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Ford's plan to privatize garbage collection passes - with concessions

Jimmy McIsaac works to pick up garbage and recyclables on his route on Grace St. north of Harbord St. in Toronto.

Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has notched another win for his bid to privatize city services, getting council's backing for his controversial plan to contract out garbage collection in the city's west end.

The proposal passed easily, 32 to 13, after the mayor and his supporters agreed to concessions to ensure the support of undecided councillors. The move fulfills a key plank in the mayor's election platform - although the changes made during the day-long debate mean that it will likely take more time than he was counting on to get there.

That delay, combined with several new conditions added to the bid requirements, also left the mayor's most vocal critics vowing to keep the fight against privatization alive for another day.

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After the votes were counted, Mr. Ford declared his campaign pledge fulfilled, dismissing suggestions that council's tweaking left the door open for its demise. "At the end of the day, it is going to get privatized," he said. "If people had any doubts, there is no doubt any more."

The vote was the latest battle in the long-running war over the handling of Toronto's garbage, fuelled by anger over a 39-day garbage strike in 2009 during the term of Mr. Ford's predecessor, David Miller. During his mayoral bid, Mr. Ford tapped into the wellspring of resentment over that strike to propel himself to victory, and he and other supporters of privatization raised the spectre of it several times during Tuesday's debate.

At the outset of the debate, the mayor's camp drastically reframed the discussion by addressing a central complaint of its opponents with an amendment to give council final authority over the awarding of the bids.

The city report underpinning the privatization plan recommended that council delegate final signing authority for contracting out garbage collection west of Yonge Street to a staff bid committee. That recommendation ran counter to the city's policy on bids of more than $20-million and caused several councillors to question how transparent the process would be.

Councillor Denzil Minnan-Wong, who, as chair of the city's public works committee, spearheaded the privatization plan, said giving council authority over the bids will add six months to the process at a cost of $3.3-million. He expects council will approve a contract by fall of 2012, and private garbage trucks to hit downtown streets by early 2013.

Other changes passed during the marathon council meeting packed with city trash collectors include a decision to ban from the competition the firm that recently hired the bureaucrat in charge of the city's waste management services. Bidders also will be asked to demonstrate they can deliver the cost savings expected by city staff and identify how they will use displaced municipal staff.

Councillors also requested that the city manager conduct an independent review of the bid numbers and the cost for the same services provided by the city and that both those numbers be presented to council. Staff estimates put the annual savings from contracting out at $8-million.

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While the day brought some compromise, the Mayor worked from the onset to draw a sharp ideological line among council members, characterizing his critics as "tax-and-spend socialists."

"We are going to divide ourselves up into two groups," he said. "This is going to be very simple for the taxpayers to see."

Some councillors on the other side characterized the day's events in a much different light. "This is a big setback for the mayor's agenda," said left-leaning councillor Gord Perks.

He said the amendments tacked on to the successful contracting-out motion had frustrated the Mayor's attempt to push through privatization because they will force him to give city council details on how much money contracting out would actually save and whether recycling initiatives will be protected.

"Today, Torontonians, through city council, effectively told Mayor Ford, 'You have not made the case for privatizing garbage yet.'"

Mark Ferguson, president of Local 416, the union representing garbage workers, said the amendment to have the bids go to council made the final vote a "partial victory."

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"It's bittersweet," he said. "But in terms of the main contracting out of solid waste, I am very pleased it's coming back to council with full debate and independent, verifiable numbers that will be presented to our councillors."

He also said the requirement for an independent comparison of private bids and public numbers will work in the union's favour.

"We are not afraid to put our numbers up against the private sector," he said.

The move to contract out garbage collection also raised questions about what services Mr. Ford would privatize next.

"I don't think we have anything to privatize in the next few months," said the mayor's brother and right-hand man, Doug Ford. "But we'll be looking line item by line item. If it makes sense to privatize it, and it's good for the taxpayers, we'll privatize it."

With a report from Marcus Gee

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Toronto City Hall bureau chief


National reporter

Patrick previously worked in the Globe's Winnipeg bureau, covering the Prairies and Nunavut, and at Toronto City Hall. He is a National Magazine Award recipient and author of the book Mountie In Mukluks. More

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