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Ford backs off campaign vow to hire more police officers

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford.

Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Mayor Rob Ford is backing off a campaign promise to hire 50 more police officers this year because Police Chief Bill Blair isn't asking for any.

It's one of Mr. Ford's major pledges butting up against reality as the city tries to balance a challenging budget on a breakneck schedule that even City Manager Joe Pennachetti says is "rushed." And while the mayor has promised no "major" service cuts, Mr. Pennachetti warned in an interview Tuesday that Torontonians should expect cuts in next week's budget.

Hiring 100 more police officers in the first two years of his mandate was a key plank in Mr. Ford's election platform. He reaffirmed the commitment in an interview on Newstalk 1010 in mid-November, saying "the first thing I want to do with that money that we find is hire police officers."

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But on Tuesday, spokeswoman Adrienne Batra said Mr. Ford intends to listen to Chief Blair, who asked in his formal budget request for a three-per-cent increase for 2010, bringing the total to almost $915-million - but no new officers.

The Toronto Police Services Board is scheduled to vote on that request Wednesday.

"For this budget year, the mayor will take the chief's advice," Ms. Batra said. "Quite frankly, they [the police]are the experts. They know what needs to happen, where there needs to be augmentation or not."

However, Ms. Batra said the mayor and the police chief have not met face to face yet and the addition of officers has not been completely ruled out. She also couldn't say whether the 100 new officers would be added next year or the following year.

Mr. Ford also promised no "major service cuts" in a budget that will endeavour to shrink city spending to accommodate tens of millions in lost revenue thanks to an axed vehicle-registration fee and frozen property taxes.

But service cuts are coming, says Mr. Pennachetti - whether they're "major" or not just depends on your definition.

"You're going to see what we recommend to get to zero, and people will have to interpret whether it's major or minor," he said. "Most of it is what we deem to be called efficiencies . ... But there are other areas where we have to have impacts."

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Budget chief Mike Del Grande, however, said Torontonians will get what they voted for.

"That's why Rob Ford got elected as mayor. If we wanted more of the same, we would have done more of the same."

Less than a week before city staff will unveil their 2011 budget proposal, Mr. Pennachetti says the process has been rushed, leaving just-appointed boards scrambling to come up with proposals for what promises to be a tight squeeze.

"I can't comment on that [whether there's enough time]" Mr. Pennachetti said. "It's rushed, there's no doubt about it. ... It's difficult for everybody."

Even Mr. Del Grande said he has had no conversations with staff and doesn't know what's in the budget. The expedited process isn't ideal, he said, but isn't a problem.

"If staff are working towards a balanced budget which contains no tax increase, which contains a removal of the vehicle registration tax, which contains no major service cuts, then I'm not quite sure what the fear is."

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Mr. Pennachetti wouldn't say how he's defining a "major" cut; both Ms. Batra and Mr. Del Grande said he doesn't know what cuts staff will suggest next week, but Mr. Del Grande said that, as an example, a "minor" service cut would be a bus being taken off one route and put on another.

A "major" cut would be "if you start getting rid of whole departments, stuff like that."

One possibility already put forward is the closing of the city's downtown urban affairs library, whose materials would be moved to another branch at Yonge and Bloor.

Meanwhile, proposed budgets from several arm's-length boards indicate they're asking for more funding this year, not less.

While he wouldn't speculate on whether police will be forced to trim the extra $26.7-million they're requesting, Mr. Pennachetti noted it's a proposal of a "three per cent-plus" increase: The Toronto Police Association has contract talks coming up later this year, and association president Mike McCormack said the "pragmatic and realistic" proposals he brings forward for his members will also take into account the 3.5 per cent pay increase York region's officers negotiated this year.

Budget concerns have led to suggested "gapping" measures, which means holding back classes of new recruits to replace retiring officers, or temporarily holding off on promotions to save partial costs of salaries.

But Mr. McCormack said he and his members would take "great exception" if budget concerns lead to the suggestion there should be fewer officers on the street.

Mr. Ford said during the campaign he wants extra officers deployed to high schools and to the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy. Ms. Batra said it was her understanding that the chief might be able to beef up TAVIS without adding extra officers to the force. Police have the final say in where and how officers are deployed.

Former budget chief Shelley Carroll called it a good sign that Mr. Ford is willing to take the chief's advice. "That shows that we have a mayor who can accept the advice of professionals ... He can be taught. He does listen," she said.

Councillor Janet Davis, another opponent of the new mayor, suggested the flip-flop was another kind of sign - a sign of things to come.

"It's one more of the unrealistic promises the mayor's had to back down on. There'll be more to come."

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Kelly Grant is a health reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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