Yes, some of his allies abandoned him at the last moment. Yes, some of his rivals added in dollops of extra spending that he didn't want. Yes, he had to give ground on the fire-department budget after a fear-mongering campaign from the firefighters' union. But, all the same, Mayor Rob Ford can claim a considerable success with his 2013 budget – and he did.
At a press conference in his office lobby after the budget passed just before noon Wednesday, he called it "a truly historical day," a "remarkable accomplishment" and "a huge victory for the taxpayers in this great city."
At last, he said, the city has a budget that does not rely on leftover money from the previous year. "That's amazing," boasted the mayor. And it is. For years, council has been plugging holes in the coming year's budget with windfall surpluses from the year before. It is like counting on money found in your pants pocket to pay the rent.
This year, it finally stopped. "I agree with the mayor. This is a historic budget," said city manager Joe Pennachetti, who has pushed hard for more sustainable budget practices. He said that by holding the line on spending, the city will reduce its debt over the next 10 years by $800-million. If it keeps on its current path, he hopes that Toronto will even graduate from a double-A to a triple-A credit rating in a few years. That would indeed be an impressive achievement at a time when the provincial government up the road at Queen's Park has been hit with a credit downgrade.
As often happens at City Hall, the good news was overshadowed by the antics on the council floor. Under pressure from the firefighters, who packed the public gallery, councillors put an extra $3.1-million in the budget for the fire service despite an assurance from the fire chief that public safety would not be at risk with the budget as it stood. Various councillors larded the budget with $9-million more in spending for favourite projects, from tree planting to community partnerships to "public information and advocacy initiatives."
The mayor stole some of his own thunder by taking the weird step of voting for a failed, out-of-left-field motion to bring in a zero-per-cent property tax, instead of the 2 per cent in his proposed budget. That undermined budget chief Mike Del Grande, who was so cheesed off at the mayor that he refused to attend the mayor's celebratory press conference.
Deputy mayor Doug Holyday was unhappy, too. In a stemwinder of a speech, he said councillors had buckled to the firefighters' union and produced an "Ikea monkey budget" by jamming it with pet spending projects. "If the councillors in this chamber haven't got the backbone to stand up on their own two feet and make their own decisions, unpressured by unions and unpressured by special interest groups, then they shouldn't be here. Find another line of work."
But as Mr. Ford put it, "it could have been a lot worse."
The total of $12-million that councillors added to city spending was a drop in the bucket in an operating budget of $9.4-billion. Unlike last year, when councillors staged a last-minute revolt to add $15-million in spending, the money did not come from a prior-year surplus. Instead, the city will rely on money from reserves and an investment-interest account. In an ideal world, it would not dip into those sources either, but just keeping hands off the surplus is definite progress.
"We had to compromise," said Mr. Ford of his decision to vote for the budget despite the cave-in to the firefighters and the other 11th-hour spending add-ons. Given all the justified flack he has taken for stubbornly failing to compromise on other issues like transit, critics can hardly go after him now for compromising this time in the interest of passing what is, essentially, a very sound and important budget .
"Finally, after years and years, we are on the right path," said the mayor. On this issue at least, it is hard to argue.