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Toronto’s budget chief eyes cost savings ahead of police meet

Toronto City Councillor and Budget Chair Mike Del Grande spoke during a scrum outside Toronto City Hall Committee Room 1, where city budget hearings are taking place in Toronto on January 09, 2012.

Deborah Baic/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

The head of Toronto's budget committee says he is digging deep in his hunt for cost savings as he starts discussions on 2013 targets, beginning with police services this week.

Councillor Mike Del Grande will sit down with the Toronto Police Service board on Wednesday to lay out the city's "assumptions and expectations" for 2013 – the first sign of how Mayor Rob Ford's promise of a modest tax hike will translate to individual budgets.

Policing accounts for the biggest slice of the city's spending and gained new attention this summer after a string of shootings. Mr. Ford called for an increased police presence and asked for extra money from the province, a request that was met with a commitment of permanent funding for the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS).

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At the same time, Toronto's cost-cutting mayor has pledged to hold property tax increases to 1.75 per cent next year, followed by a two-year freeze.

Mr. Ford last year asked all city departments, agencies and commissions for a budget cut of 10 per cent, but after much debate, the police board approved a 0.6 per cent increase to its $933-million budget.

Mr. Del Grande would not provide specific spending targets for 2013, but said he believes some areas can still be cut. "There are hidden nuts," he said.

"I am trying to balance what the mayor would like, what council would like and what I would like."

Mr. Ford last month outlined his priorities in a guidance letter delivered to the city manager and members of his executive and budget committees.

It asked staff to prepare a three-year budget plan that holds the 2013 residential property tax increase at 1.75 per cent and caps the business-rate increase at 0.58 per cent – one-third the residential rate hike, in keeping with city policy.

City finance staff do not have to follow the mayor's instructions, which are advice, not orders.

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Given defeats this spring on the council floor for the mayor, it also is not a sure bet that his wishes will get the blessing of council.

Mr. Del Grande said his own priorities are to help the business community and to "squirrel away" some money to pay for new streetcars ordered under the previous administration.

"At the end of the day, it is going to take a lot of resolve," he said of the need for the city to balance its spending with its revenue.

"The problem is that council does not have the stomach to follow certain things through."

Mr. Del Grande said he is looking at the "nitty-gritty" of departments' budgets, including police, as he prepares to lead his third budget debate.

"The first budget was rush through, the second was pain through, this one is a more thorough through," he said.

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