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Councillors gear up to stop looming service cuts

Several Toronto councillors are on a long-shot mission to undo looming cuts to local services, even though the city needs to find millions of dollars more in savings to reach its cost-cutting target for 2008.

This year's service cuts, laid out by top city officials this month, include closing some community centres on Monday, no Sunday operations at 19 library branches and early layoffs of litter pickers.

The reduced services will kick in Sept. 17, generating about $34-million in budget savings through 2007.

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The cuts will remain in place through 2008 for a total of $83-million in savings. But the city still needs to find an extra $17-million, including from the Toronto Transit Commission and the Toronto Police Service in coming weeks, to meet its target for $100-million in savings for next year.

Meanwhile, the private company that would administer the city's proposed land transfer tax - one of two taxes to be debated by council on Oct. 22 - said it won't make preparations until the levy goes ahead. "We will not work on anything to do with the city until we have a contract," said Bonnie Foster, vice-president of corporate communications for Teranet, which administers the province's land-transfer tax.

City manager Shirley Hoy said she hopes the land-transfer tax, if approved by council, could be ready by April, 2008, but a proposed $60 motor-vehicle registration fee may not be ready until June, 2008.

The provincial Ministry of Transportation has some "legacy issues" with its computer system, whose mainframe is 35 years old, she said.

Mayor David Miller said the two taxes, worth $356-million annually, would help close a budget shortfall of $575-million for 2008. In July, when council deferred a vote on the new taxes until Oct. 22, Mr. Miller asked officials to find $100-million in savings to compensate for delays in the new taxes, slated for Jan. 1.

The "cost-containment" plan has rankled some councillors, including a member of the budget committee, frustrated that they have no outlet to grill bureaucrats about the cutbacks announced this month.

The budget committee does not meet until Sept. 20, three days after the cuts take effect, and the spending cuts are not up for debate at the Sept. 26 council. But that has not stopped a few councillors from exploring ways to put the brakes on this year's cuts - or to press for alternatives, such as reducing non-union pay increases for 2008, to blunt the impact of cuts to local services.

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"I'm very peeved and frustrated," said Councillor Paul Ainslie (Ward 43 Scarborough East), a member of the budget committee. Yesterday, he wrote to budget chief Shelley Carroll asking that the cuts be debated at the Sept. 20 budget committee "so the full implications on both the residents of Toronto as well as our city staff can be fully understood."

Others want the staff-authorized cuts to be discussed at council in September.

"The work by staff has not undergone any real scrutiny by the public or by members of council or the budget committee," said Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34 Don Valley East), who objects to opening ice rinks in January instead of December.

Deputy mayor Joe Pantalone said he sees no need for a debate on what he views as a done deal. "There are some who would like to open every issue at every opportunity, but that does not make for efficient government," he said.

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