Operating budget goes up by over $20 million as councillors undo planned service reductions
It took Toronto city council about an hour to reverse over $20 million in proposed service cuts that would have seen school pool programming eliminated, library branch hours shortened and homeless shelters closed.
Though council had secured three days for debate on what was expected to be a contentious vote, its 45 members wrapped up the 2012 operating and capital budgets in just a day on Jan. 17.
Council kicked off the budget by approving without debate a property tax hike of 2.5 percent, one of Mayor Rob Ford’s key sticking points at budget’s launch.
But what many centrist and left-leaning councillors didn’t stick to was a directive from city staff and the mayor’s allies to cut services and devote the entire operating surplus of $154 million to TTC capital projects.
One omnibus motion from Eglinton-Lawrence councillor Josh Colle, put forth a series of subset motions to restore funding to threatened city services and programs, including the school-based childcare rent subsidy, Community Partnership and Investment Program grants, priority centre youth programs, ice rinks and pools, mechanical leaf collection and three city shelters.
The motion, approved with a close vote of 21–23, recommended using $15 million from the operating surplus.
Councillor Raymond Cho was also successful in restoring about $3.8 million in funding to the Toronto Public Library in an effort to further stave off controversial cuts.
Though Don Valley West councillor John Parker rejoiced at the approval by his council colleagues for new capital funding to build a long-awaited second rink pad for Leaside Memorial Gardens, he also expressed dismay regarding the budget as a whole, saying his colleagues did not take fiscally prudent steps this time around.
“It means we haven’t turned the corner and we haven’t learned our lesson as a council,” he said in an interview. “We had our opportunity to put the city on a stable footing, and to have a budget that was sustainable on into the future, but council has chosen to stay with the practice of previous years and to finance operating expenses out of savings.”
Parkdale-High Park rep Gord Perks, meanwhile, hailed the budget as a victory, tweeting out to constituents after it passed that a variety of local services were saved: namely, hours at Parkdale and High Park library branches, and youth programs at Masaryk-Cowan Community Recreation Centre.
“The critical services that we depend on for a good quality of life in Ward 14 were saved today and that’s because Torontonians spoke out loud and clear,” Perks said in an interview in council chambers.
Saying it was council’s time to shine with regards to the budget process, Toronto-Danforth rep Paula Fletcher expressed glee that the aquatics programming at Frankland Community Centre was no longer on the chopping block. A group called Save Frankland pool had put forth a concerted effort to stop the pool programming cut, holding rallies and attending budget consultations. Council listened, Fletcher said.
“People are very happy, they kept up the pressure, they came to city hall, they organized swimmers and really showed how important pools are to our community,” she said.
Though defeated on several key items, Mayor Ford also hailed “the reasonable and responsible budget” as a victory, one that brought expenses more in line with city revenue by reducing the reliance on one-time revenues from $346 million to $102 million.
“Council’s approval of the budget reflects what we were elected to do: fix the state of city finances and hold the line on property taxes, hold the line on the debt and ensure that we make every tax dollar count by providing the best services we can,” he said in a written statement.
The city-issued statement noted the 2012 operating was balanced through a combination of $271 million in budget reductions and efficiencies, $56 million in service level adjustments and $327 million in increased revenue.
Though proceedings were by and large congenial in council chambers, it was not the case outside city hall, where hundreds of protesters rallied in a last-ditch effort to stop service cuts. According to reports, police arrested four people, but the crowd dispersed once council wrapped up the budget.
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