Toronto city councillors face a budget trade-off – hold the line on police spending or agree to further program cuts and higher taxes for homeowners.
That proposition, made by Mayor Rob Ford's budget chair Mike Del Grande and echoed by the city's top manager, came Thursday as city staff took the wraps off their 2013 budget plan.
Toronto homeowners will see tax bills rise by 1.95 per cent next year under the draft plan – but only if policing costs are frozen at 2012 levels. The $9.42-billion operating budget contains no new money for police, setting the stage for a showdown next month with Chief Bill Blair, who has warned he needs an extra $21-million to avoid layoffs and cuts to front-line services.
Mr. Del Grande, appointed this week to the police board, said if the force does not meet its spending target, councillors have two choices: "Either pay more in taxes or cut something else."
City manager Joe Pennachetti advised against dipping into surplus funds to cover the $21-million gap, saying it would set back the city's efforts to wean itself off one-time funding.
As far as Chief Blair is concerned, the matter is now in the hands of the police board, which will hold a special budget meeting Dec. 10, police spokesman Mark Pugash said. "The chief has answered their question, which is, 'What is required to get to a zero-per-cent increase?' He's provided that information, as requested. It's now up to the board. It's their budget. It's their decision," he said.
Councillor Michael Thompson, vice-chair of the police board, said he is ready to call the chief's bluff on spending after giving the force an 11th-hour reprieve on budget cuts last year. "We've given them a whole year to look at the organization," he said.
The budget comes at a critical time for Mr. Ford, who came to power on a pledge to eliminate wasteful spending. That agenda of fiscal responsibility has produced several victories for the mayor in a year in which he has been dogged by controversy. The proposed tax increase is higher than the mayor's 1.75-per-cent target and the budget also does not include the mayor's promise to reduce the land-transfer tax.
Mayor Ford, who is fighting in the courts for his political survival and could be turfed from office in less than two weeks, refused to comment on his budget, leaving it others to sing its virtues.
"I can assure you the city has never been under better fiscal managers in the entire history of this city," said the mayor's brother, Councillor Doug Ford.
Asked if the mayor's conflict-of-interest case will affect his ability to gain council's backing for the budget, Mr. Del Grande said: "The agenda is still the same, whether the mayor is here or isn't here."
Not all councillors are happy with that agenda. As Mr. Del Grande and Doug Ford finished talking to reporters, former budget chair Councillor Shelley Carroll began to shout, "Doug, is this a war on safety?"
Ms. Carroll, a likely contender for mayor if Mr. Ford loses his appeal and a by-election is called, took aim at cost-saving measures for police and firefighters.
"The war on the car is over," she said, referring to a campaign theme of Mr. Ford's.
"The mayor and the mayor's brother are declaring a war on safety," she said.
As well as the freeze on police spending, the budget includes $50-million in efficiencies that include the elimination of 104 jobs in fire services that are now vacant, including 91 front-line staff. Mr. Pennachetti said he is confident removing the positions will not affect service levels.
The proposed capital budget, also released Thursday, includes $1.2-billion in new spending over 10 years, with the bulk going to roads – most notably the Gardiner Expressway – and transit. More than $500-million will be invested into the crumbling expressway over 10 years, an investment that Mr. Pennachetti said will mean a commitment to keep the highway for another 40 years.
The budget by the numbers
104 Number of firefighters the budget proposes cutting, which works out to the staffing for about five trucks. Ed Kennedy, president of the firefighters' professional association, said he's "extremely disappointed" in the proposal and is sure it will impact service and safety. "It's ridiculous," he said. "This is going to mean an increase in response times by taking those trucks out." City manager Joe Pennachetti said he is confident it will not affect service.
$505-million Amount in the capital budget dedicated to repairs on the Gardiner Expressway over the next decade. This includes an additional $335.29-million to maintain the crumbling highway's state of good repair. The aging piece of infrastructure has become the focus of concern amid reports of falling chunks of concrete. Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, chair of the public works committee, said taking down the elevated road would be even more costly – pegging it at upwards of $1-billion.
$700-million The cost of unfunded TTC capital projects. Under a new financing strategy, the city will reduce that debt to $246-million by 2017 using a number of revenue sources including money from the sale of its share in the Enwave district heating and cooling system, $215-million from the the 2011 surplus and $60-million from the sale of buildings.
$27-million Estimated increase in assessment growth. This is the one area where city manager Pennachetti said the city is likely to find more funds once final numbers are in next month. If that number rises, his preference is to use it to reduce the city's debt, but he said councillors may choose to direct some or all of it to spending, including policing costs.
$47-million The amount of funding taken from reserves to balance the budget. Mr. Pennachetti is predicting that with continued cost-cutting, the need to dip into reserve funds will be eliminated by 2015.
$315-million The amount of money the city expects to collect next year from the land-transfer tax. The number represents a 9.3-per-cent increase from the estimate for this year, but is about equal to the actual amount the city will collect for 2012, Mr. Pennachetti said.
Comparing tax rates
Mississauga Proposed residential property tax increase is 3 per cent. This gets shared by the City of Mississauga and Peel Region. With the average home assessed at $451,000, the average homeowner pays $4,256 in property tax.
Saskatoon The average home is assessed at $200,000. The average homeowner pays $2,719 in property tax. The proposed property tax increase is 5.2 per cent; homeowners will see an increase in municipal property taxes of approximately $82 annually.
Ottawa The average urban and rural home is assessed at $314,500. The average urban homeowner pays $3,216 and average rural homeowner pays $2,548 in taxes. The approved property-tax increase is 2.09 per cent for urban homes and 1.98 per cent for rural homes. (That's an extra $67 and $50, respectively.)
With a report from Vidya Kauri