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budget cuts

Budget chief Mike Del Grande is photographed during the City of Toronto budget meeting on Feb. 10, 2011.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Winterlicious, the annual event that offers fixed-cost menus to budget-conscious diners as a way to tempt them out on a cold night, is the latest initiative to be lined up in the cost-cutting crosshairs at city hall.

Michael Thompson, head of the city's economic development committee, said Tuesday it's time the city consider "graduating" mature programs that can stand on their own, including Winterlicious, along with some established business improvement areas.

Toronto is in the midst of a massive service review, a money-saving exercise designed to find the gravy Mayor Rob Ford pledged he'd stop flowing during the election campaign. Estimates for next year's budget show the city short by about $774-million and Mr. Ford has said he will not raise taxes by more than 3 per cent.

As part of its hunt for savings, the city has hired consultants to look at more than 150 services it provides and present options for what could go. The recommendations are being rolled out over two weeks and Tuesday the economic development committee got its chance to consider cost-saving options.

After hearing from members of the film industry, local business groups and labour, councillors took much the same action as their colleagues the day before on public works, leaving all the options on the table for executive committee to make the call.

The option of cutting support for Winterlicious was added by Councillor Thompson, along with other requests. Mr. Thompson did not have a dollar figure for Winterlicious's cost.

A proposal to find "alternate sources of funding" to cover the city's costs for a Christmas gift program for needy children was defeated, leaving the option of scrapping it entirely on the table. The program, started in the 1950s, uses city resources to match gifts collected by outside groups such as media organizations and firefighters with families in need and costs the city about $100,000 to support, Mr. Thompson said.

Councillor Mary Fragedakis, one of the committee members who voted to send all options on to the executive committee - chaired by the mayor and filled with his supporters - said all cuts should be considered together.

"They can decide if they want to cut Christmas," she said.

City budget chief Mike Del Grande expressed frustration at the pattern emerging on Day 2 of the committee meetings, saying he was expecting some guidance from committee members on the proposed cuts.

"In my mind the process was that the special committees would make recommendations whether they were positive or negative," he said. "Better they make the recommendations than myself and the city manager who will sit down. We are going to have to put a package together."

Others called on Mr. Ford to say where he stands on the options presented by consultants, everything from reducing street cleaning to eliminating licenses for cats and dogs.

It's time for the mayor's supporters to "beg him to come out of his hiding hole," said Councillor Adam Vaughan.

Council will hold a special meeting in September to consider the budget cuts.