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Toronto council adds to fire budget, in big win for firefighters' union

In politics as in firefighting, pressure works. Toronto firefighters have scored a big victory over Mayor Rob Ford in their struggle for jobs and resources. On Wednesday morning, city council voted to restore some money to the fire service budget after protests from the firefighters' union. Two motions on the issue passed convincingly. Even Mr. Ford, facing defeat on this fight but determined to get the budget through, voted for the changes.

In the days leading up to the budget vote, the firefighters put on a full display of muscle. Their lobbyists leaned on city councillors to block the mayor's attempt to restrain the $369-million fire department budget. Their union paid for media ads making their case. Their union leader, Ed Kennedy, posed in front of a burned-out home, site of a fatal fire, to condemn "dangerous" budget cuts that he said could compromise public safety.

As councillors debated the issue, dozens of husky firefighters in red T-shirts that said "fewer firefighters, greater risk" filled the public gallery. On Tuesday evening,

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Councillor Paul Ainslie, usually an ally of the the mayor, stood to propose adding $3.1-million to the fire budget, funding 63 threatened firefighting positions at least until the middle of the year. The new funding means that five fire trucks will stay in service.

Mr. Ainslie said fire services carried a "certain emotional impact" - in other words, when fire stations are closed or trucks idled, residents squawk. Budget decisions like these are a mixture of "the political and the financial," he said, and he got an earful at  community meetings where the issue was discussed. He and other councillors argued it was reasonable to put some money back into the fire budget until studies on the efficiency of the fire service come in later this year.

Even Doug Ford, the mayor's brother, called it a triumph for "the art of compromise." It looked more like a surrender. Fire Chief Jim Sales had said he could live with the resources allocated to his service in Mr. Ford's proposed 2013 budget. He denied that there would be any threat to public safety. "What's the sense of having a fire chief if we're going to let the union run the store?" remarked Doug Holyday, the deputy mayor.

Mayor Ford himself said the firefighters' claims were nonsense and accused them of "blowing smoke, pardon the pun." But his executive committee voted last week to add $3-million to the fire budget, adding 15 fire-prevention officers and 20 firefighters. So the vote by council to add another $3.1-million is actually the second retreat in the face of the firefighters' lobby.

"As I look around this room, I'm saddened to think that this council has been muscled by the firefighters' union," said right-leaning councillor Denzil Minnan-Won on Tuesday.

As he noted, "the number of fires have been trending down, the number of people that are dying from fires has also been going down." How, he asked, could city council tell the police and other departments not to hire but say "it's okay to hire 63 more firefighters"?

Good question.

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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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