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marcus gee

If there is anybody left in Toronto who still thinks the city can solve its money troubles simply by stopping the gravy train, the results of the city's core service review should disabuse them. The review of city public works programs by KPMG consultants gave Toronto its first good look at what it will take to get city finances in line and it has nothing to do with cutting back on hired chipmunk suits, overpriced plant waterers or any of the other fluff that Rob Ford went on about during last year's election campaign.

What we are facing instead is the prospect of cuts on things as practical as grass cutting, snow shovelling and recyclables collection. Even fluoridation of the water supply is being flagged as potentially dispensable.

This is not what Mr. Ford advertised during his run for the mayor's office. Back then, he said explicitly that there would be no cuts to services when he tackled the city budget. Instead, he would rein in overspending city councillors, reduce staff through attrition (not layoffs) and cut all that glaring waste.

But after weeks of intense study of city public-works operations, one of the world's top consultancies failed to identify a single spoonful of gravy. The easy and obvious cuts that Mr. Ford talked about are simply not to be had. The report presents city council with a menu of tough choices.

It could cut back on street sweeping and lower its snow-clearing standards - for example, by halting the practice of clearing those plowing windrows that block your driveway. But affected residents would surely complain about that.

It could cancel the Toxic Taxi, which picks up hazardous waste from homes, and ask residents to deliver wastes to drop-off sites on their own. But that might mean more people would simply pour that leftover can of paint down the drain.

Fluoridation? Some cities don't add fluoride to the water supply, but taking it out would mean more kids with rotten teeth. City council just had a debate about fluoridation, listened to a lineup of experts and decided to keep it.

Given how far Mr. Ford has strayed from his election guarantees, it is tempting to dismiss the core service review as an illegitimate waste of time. Politicians, after all, should be discouraged from making fanciful budget promises - sure we can cut taxes without cutting services - a trick that parties at all levels are trying these days.

In fact, the review is a useful and valuable exercise, Mr. Ford notwithstanding. Every organization, private and public, needs to take a hard look every now and then at the things it does and how it does them. Should we really be in that line of work? If so, can we do it better?

Toronto is doing just that. It is scrutinizing staffing levels in all departments. It is looking at user-fee rates (some may rise). It is looking at all of its real-estate holdings, with the eye to selling some. No stone will remain unturned as KPMG sorts through 150 services to determine what is really vital and what is discretionary, sorting the must-have from the nice-to-have.

Is it really necessary, for example, for Toronto to stick with its aim of diverting 70 per cent of its waste from landfill, a much more aggressive target than most cities and one that is going to cost a great deal considering the challenges of collecting recyclables from apartment buildings?

Over the next few weeks, city committees, then city council, will plow through the consultants' recommendations, taking into account input from the 13,000 residents who took part in a public consultation. City Manager Joe Pennachetti says it's one of the most exhaustive reviews of services any recent government has undertaken and that Toronto should have done it a decade ago.

No, it's not what the mayor promised. But it's not a bad thing, either.