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Ford not ruling out layoffs if buyout insufficient

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford says the city has "thousands" too many employees and is not ruling out layoffs if a staff buyout package fails to eliminate enough jobs.

"We have too many employees down at City Hall," the mayor told reporters Tuesday. "We have to find ways of giving them packages to move on or entice them to move on. We just can't carry 53,000 employees any more."

The spectre of large-scale downsizing swept over City Hall as the clamshell thrummed with activity ahead of an August break.

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Over the course of a break-neck day, the mayor and his opponents whipped up a three-stage political squall: first, the latest release of a KPMG audit of city services proposing cuts to social services; then an announcement of three new task forces to explore private-sector options for child care, homelessness and arena construction; and finally the official announcement of a buyout package for 17,000 city employees.

The real news was happening outside council chambers, where the mayor embarked on a fruitless, lone-wolf campaign against grants to community groups, and significant debates took place over scrapping Jarvis Street bike lanes and a plan to eradicate graffiti. They served as a mere sideshow.

As if to demonstrate his serenity amid the bedlam, the mayor found a moment to dance an samba-jig hybrid with a feathered mas dancer during a Caribana kickoff event against a backdrop of sweat-browed revellers in Nathan Phillips Square.

Despite his impromptu steps, Mr. Ford's most startling moves came inside City Hall, where he stated, "We are thousands of people too many down here," setting the stage for a large-scale downsizing of Toronto's payroll.

It is no secret, the mayor said, that the city is shifting jobs to the private sector, a process that has already begun with garbage collection. The city is also in the midst of a massive cost-cutting exercise across all departments that is looking to plug a $774-million hole in next year's budget.

Mr. Ford said it is premature while that review is taking place to talk about layoffs, but did not rule them out. "We cannot carry on running the city the way we are," he said.

Earlier in the day, a leading ally of Mr. Ford said layoffs are an option if the buyout offer to staff comes up short. Councillor Michael Thompson, head of the city's economic development committee and a member of the mayor's inner circle, said he would prefer to reduce the city's head count through attrition and voluntary departures, but layoffs could be in the cards.

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"At the end of the day, if that's what it comes down to, then we certainly have to examine that," he told reporters.

Mr. Thompson said if layoffs are required, they will be done in a manner that is mindful of legislation and the impact it will have on people's lives.

The union head for City Hall's inside workers jumped to her members' defence, saying any claim of thousands of superfluous staff is "ludicrous."

"It is bordering on hysteria," said CUPE Local 79 president Ann Dembinski. "There's some illusion out there that there are thousands of people doing nothing. I haven't found them. Our members are stretched to the limit."

City Manager Joe Pennachetti said layoff discussions would have to wait until September, when buyout figures become clear and council debates over the core service review determine "staffing levels to reflect the new reality of services."

The buyout program promises to be the most ambitious in the city's history. Around 17,000 city workers will have until Sept. 9 to decide whether to opt in to a new Voluntary Separation Program, taking a lump sum worth up to six months pay if they agree to leave the city's employ, according to Mr. Pennachetti.

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Management and Mr. Pennachetti himself will sift through the buyout submissions, approving or rejecting each one depending on the applicant's value to the city.

Like Mr. Ford, Mr. Pennachetti could not say what percentage of those 17,000 he hoped to trim with the buyout program.

"We could have hundreds, we could have a thousand people that volunteer for this," he said.

Rough estimates based on a $60,000 average salary suggest that eliminating 1,000 positions could cost as much as $30-million, but save the city $60-million in annual payroll costs.

During the election campaign, Mr. Ford pledged to reduce the city work force through attrition – not hiring freezes or layoffs. For every six employees that left the city's employment due to retirement or other reasons, the city would replace only three, he said.

"No need for layoffs. This is a simple measure recommended by the Board of Trade," he said in a YouTube video explaining his plan for reducing the size of government. He said the attrition scheme would save more than $1-billion over four years.

Mr. Pennachetti is running the buyout plan independently of the city's controversial core-service review, but the two are both aimed at cutting costs to narrow next year's $774-million budget gap.

Some stakeholders contend the buyout package is too stingy.

"The industry standard seems to be a little more than six months," said Richard Majkot, executive director of the City of Toronto Administrative, Professional, Supervisory Association, acknowledging that the mayor is in a tight fiscal position. "I'd like to see a little more compensation for our members."

Overshadowed throughout the day was the mayor's announcement of three new task forces – each to be headed by Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti – to devise new plans for tackling Toronto's lack of child-care spots, surfeit of homelessness and need for new ice arenas.

Mr. Mammoliti said the bodies would lean on public-private partnerships to solve each quandary.

The announcements rattled some veteran councillors who championed the city's homelessness policy under mayor David Miller, which is credited with reducing the number of homeless people on Toronto streets by 50 per cent since 2006. Councillor Janet Davis said the only problem with long-standing city policies on child care, arenas and homelessness is a lack of provincial funding.

"We don't need these task forces," she said. "We have a plan. We simply need pressure brought to bear on the provincial government."

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