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City committees unlikely to make painful cuts

It was Groundhog Day at city hall on Wednesday. City councillors woke up to find themselves doing the same thing as the day before and the day before that: examining a list of proposed cutbacks and then listening to a procession of interest groups explain why those cuts would be a disaster.

The end, each day, has been the same. One after another, city council committees have balked at making the cuts set out in a series of reports from KPMG consultants. Take fluoride out of the water supply? Let's think about that. Cut back on street cleaning? Another day perhaps. Kind-hearted councillors could not even agree to drop the hatchet on the Winterlicious restaurant festival - hardly what you would call a core city service.

Left-leaning councillors say it's not their job to do Mayor Rob Ford's dirty work for him. When the economic development committee considered a proposal to cut funding to the Christmas bureau, which helps distribute seasonal gifts to the city's needy, Councillor Mary Fragedakis (Ward 29, Toronto-Danforth), said it would be up to the mayor's executive committee to "cancel Christmas."

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Right-wingers have been almost as hesitant. Who wants to be the councillor who puts up his hand to vote for killing Riverdale Farm or ending help for seniors' programs? They too have voted to pass the hot potatoes to the executive committee in September.

The result is confusion. Mr. Ford and his allies have been warning for months that the city is facing hard choices as it wrestles with its money problems. But who is going to make them?

Nobody likes to be the bad guy. When talk turned to daycare on Wednesday, Giorgio Mammoliti (Ward 7, York West) suggested that it was the fault of the provincial government, not Toronto, that the city was struggling to find enough spaces for children. "If the province wants to cut a very key part of our budget, let them be the bad people for doing it."

The city council committees were supposed to sort through eight consultants' reports on various city operations and decide which cuts were worth considering and which too painful to stomach. Nothing of the sort is happening or seems likely to happen as the committee meetings wind on into next week. If the pattern continues, the committees will simply punt the reports, perhaps asking for a little more information and making a mild suggestion or two but then passing them on without recommendation.

In the end, it all ends up in the laps of the mayor and his close allies. Will even they be bold enough to pull the trigger on cuts? Talking about finding "efficiencies" and stopping the gravy train is one thing. Cutting real-life programs is another.

The mayor has not shown his hand - or even his face, for that matter. He has kept a low profile through all the furor about cuts. He even pulled out of a planned CBC Radio appearance this week.

Mr. Ford talks a tough line, but insisted during the election campaign he could straighten out the city's books without resorting to service cuts. That pledge will be put to the test in September, when the spotlight will shine squarely on the mayor. Even if the proposed cuts make sense - and some of them surely do - Mr. Ford will face tough questions if it turns out the reckoning is not as painless as he promised.

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In Belling the Cat, the classic fable, a group of mice debate how to stop a marauding feline. One clever mouse suggests putting a bell on the cat to warn of his approach. Everyone agrees it is a capital idea until the question arises of which mouse will place the bell around his neck. The question facing city council is the same: Who will bell the cat?

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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