spending. It's embarrassing," Mr. Ford told reporters. "This is a complete tax-and-spend, old-style way of city hall. This is the gravy train all over again."
Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly, who has yet to speak to the mayor since absorbing most of his powers, staff and budget last week, said Mayor Ford's tactics are a matter of campaigning.
"It's one of the most successful election slogans ever in Canadian history. I don't blame him for falling back on it," Mr. Kelly said. "But it doesn't inform the budget debate. It's sloganeering in place of rational and reasonable debate."
Asked how he thought Mayor Ford had arrived at his 1.75-per-cent target, Mr. Kelly reached up as if to pick something out of the air.
The staff recommendation includes a 2-per-cent increase to the residential rate to fund the operating budget, plus an additional 0.5 per cent to fund the extension of the Scarborough subway, approved by council in October. The proposed increase would add $64 to the average residential tax bill – $13 of which would be a special levy for the subway.
City manager Joe Pennachetti said staff have been preparing the budget for six months and the tax increase was always in the range of 2 per cent. Asked whether the events of the past few weeks altered the final numbers, he said they "absolutely, categorically" did not. "We had the budget completed 10 days ago. It was not affected by council's decision," he said, adding the 0.5-per-cent tax increase for the subway was always beyond the operating budget tax hike.
On another sticking point, the reduction of the municipal land transfer tax, Mayor Ford told media Mr. Pennachetti had assured him the city could reduce the tax by at least 5 per cent. Mr. Pennachetti said no such promises were made. "The CFO and myself have been clear to the mayor – to the budget chief, to everyone – that it was going to be very difficult, if not impossible, to have a reduction in the land transfer tax and at the same time meet a very tight tax increase," he said.
A report on possible changes to the the tax, including a reduction, will be presented without recommendation to the budget committee in the coming weeks, he said.
Mayor Ford argued that the city should be able to find the $18-million in savings required to meet his 1.75-per-cent target. But his own budget chair, Councillor Frank Di Giorgio, characterized the cost-saving strategy as unsustainable and predicted there will be pressure to raise taxes higher than 2.5 per cent. "When you do cost-savings over a three-year period, let's say, and you continually try to chip away, chip away, chip away, eventually you realize that you can't do that forever," he said.
Kaleigh Rogers is a freelance writer