Despite being forced to back down on cuts to fire services, Mayor Rob Ford is praising the 2013 budget as a historic one full of "small compromises."
Council voted to approve the $9.4-billion financial blueprint on Wednesday in a 37-8 decision that was relatively uncontroversial compared to years past.
Councillors added $12 million in services to the plan on the chamber floor, with the bulk of the money going to hire firefighters, community and student nutrition programs, eliminating indoor pool fees for kids, childcare spaces, and the housing stabilization fund.
But unlike the dramatic council revolt at the 2012 budget meeting, all of the money was taken from reserve or investment accounts instead of the year-end surplus, which Ford had warned councillors not to touch.
"For the first time ever, ladies and gentlemen, this budget does not rely on any prior year surplus. That's amazing," said Ford, reading from a prepared statement after the final vote. "They said it couldn't be done, but we are proving people wrong, folks. We are turning the corner and changing the culture here at City Hall."
The mayor, who is still awaiting a verdict in the conflict of interest case that could boot him from office, again struck the conciliatory tone that he has sounded in recent weeks. He boasted that "every single member of council can be happy with the small compromises made."
The spending plan increases residential property taxes by 2 per cent, slightly below the rate needed to keep pace with inflation.
The biggest sticking point in the run-up to this week's meeting were proposed cuts to fire services, which would have eliminated 101 vacant firefighter positions, taken five fire trucks out of service, and shuttered the Runnymede fire station. The firefighters union pushed back hard against the cuts, warning in a public relations campaign that eliminating the positions could endanger public safety.
Last week, Ford described those warnings as "blowing smoke" and "fear-mongering." But with the council chamber packed with firefighters Tuesday and Wednesday, and councillors of all political stripes facing pressure from worried constituents, the mayor agreed to a $3.1-million plan to hire 63 frontline firefighters and keep the Runnymede Rd. station and five trucks in operation. He had already added 20 firefighters at his executive committee earlier this month.
The extra cash will preserve current levels of service until July, by which time a study on Toronto fire services efficiency will be concluded. The debate over the cuts could resurface once it's released.
Ford's touted "compromises" aside, some councillors argue that the budget does nothing to address Toronto's most urgent problems.
Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam was one of the eight council members who voted against the budget, saying that she couldn't support a plan that provides no new funding for TTC service, eliminates 41,000 shelter bed nights, and does little to address the massive community housing repair backlog.
"The budget still leaves a number of people behind," she says.
"It's better than where we started in December. But is it where we need to be? Absolutely not."
Councillor Shelley Carroll also voted against the budget, citing lack of money for shelter services, road repairs, the planning department, and recreation.
Carroll, who intends to run against Ford in the next election, says the mayor doesn't deserve praise for making compromises that were forced on him by council.
"We saw a mayor making some changes to his budget because he had his back up against the wall," she says. "All we need now is a mayor who understands that making compromises and building a budget with council is actually your job every year."
Although Ford was clearly pleased by the final budget vote, his point man on the finance file, Councillor Mike Del Grande, may quit over it.
Del Grande has said repeatedly that he would resign his role as budget chair if councillors added money at council. In a speech to the chamber on Wednesday he said he felt "personally vilified" by criticism his colleagues have leveled at him in recent months, and said he objected to a motion asking for a more transparent process in 2014.
The motion, moved by Councillor Joe Mihevc, passed 25-20.
"I don't view that as a vote of confidence," Del Grande said after the vote.
Asked if he intends to step down, the veteran councillor said, "Before I say anything to the press, I think there's a little bit of discussion I'm going to have to have with the city manager and the mayor. And I'll leave it at that."
He was notably absent from the mayor's post-budget press conference, which was attended by a handful of councillors loyal to the mayor.
Update: On Wednesday night, Del Grande resigned. No replacement was immediately announced.