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If Rob Ford can't cut spending in Toronto, who can?

Toronto City Mayor Rob Ford leans back in his seat during the budget debate at City Hall in Toronto on January 17, 2012

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Cheers rang out at city hall as councillors voted to scale back spending cuts in Rob Ford's 2012 budget. The people had won! The mayor had suffered a fearful defeat. The Blue Meany had been put to flight by the joyful music of democratic solidarity. All You Need is Love, dat-da-da-da-da.

In fact, what we witnessed on Tuesday night was a discouraging demonstration of how hard it is for politicians to take decisions to control spending. Finding a way to make governments live within their means is the project of this decade, not just in Canada but around the world.

It has thrown the proud governments of Europe into disarray. It is flummoxing the Congress and the presidency of the United States. At Queen's Park, just up the road from city hall, Premier Dalton McGuinty's Liberal government is facing a cost-cutting task that will make Toronto's look like a walk.

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Complain about Mr. Ford if you will. Complain about how he said that cutting the "gravy" would be easy; complain about his often-inept handling of the budget debate; complain about his unwise decision to cut taxes before he had a good handle on the city's budget fix. But he is one of the few elected leaders to take the spending challenge head on. If Rob Ford can't lick it, who can?

He ordered a sweeping review of spending, paid outside experts to pore over every dime and invited the public to join months of consultations. As a result, city hall will still spend less this year than it did last, a rare achievement that Mr. Ford is quick to boast about. He also managed to cut the size of the city work force through layoffs and buyouts and to keep this year's property tax increase to a modest 2.5 per cent.

But some of the toughest calls have been put off to another day. Even before council sat down to deliberate on Tuesday, the more controversial ideas, such as closing some library branches and cutting student nutrition programs, had been taken off the table.

Council balked at a suggestion from KPMG consultants to save about $500,000 by ending community environment days, in which councillors mix with constituents while handing out leaf compost. It balked at ending sidewalk snow clearing for residential streets in the suburbs.

When the budget finally came to a vote on Tuesday, council balked at several even more inoffensive cuts. Under a motion proposed by Josh Colle, the rookie councillor for Eglinton-Lawrence, it voted narrowly to "save" a further $15-million worth of programs.

The original 2012 budget proposed saving money by moving swimming programs from some school pools to nearby community pools, hardly a draconian measure. Councillors balked. Budget planners said they could save another chunk of money by closing 10 arenas during non-peak daytime hours, when they are in use only 8 per cent of the time. Councillors balked.

The budget proposed closing three small city-owned daycares. One was only 43 per cent full. In another, intended for low-income families, 70 per cent of the children actually came from better-off families paying full fees. The city guaranteed every child a space in another daycare in the community. Councillors balked again.

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They voted to restore mechanical leaf collection in the suburbs, a concession to Etobicoke Centre Gloria Lindsay Luby. They even voted to put $300,000 back in the budget for the Live Green Toronto's "community animator" program, which helps residents with vital things like starting natural-food buying clubs.

What is worse, they achieved these dubious acts of salvation by dipping into leftover money from last year's budget. That means there is no permanent funding for the "saved" programs. When budget time comes around again next year, councillors will have to struggle once again to find a way to pay for them.

"We don't build a stronger city reinstating service that we know we can't afford to pay for next year," said TTC chair Karen Stintz. "We didn't get sent here to make easy choices, none of us did."

But that is just what just over half of your city councillors did this week. Remember that come election time.

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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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