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‘This is what democracy is all about,’ Ford says after marathon meeting

A marathon session of the executive committee wrapped up at city hall around 5:30 a.m. Tuesday morning, about 20 hours after it began.

Of the 361 people who had signed up to speak, 205 ended up sitting in front of the microphone to voice an opinion about a report issued by City Manager Joe Pennachetti on how to solve the city’s cash problem.

Presentations by members of the public wrapped up around 3 a.m.

Mayor Rob Ford says he must deal with a $774-million shortfall in the 2012 operating budget, but that figure has been disputed. Pennachetti suggested Monday that shortfall is likely between $500 million and $600 million.

Last week, Pennachetti released a list of recommendations and items that should be considered for recommendation, based on a core services review released by city consultant KPMG earlier this summer. He said his suggestions could save the city $100 million in 2012.

The mayor backed away from one of the most controversial recommendations — closing public library branches — at the beginning of the meeting Monday. In his opening remarks, he said he doesn’t plan to close libraries, but said reducing operating hours should be considered to save money.

He also said subsidized childcare spaces will not be cut. The committee voted to continue to push the provincial and federal governments for more funds to expand affordable childcare spaces.

Ford has also said any property tax increase included in the budget will be limited to no more than 2.5 per cent.

“I’m relieved that we’re not looking at a huge property tax increase that people just don’t want,” Coun. Giorgio Mammoliti said after the session.

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The committee backed recommendations to close museums with the lowest attendance, cut neighbourhood improvement programs and has started the ball rolling when it comes to selling off city-run landmarks, including the Toronto Zoo and three theatres. The committee recommended zoos and farms in parks not be closed if another operator doesn’t step forward.

The committee also backed a proposal to find community partners by spring 2012 to operate Riverdale Farm.

Decisions on many other recommendations were deferred for further study.

See a list of the committee’s decisions below.

The executive committee’s recommendations now go up for debate at a special session of city council on Sept. 26.

Coun. Adam Vaughan said whatever the decision, city services will never be the same.

“The only thing we know about this whole process is that they’re afraid to cut, but that they will cut. And the one thing we do know for absolutely sure is that every city service will be worse under Rob Ford,” he said.

Many of the deputants spoke out against the city manager’s budget-trimming proposals, including phasing-out about 2,000 subsidized childcare spaces, selling city-run long-term care facilities, merging Toronto Fire and EMS, reducing library hours and eliminating a dental health program for the poor. Others also used their time to criticize a recent decision by the TTC to reduce service on dozens of routes during rush hour.

Ford has asked all city departments to reduce spending by 10 per cent.

“We may not agree on everything, but this is what democracy is all about,” Ford said in his closing remarks, around 5:15 a.m.

“I take full responsibility for the outcome of this process. Don’t blame staff, you can blame me. I understand some people are very upset at me … but this should’ve been done 14 years ago, folks, in 1997.”

Ford encouraged Torontonians of all political stripes to get involved in the provincial election. He’s met with all of the party leaders.

“The federal government and the provincial government, no matter who’s in power, we are getting the short end of the stick,” Ford said. “But that doesn’t give us an excuse to pass the buck.”

Stephen Braun, who played football at Newtonbrook Secondary School where Ford coached, spoke in front of the committee just after 11:30 p.m. and had some harsh words for his former coach.

“His strategy for our offence line was go low, and go for the knees. I see nothing has changed,” Braun said before criticizing the TTC’s decision to reduce service levels during rush hour.

“Mr. Mayor, you’re running this city like you coached football, like a schoolyard bully.”

After listening to 13 hours of presentations from the public, city budget chief Mike Del Grande walked out of the meeting when a deputant sat down at the microphone dressed as Santa Claus. He was gone for more than two hours.

The woman dressed as Santa appeared before the committee to speak out against the recommendation to transfer responsibility of the Christmas Bureau — a program that delivers gifts to tens of thousands of needy children and their families — to an external agency.

The committee voted to hand off responsibility of that program.

Coun. Michael Thompson said after listening to hundreds of members of the public, he’s sure the city is on the right track when it comes to reducing spending.

“Am I doing the right thing? And can I go to sleep at night with respect to my decision? I’m pleased to say the answer that I’ve come up with, Mr. Mayor, is yes,” he said during closing remarks.

“I don’t like these proposed cuts. In fact, I’m extremely angry that it’s come to this, but I believe that the future of our city depends on us getting our books balanced.”

On a lighter note, Mammoliti turns 50 on Tuesday, and Ford led the committee room in a rather tired version of Happy Birthday.

Strong public reaction to the KPMG report prompted a marathon session of the executive committee back in July, when 169 people gave deputations.

Highlights of the executive committee’s decisions:

-call on provincial and federal governments to expand affordable childcare spaces in Toronto;
-close museums with lowest attendance;
– issue request for expression of interest to operate the Park, Forestry and Recreation’s zoos and farms, with the exception of the Riverdale Farm;
– authorize general manager to negotiate the transfer of the operation of Black Creek urban farm from the City of Toronto to the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority;
– transfer operational and financial responsibility for the activities of the Christmas Bureau to an appropriate external agency or group;
– eliminate the requirement for paid duty police officers at construction sites where possible;
-move forward on selling off Exhibition Place, Toronto Centre for the Arts, the Hummingbird Centre for the Performing Arts (the Sony Centre), and the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts;
– issue request for expression of interest to determine options for sale, lease, operation or other arrangement in respect of the Toronto Zoo, and,
-have non-profit organization take control of Heritage Toronto.

Issues deferred for further consideration:

-phasing-out subsidized childcare spaces;
-selling off city-run long-term care facilities;
-merging Toronto Fire and EMS;
-reducing new affordable housing development;
-eliminating pickup of owner-surrendered animals;
-eliminating Community Environment Days;
-eliminating four free garbage tags program;
-eliminating the Hardship Fund;
-reducing size of Toronto Police force;
– request the chief planner to review options to cover the city’s administrative costs for the Public Art Program, and report to the Planning and Growth Management Committee;
– request the City Manager to undertake a study of community infrastructure provided through the City’s libraries, community centres, community hubs, related agencies;
-reducing snow clearing and grass cutting standard levels;
– eliminate the current windrow clearing program, and request general manager of Transportation Services to implement a windrow, and sidewalk snow shovelling program for seniors and people with disabilities, operated by a third party, and
– support the Riverdale Farm Coalition proposal to engage the community in developing a new partnership and report to council in the spring of 2012.