Council overwhelmingly approves John Tory’s budget

Mayor spars briefly with Rob Ford as fiscal plan gets near unanimous support

Council passed the first budget of Mayor John Tory’s term on Wednesday, approving the 2015 spending plan in an almost unanimous vote on the second day of a special meeting at City Hall. 

The $11.4-billion operating budget and 10-year, $31.7-billion capital plan include significant investments in transit service, social programs and emergency services, as well as long-term spending on transportation and water infrastructure. 

The entire spending package passed in a vote of 42-2 on Wednesday night, with only Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti and former mayor Rob Ford opposed. 

In a speech to council Tory said his budget, which is funded in part by a 3.2-per cent residential property tax increase, “hits that sweet spot between excessive tax increases” and  “gutting” city services.

“It’s not too hot, it’s not too cold, it’s just right,” the mayor said, leading one councillor to dub it the “Goldilocks budget.” 

Councillor Paula Fletcher praised Tory for setting a positive tone throughout the months-long budget process, which she said was a “marked difference from, I’d say, the previous four years” under Ford.

“This was not a ‘cut first’ budget,” she said.

Councillors made only minor adjustments to Tory’s plan on the chamber floor. They included: funding for a Toronto Public Health staffer to work on the health impacts of climate change ordering an expedited review of all TTC capital projects requesting city staff to look into increasing the city’s streetcar order from 204 to 264 and approving a motion moved by Tory to add one employee each to the integrity commissioner’s and ombudsman’s office. 

The additional positions for the accountability officers fell short of what both officials had requested in order to handle rapidly growing caseloads – the integrity commissioner had sought two new employees, and the ombudsman eight. 

A rare moment of drama occurred midway through the day when Ford, who’s now a city councillor, stood to demand that Tory “tell the taxpayers” why the mayor’s $2.3-million office budget is $357,000 higher than it was when Ford was in office.

“I’m more than happy to do so, since you want to go down this road,” said Tory, who then launched into a spirited defense of his staff’s “professional” management of city business. 

“They’re responsible for the oversight of a close to $12-billion government with tens of thousands of employees,” said Tory, who argued that his budget provided the funding “necessary to run a professional administration… and do the kind of job in a manner that the people of Toronto would expect us to do.” 

The mayor charged that under Ford, the mayor’s office showed a “complete lack of coordination” on issues like road closures and infrastructure work that wasted “hundreds of millions of dollars of the taxpayers’ money” and caused “huge delays in projects that the people of Toronto need very badly.”

Some councillors applauded as Tory finished his response.

Undaunted, Ford tabled 30 motions that he claimed would yield significant savings, including cutting the mayor’s office budget by $300,000, but council summarily voted them down. Ford was defeated on all but two votes, and one of his motions was ruled out of order because it proposed eliminating a city program that didn’t exist.  

Late in the proceedings Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam moved a surprise motion asking for a report on reinstating the $60 vehicle registration tax, which council killed off in 2011.

Wong-Tam voted four years ago to eliminate the tax, but said Wednesday it was time to revive it in order to raise money to make TTC stations accessible. Only 35 of 69 subway stations are currently accessible, and transit staff say they’re not on schedule to renovate the outstanding ones in time for the 2025 deadline set out in the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. 

“Right now it’s grossly unfair for someone who is pushing a stroller, or perhaps in a wheelchair, or using a walker, who cannot get into 50 per cent of the subway stations while paying full fare,” Wong-Tam told reporters. 

Her motion was defeated, 14-30. 

Although the budget was passed with overwhelming support, there is still unrest within some factions of council about Tory’s refusal to contemplate higher-than-inflationary tax increases or the introduction of new revenue tools. The city is facing opening budget shortfalls of roughly $300 million in each of the next two years, and some believe the only way to bridge the gap is by increasing revenues. This year the city had to borrow from its own reserves to balance the budget.

Councillor Gord Perks, who pushed for higher property taxes during this year’s budget debate, said the conversation about increasing revenues is “definitely going to continue.”

“There’s a growing appetite on council and in the broader community to actually pay for the services we want,” he said. 

Earlier on Wednesday, council also voted to reduce the city rebate given to homeowners for waste collection, meaning that residents will pay 58 per cent more for their garbage bins. | @BenSpurr

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