Budget Debate Continues at City Hall
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Budget Debate Continues at City Hall

In case you couldn't track every riveting minute, a quick recap of city council's budget cut debate, which began yesterday and will continue throughout today.

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Yesterday morning began, as city council meetings always do, quietly enough. First everyone milling about with coffee, then the singing of “O Canada,” followed by presentations of petitions and some procedural matters.

And then things got a bit tense. Rob Ford took the floor to defend his approach to budgetary matters, sounding the gravy alarms and vowing to stay the course on cuts. One after another, councillors rose to question him about the need for such aggressive measures; the wisdom of proceeding with service cuts before anyone know how much could be saved through efficiencies (that report is coming later this year); and the perils of cutting so much that Toronto no longer felt like a vibrant city. It was the most sustained public debate they had engaged in about the budget, and by far the most Ford had spoken on the subject—an hour-and-a-half of questioning, which in Ford time is very long indeed. This was followed by an afternoon of councillors questioning City staff about various of the proposals, and then moving various amendments and counter-proposals for further debate.

In case you missed the blow-by-blow (you can stream meetings online via Rogers), here are the key highlights…

Administration talking points: We have a $774 million gap between what we can afford to spend and the programs we’re running right now. We need to cut, lest residents be faced with a 35 per cent property tax increase. (This despite the fact that City manager Joe Pennachetti conceded, during last week’s marathon Executive Committee meeting, that it was maybe $500 or $600 million; and reports that show that revenues are likely to be significantly higher than predicted in several areas—including the release of a report yesterday showing that so far this year Land Transfer Tax revenues are 32 per cent higher than budgeted.)

Opposition talking points: We don’t have enough information to take proper decisions right now, and we’re going about this backwards. Why are we debating cuts to services when we don’t yet know how much we’ll save in efficiences, and haven’t accounted for some revenues?

Administration curveball: Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday (Ward 3, Etobicoke Centre) came out in favour of toll roads. Specifically, he moved a motion to have City staff explore the feasibility of expanding the Don Valley Parkway by widening the road and adding a lane in each direction. These lanes would operate as toll roads, and accomodate public transit buses. Yes, that’s right: the conservative deputy mayor of our conservative administration thinks we should be considering road tolls (albeit on a road that doesn’t exist).

Opposition curveball: De-amalgamation. Paula Fletcher (Ward 30, Toronto-Danforth) suggested during debate that Toronto just break up with itself, and reverse the amalgamation of the former municipalities into what we now know as the City of Toronto. The mayor’s response? “If it didn’t cost us a dime, I think everybody would agree, let’s go back.” (The audacity of the mayor saying he would happily do away with five-sixths of the city he governs drew surprisingly little attention. It is rather bold of him to admit his disinterest in so many of us so freely.)

The debate is still ongoing: council broke at 8 p.m. last night and will reconvene at 9:30 a.m. today to continue discussing the service cuts (as well as user fees and staff layoffs—a.k.a. the “voluntary separation plan”). Voting on various amendements and proposals will commence no sooner than 2:30 p.m. (it may be later, depending on how long the debate lasts).