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Toronto Toronto Mayor John Tory backs down on contracting out garbage

A long row of garbage bins lines the sidewalk outside homes on Beverley Street in downtown Toronto on May 13, 2014.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Toronto Mayor John Tory was forced to pull back his plan to put garbage collection in much of Toronto's east end up for competitive bids in the face of a potentially embarrassing defeat at city council on Tuesday.

After moving to defer consideration of his plan, Mr. Tory told councillors the retreat was to allow city bureaucrats time to gather more information for a possible future decision, while avoiding what he warned would be a "divisive" debate at city hall.

"This has become one of the most contentious issues that this council has faced," Mr. Tory said. "Contentious issues aren't the problem. We live here on the basis of honest divisions that exist. But … the report [on the garbage plan] … has led to probably more questions than there are answers."

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It is another blow to a mayor still reeling from Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne's move last week to scupper his plan for road tolls on the Gardiner Expressway and Don Valley Parkway.

In recent weeks, the mayor has been championing a plan to subject residential trash collection in Scarborough to a process called "managed competition," which would have allowed the city's existing unionized workforce and private-sector waste companies to compete on bidding. Mr. Tory even staged a photo-op in an Etobicoke couple's driveway, helping them take out their garbage while selling his plan.

Mr. Tory and his right-leaning council allies have long said they were confident using the private sector could produce millions in savings, and that the only way to find out how much could be saved was to solicit bids in the open market. Such a move also would have allowed the mayor to take a step toward fulfilling a campaign promise to continue contracting out the city's garbage collection east of Yonge Street.

But left-leaning councillors and the union that represents the city's garbage workers, the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 416, decried the plan, pointing to a 2015 city report that showed the city's own waste workers were as cheap or cheaper than the private contractors now collecting residential waste on the city's west side.

The city's own efficiency in collecting garbage in the east end has improved in the wake of that outsourcing and after recent concessions by the union in collective bargaining. Some councillors have also questioned why better recycling rates were found in parts of the city served by public-sector workers.

In addition, several centrist or right-leaning councillors close to the mayor – and several in Scarborough – said publicly they did not support the mayor's move or demanded more data to compare city workers and contractors.

Opponents to Mr. Tory's plan claimed they had enough votes to kill the idea on Tuesday, while others said any vote would have been extremely tight.

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On Tuesday morning, with several dozen union members watching in the chamber, Mr. Tory moved to send the idea back to the city's solid-waste managers. The motion asks them to report back to council's public-works committee on new talks with CUPE on improving garbage service, and on new information council could use to compare the costs of public and private-sector workers.

The mayor's motion, which passed 40-4, also calls for the city to purchase new garbage trucks required for the city to keep Scarborough collection in-house for now.

Union officials, who launched a public-relations campaign to fight a move they warned would see union jobs replaced with lower-paid private-sector positions, celebrated the vote as a win.

"It's about good, decent jobs," said Councillor Joe Cressy, a left-leaning opponent of contracting out. "We know that a strong economy is a high-wage economy. And Toronto proudly today reinforced our commitment to public delivery for service quality, for service excellence and to support good, decent work."

Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong, who spearheaded the move to switch a large area west of Yonge street to private collection under mayor Rob Ford in 2011, insisted the idea was still alive and that the purchase of new trucks did not foreclose on contracting out. But he agreed that council needs more information to make its decision.

"There are others who are opposed to this, and they choose big unions over the taxpayers," Mr. Minnan-Wong said. "I, quite frankly, want to avoid a stinky, smelly garbage strike and get the best deal for the taxpayers of the City of Toronto."

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