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2011 Year in Review: A controversial year of cutting ‘gravy’ at city hall

As far as political catch-phrases go, “gravy train” may be one of the most-widely quoted slogans to ever come out of Toronto City Hall.

And so-called gravy was front and centre all year long as Mayor Rob Ford began the controversial task of living up to his campaign promises from 2010 and began wide-ranging cuts within the municipal government.

“It was a rather unique year simply because it marked a reversal in direction from a previous administration,” budget committee member Frank Di Giorgio said.

Longtime city councillor Di Giorgio said former mayor David Miller worked to make necessary investments in the city to improve infrastructure and service levels, but with no secure financing from the federal and provincial governments that strategy is no longer affordable.

The financial pinch forced Miller to implement the land transfer tax — a levy Di Giorgio is recommending the city keep in place.

Controversial suggestions on how to eliminate wasteful spending in all areas sparked fierce debate in 2011. Those cost-cutting recommendations inspired many residents to voice opinions at city hall and provided ample material for Ford’s critics, who questioned whether city services and programs, TTC service reductions and municipal jobs are, in fact, “gravy” — and whether Ford is adhering to his other well-known slogan “respect for taxpayers.”

“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,” the mayor’s most-vocal critic, Coun. Adam Vaughan, said after a marathon public deputation session in September.

Ford sets the stage for cuts

Ford rode to victory in 2010 on a vow to correct what he insists is the city’s spending problem, but he also promised to protect city services while cutting taxes. He axed the vehicle registration tax, which brought in $64 million a year but was, according to Di Giorgio “hugely unpopular.” Ford insists he still plans to turf the land transfer tax, which was expected to generate about $300 million for 2011, during his term in office.

The first move Ford made when he assumed the mayor’s chair — ditching the Transit City plan — is coming back to haunt him as he pushes through cuts. Scrapping the light-rail plan will end up costing the city $65 million, according to the province’s transit agency Metrolinx.

In November, the mayor put forward a draft 2012 operating budget that contained a 2.5 per cent property-tax increase; 2,300 layoffs; wading pool closures; the end of city programming at 12 school-based community centres and seven Toronto District School Board pools; and reduced hours at some city-run arenas.

Council will vote on the $9.4-billion plan — which contains $88 million in service cuts or what Ford calls “adjustments” — in January.

The draft budget also contains a 10-cent TTC fare hike on tokens and passes, which the transit commission approved Dec. 13. It takes effect Jan. 1.

Riders will be paying more for reduced service because the commission is also implementing service reductions in early January to meet the mayor’s demand that all city departments slash spending by 10 per cent.

Meanwhile, both the fire and police departments have said the requested 10 per cent cut would have a detrimental effect on response times and would result in fewer emergency staff on the streets.

KPMG brought in for core services review

The quest to trim the fat began in earnest last spring when consulting firm KPMG was brought on to help find ways to plug a $774-million shortfall in the 2012 operating budget. That number has been disputed and critics questioned the allocation of a $139-million surplus left by Miller.

After examining municipal finances, KPMG provided in the summer a long list of controversial cost-cutting suggestions, which included phasing-out subsidized child care spaces, selling off city-run long-term care facilities, closing library branches and city museums, ending city programs that help the poor and shuttering city-run zoos.

Among the most-controversial cost-cutting recommendations—library branch closures—was amended and council will instead consider in 2012 if slashing various literacy programs and laying off people are a better idea.

Margaret who?

That library point led to an entertaining exchange via the media this summer between the mayor’s brother, Coun. Doug Ford, and Canadian literary icon Margaret Atwood. The rookie councillor said that there were more Tim Hortons than libraries in his ward and admitted he wouldn’t recognize Atwood — who urged her Twitter followers to protest library cuts —  if he passed her on the street.

Debate on other divisive suggestions of cutting childcare spaces and selling long-term care homes was deferred until 2012.

The outrage over the KPMG recommendations prompted two marathon meetings that were unprecedented in length —  one lasting 23 (the longest of its kind in Toronto’s history, according to Coun. Janet Davis) and another spanning just over 20 hours.

“This is one of the proudest days I’ve ever experienced down at city hall,” Ford said following the 23-hour meeting on the KPMG report that wrapped up July 29. Nearly 170 residents made mostly-angry deputation; one presentation involved puppets.

“This is what democracy is all about,” Ford proclaimed after another, 20-hour meeting that ended the morning of Sept. 20. More than 200 residents made deputations at that meeting which was held in response to City Manager Joe Pennachetti’s report on the KPMG recommendations.

While Ford lauded his administration for giving so many people the opportunity to voice their opinions, critics slammed the mayor for making people stay up all night to speak and not spreading deputations out over a few days.

At the end of October, council voted on $29 million worth of cost-cutting recommendations compiled by Pennachetti that were based on the KPMG reports. Council voted in favour of eliminating the Christmas Bureau, which helps poor families. It also voted in favour of the Voluntary Separation Program, which offered buyout packages for city workers. Of the 1,100 that took the bait, only 230 applications were ultimately accepted.

Nearly 350 residents made deputations about Ford’s financial plan at a budget committee meeting Dec. 7 and 8.

The 2012 budget is scheduled to go before the executive committee on Jan. 12 and will go before council for approval after that. If the recommended cuts are approved and how Torontonians learn to deal with them remains to be seen.