A typical meeting of Mayor Rob Ford’s executive committee draws its share of civic-minded Torontonians. A dozen or two names may be listed on the speakers list; residents will fan out throughout the room, awaiting a turn at the podium.
But there was nothing typical about Thursday, as officials hunkered down for a meeting that drew hundreds of people to weigh in on budget cuts at City Hall and promised to go into the wee hours of the morning.
The speakers list, eight pages long, had 302 names and counting. By dinner time, the committee had heard from about 40.
Amid the passionate defence of libraries and public transit was a revelation from the Mayor that he had received a threat in recent weeks.
Anthony Vella, 56, has been charged with uttering death threats after a man allegedly phoned a threat in to the city’s 311 call centre.
It’s unclear if the incident had anything to do with the spirited debate over spending cuts, and the Mayor assured reporters he did not take the threat too seriously. Still, City Hall was teeming with added security personnel and police officers.
In opening remarks, Mayor Ford vowed to stop “passing the buck” on Toronto’s financial issues. “We must, ladies and gentlemen, reduce spending,” he said. “Every year, we’ve added expense after expense to our budget. We’ve added some ‘must have’ spending and a lot of ‘nice to have’ spending. Now, we spend more than we can afford.”
He rattled off a list of tax-funded programs: roads, sewers, safe beaches, parks, recreation programs and public health.
“These are all very important things. But are libraries more important than child care? Is policing more important than safe roads? That’s what we’re here to discuss. You tell me,” said Mayor Ford, adding that it “makes sense to take nice-to-haves out of the budget.”
Toronto is facing a $774-million budget shortfall, which City Manager Joe Pennachetti said could mean a double-digit tax hike if tough decisions are not made.
Council hired consultants KPMG to review “core services,” resulting in a list of more than $700-million worth of cost-cutting options. They range from eliminating subsidized daycare spots, to scaling back snow clearing, from selling the zoo to closing libraries.
By dinner time Thursday, no speaker had endorsed cuts, although the Toronto Taxpayer Coalition was scheduled to speak in the middle of the night about abolishing the fair wage policy.
Tanya Suvendrini Lena, a neurologist who lives in Bloor West Village, said possible cuts to libraries and recreation are what spurred her into political action for the first time in 10 years. “As a taxpayer, I would like my money to go to support things that make Toronto a great city for everyone,” she said, her four-year-old son Shams at her side. Libraries “level the playing field for children and allow them to have their minds opened to extraordinary things and you can’t put a price on that.”
Kim Fry accused the Ford administration of manufacturing a crisis and likened the cuts to those the province made during the Mike Harris years. “We’re making it up?” Mayor Ford replied, “I’m surprised they’re not blaming Diefenbaker, never mind Harris.”