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Toronto Tory set to tweak budget to avoid spending showdown

Toronto mayor John Tory speaks on the city of Toronto budget during a press conference on Jan 29 2015.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A compromise is in the works to temper some of the last-minute cuts proposed for Toronto's budget as Mayor John Tory looks to avoid a showdown over his spending plan at council.

Toronto council will vote early next month on the 2015 budget, a major milestone for the city's new mayor who came to office with a pledge to end the divisive atmosphere that characterized the last term of council.

That goal of harmony is being tested by a number of proposals introduced at the end of the final meeting of the budget committee that would deny a handful of staffing requests from planning and the city's ombudsman and integrity commissioner.

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When Mr. Tory's executive committee meets Monday to debate the budget, changes are expected so that it will get broader support at council.

Mr. Tory said on Friday the measures at issue are "relatively small" compared with the divisions on council and public reaction to budgets during the past term of council. He is optimistic, he said, a solution that "makes sense" can be found before the budget reaches council.

Indeed, there has been little pushback from councillors or the public to the most unconventional aspect of the budget – an unprecedented plan to borrow funds from the city's capital reserves to balance the books.

Instead, discussion is centred on two motions put forward by Councillor Michelle Berardinetti at the final budget meeting, which passed on a split 4-2 vote. The changes had the support of budget chair Gary Crawford and would hold the line on staffing in three areas, denying eight new positions for the planning department dedicated to area plans and heritage studies, six new staff for the city's ombudsman and two new staff for the integrity commissioner.

Since the meeting, a group of city councillors has been pushing to have the cuts reversed, even digging out a five-year old transcript of the mayor's call-in radio show to bolster their case. The result is that a compromise is expected to be presented to the executive committee on Monday. The compromise is expected to restore some of the staff positions, but on a contract basis, one source said.

Ms. Berardinetti said the changes would have the support of the budget committee with the understanding that there will be a review in the 2016 budget of the requests.

"In speaking with a few members of the executive, there is a feeling that we need to compromise in order to have a satisfactory outcome on the floor of council," she said.

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Councillor Shelley Carroll, one of two members of the budget committee to vote against the cuts, said there should have been more discussion before they were introduced.

Councillor Mike Layton, the other No vote at budget committee, points to a 2010 interview by Mr. Tory when he had city ombudsman Fiona Crean on his radio show, to support the case for expanding the her office. The segment, he said, is like a "love letter" to the ombudsman post.

In a transcript of a Jan. 21 show – posted on the website of Ontario Ombudsman André Marin – Mr. Tory gives Ms. Crean the following introduction: "We need her to have a proper budget so that she can look into these kinds of things and many more," the transcript reads, with Mr. Tory later adding, "She is your best friend."

On Friday, Mr. Tory said staff will be working over the weekend and after Monday's executive meeting to make sure the staffing requests are given a "thoughtful, businesslike assessment."

"If there is work to be done and if there is a task to be performed that's important then we have to make sure the resources are in place, either through existing or future planned resources," he said. "I think we will come to a resolution by the time of the city council meeting for sure that will make sure that happens."

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