John Tory is promising no services will be cut if he is elected, saying he would keep tax increases at or below the rate of inflation by finding efficiencies and wringing more money for Toronto out of the federal and provincial governments.
The promise – which echoes Mayor Rob Ford's pledge four years ago when he became mayor to "stop the gravy train" – came on Tuesday during a debate with rival Olivia Chow at the Canadian Club.
Mr. Tory, who is leading in opinion polls with less than two weeks until the Oct. 27 vote, is focusing his campaign on his SmartTrack rail plan for public transit, and has been criticized by Ms. Chow for not releasing a detailed platform.
"No services will be cut," Mr. Tory declared after Ms. Chow challenged him to "come clean" on his campaign platform.
The other main candidate, Doug Ford, who entered in place of his ailing brother, declined an invitation to take part in the lunchtime event at a downtown hotel, opting to canvass instead.
After the debate, Mr. Tory went further with reporters, saying he could enhance services while keeping taxes in check because efficiencies can still be found at city hall, such as contracting out curbside garbage collection east of Yonge Street, doing away with "layers of management," and ending cost overruns on major capital projects such as the renovation of Union Station.
"I'm telling voters that the service levels will improve, not decrease, on my watch," he said.
Asked why he believes he could meet that goal when Mr. Ford could not, Mr. Tory said Toronto's troubled leader was unable to deliver in part because he could not get badly needed funding from other levels of government.
"Rob Ford didn't see the job through in terms of finding efficiencies of the kind I am talking about," Mr. Tory said. "The massive cost overruns – those happened on his watch. And I don't think he did a good job of going to the other governments and convincing and persuading them that they have to invest more in the country's largest city."
Once elected, Mr. Tory said he would begin an "absolutely unrelenting campaign of persuasion" in Ottawa and at Queen's Park for investments in transit, housing and infrastructure, money he said would allow him to improve services.
Mr. Tory has received endorsements from provincial MPPs and cabinet ministers, and this weekend picked up one from federal Transportation Minister Lisa Raitt, who was mum when asked if her support would translate into Ottawa's support for his SmartTrack plan. Mr. Tory is far from the first to make a pitch for more funding for Canada's biggest city and his appeal comes as the province is struggling to meet ambitious debt targets with its own austerity measures and possible asset sales.
Asked about the pledge, Ms. Chow predicted a similar outcome as with the current mayor.
"It's funny. That's what Mr. Rob Ford said four years ago – 'Ah, don't worry. We'll find the gravy, but we won't cut service,'" she said.
Instead, she said transit service levels were cut, and user fees and TTC fares went up.