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Toronto to ask for help with ice storm costs

Pedestrians pass a fallen tree in Toronto on Dec. 21, 2013 after a devastating ice storm.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

The City of Toronto says it will need tens of millions of dollars in aid from the provincial and federal governments to help with the cleanup of December's ice storm, even after it drains its emergency funds.

City Manager Joe Pennachetti said Thursday that Toronto has about $30-million set aside in its extreme weather reserves. The city puts the cost of responding to and cleaning up after the emergency that left 300,000 Toronto households without power at $106-million. Of that, $13-million are costs to Toronto Hydro, with the city on the hook for the remaining $93-million.

Once weather reserves are tapped, that still leaves a shortfall of more than $60-million with no clear source of funding.

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"It's huge. We can't afford it," Mr. Pennachetti said in an interview, noting cost estimates could rise further. The price also does not include repairs to private property.

Toronto city council will hold a special meeting Friday to discuss the city's response to the storm and to ask the province and the federal government for help, a request Mr. Pennachetti said the city will make in co-ordination with other area municipalities hit hard by the storm. In all, he estimated the ice – and the tangle of broken branches, blocked roads and downed power lines it left behind – inflicted about $250-million in damages to municipalities.

In order to qualify for the Ontario Disaster Relief Assistance Program, council will debate asking the Minister of Municipal Affairs and Housing to declare the city a "disaster area." If the motion passes, the ministry "will work with the city to review its eligibility," a provincial spokesman said.

A spokeswoman for Public Safety Canada said any request for assistance from the federal government would be made through the province.

City staff say relief funds traditionally have gone to smaller municipalities that are less able to address emergency situation, but note that 2013 was an especially hard weather year for the city. When the damage from July flooding is added to the December storm, the total is more than $171-million.

Mr. Pennachetti cited the $178-million in federal and provincial aid to municipalities in Eastern Ontario following the 1998 ice storm.

Without federal and provincial aid, he predicted the city would have to increase its borrowing and costs could eventually translate into a 2- to 3-per-cent tax increase. He plans to lay out options for long-term funding to the the city's executive committee later this month.

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Mr. Pennachetti said the city must do more to prepare for future extreme weather events, ranking it as the city's third funding priority after transit and housing, up from about tenth place.

Mayor Rob Ford – who boasted earlier this week that he could take $50-million out of the city's budget "easy," to lower a proposed 2014 tax increase – said Thursday the city doesn't have the money to pay for the damage from the ice storm and July flooding.

"Mother Nature hit this city very, very hard," the mayor said. "We need some provincial and federal help. We cannot put this on the backs of the taxpayers."

The immediate cleanup will cost approximately $25-million and is expected to take eight weeks. Another $50-million will be needed to repair the city's damaged tree canopy and remove hazardous limbs, staff estimate.

Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, chair of the city's public works committee, said Toronto used both city crews and private contractors in the immediate aftermath of the storm, and suspects there will be "significant overtime costs" as a result. "We were in a crisis situation," he said. "We needed all hands on deck."

There are now 131 crews working throughout the city with chippers and chainsaws to clear debris – 16 from the city's forestry staff, 13 from other municipalities, and 59 private contractors, he said. As well, there are 43 private crews collecting debris and taking it to city sites.

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With files from Ann Hui, Adrian Morrow and Josh Wingrove

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