Toronto neighbourhoods won’t lose any fire trucks or stations right away, hungry schoolchildren will eat, and the city will subsidize more childcare thanks to a total of $12 million in add-ons approved by Toronto Council for its 2013 operating and capital budgets.
Council approved the changes to the budget presented by Mayor Rob Ford at the end of a day-and-a-half debate this week, while hundreds of firefighters wearing matching red T-shirts looked on.
The firefighters were there to try and have a decision to reverse a budget plan to take five fire trucks out of service, shut a fire station on Runnymede, and cut 104 firefighter positions.
The cuts were reversed by degree.
Last week, Mayor Ford moved a motion to restore 20 firefighters; on Tuesday, Toronto-Danforth Councillor Paula Fletcher put forward a motion to restore another 63 positions and keep all the trucks on the road.
Council finally settled on a compromise, to add $3.1 million to the fire budget, which would pay for the trucks and firefighters until July, when council was able to consider a number of reports from Toronto Fire and determine whether cuts were warranted.
That compromise was the only one of the motions that Mayor Ford supported.
Also added to the budget was $1.163 million to student nutrition programs; $3.8 million to increase child care subsidies by 264 spaces; $6.8 million to replenish the Social Housing Stabilization Reserve fund; $500,000 for improvements to the Scarborough Civic Centre (including $50,000 for the Scarborough Walk of Fame); and the hiring of five additional building inspectors.
Mayor Ford called the budget vote a victory, saying it was “truly an historical day at city hall.”
“This budget does some things that we have never done before,” he said, of the $9.4 billion budget.
“It features improved services, lower debt, affordable taxes and sustainable spending. I say sustainable spending because for the first time ever this budget does not rely on any prior year surplus. That’s amazing. They said it couldn’t be done but we are proving people wrong.”
Ford told reporters that while he gave up ground on the budget, moving some compromises, voting for others and losing on a large number — it could have been worse.
“It could have been $50 million more,” he said. “We fended them off — they’re like piranhas. You’re going to get bit a few times, but you’re in there and it could have been a lot worse.”
Ford’s enthusiasm wasn’t shared by many of his allies, though.
Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday said that council had allowed itself to be “strong-armed” by the firefighters’ association, who hired lobbyists and engaged in a major campaign to reverse the cuts.
“What bothered me the most was the firefighter situation,” he said. “I just wonder what kind of message it sends to our senior staff and management to undermine that in this way.”
And budget chief Mike Del Grande was dismayed with many of the motions — including one, that asked for a report on making budget meetings more transparent.
Prior to council, he had said repeatedly that he would no longer be budget chief if council tried to alter the budget presented by executive committee.
On Wednesday, Jan. 16, Del Grande wouldn’t say whether he’d make good on the promise — but in his speech, he expressed his disappointment with council.
“What concerns me most is the motion questioning the transparency of the budget process which I take as a personal vilification,” he said.
“There has been no other time where every single budget committee meeting has been held in the open. I didn’t have the luxury of my predecessor that had 104 private meetings. We’ve had more public meetings, more meetings, more briefing notes. To make the charge that the process is not transparent goes beyond the pale for me. I’m disappointed.”
Others were pleased with the results, though.
Ed Kennedy, President of the Toronto Profiessional Firefighters Assocation, called the move “a positive step.”
“You know with regard to the change of opinion they now understood it was factual, not fear mongering,” he said. “We’re not out there to fearmonger we’re out there to get the facts to the public.”
Fletcher, who moved the original motion, said the compromise was a good one.
“The whole thing was that we were taking trucks out of stations in what was considered a not-well-planned out way,” she said. “We have the fire underwriters’ survey, we have the master plan that needs updating. In six months we’ll have all these reports and we’ll see what it looks like.”