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Budget chief Mike Del Grande. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Budget chief Mike Del Grande. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail/Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Toronto budget chief says land transfer tax should stay for now Add to ...

Mike Del Grande has an influential new friend.

And he could use one. As the city councillor charged with erasing the city's vexing budget deficit, he doesn't deliver the kind of news that endears him to people.

After a budget committee meeting Tuesday, he presented his buddy to the media, a plastic pink pig whose rattling pennies will likely grate on the eardrums of city bureaucrats for months to come. "I'm going to take this guy with me to remind people," he said with a shake, "that when we add things here at council it costs money."

And what's the little friend telling him? Defy the mayor's promise to abolish the land transfer tax.

During the mayoral campaign, Rob Ford pledged to cut the tax, which generates around $300-million a year for the city. His budget chief is now advising against it.

"I personally don't think it's practical this year, that's my best recommendation to the administration," Mr. Del Grande said. "The mayor has said he would like to see that tax removed. Although a promise may be made in good faith, it's a challenge to keep it not knowing exactly what you're faced with.

What other advice does the little piggy have? Press everyone at City Hall to keep spreadsheets of decisions that will affect the city's bottom-line and keep repeating the projected deficit $774-million like a mantra - even in the face of evidence it could be smaller.

"These people, I've said over and over again, a lot of councillors as well as people in Toronto still do not get it," he said of those who suggest that the city's financial position isn't as dire as he has stated. "We've gotten ourselves into trouble. Somebody has to fix it. I'm prepared to fix it."

But there does seem to be fluidity in the deficit figure. At budget committee, staff presented details of a $367-million operating surplus from 2010, $275-million of which is already spoken for in the 2011 budget. That leaves $92-million of unanticipated surplus cash that could be used to shrink Mr. Del Grande's $774-million demon.

"That 774 figure is exaggerated and he's using that gross exaggeration as a reason to talk about cutting services we don't need to cut," said Councillor Gord Perks, whose back-of-the-napkin math tells him that a 3-per-cent property tax increase, a TTC fare increase and the kind of modest service cuts made throughout the era of former mayor David Miller could combine to close the city budget gap to zero.

"What the hell do we need a core service review for?" Mr. Perks said. "The only reason they would throw anything major overboard at this point would be politically motivated, not financially motivated."

In Mr. Perks' estimation, the deficit is closer to $450-million when the next two years worth of operating surpluses are factored in.

"That's why he's not on the budget committee and I am," Mr. Del Grande shot back.

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