Toronto budget chief has 'toughest job'

Rob Ford's incoming budget chief says his team is working on a 2011 budget plan that includes an unexpected property tax freeze without cutting services but admits it will be no easy task.

Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's incoming budget chief says his team is working on a 2011 budget plan that includes an unexpected property tax freeze without cutting services but he admits it will be no easy task.

Coun. Mike Del Grande, who will officially be appointed as the city's budget chief next week, has to find an estimated $60 million in financial wiggle room to allow for the tax freeze that Ford first announced Wednesday.

The announced freeze came as a surprise to city hall observers as Ford had never promised to implement one during his mayoral campaign. Del Grande said he himself only found out about the plan last Friday.

Some of Ford's plans:

  • Eliminating the $60-vehicle registration tax, which brings in between $40 million to $50 million annually.
  • Making the TTC an essential service, which would prohibit employees from striking.
  • Putting an end to the Transit City transportation plan in favour of new subways.
  • Cutting office budgets for councillors and the mayor.
  • Hiring 100 more police officers.
  • Privatizing garbage collection.

"It's not for me to judge" whether the move to freeze taxes is a good one, he said.

"I've been selected by Mayor Ford. I volunteered to help in any way that I could. He felt that this was my area where I've got the most training and background," said Del Grande, who is an accountant.

"I think I've got the toughest job of all the councillors in this place. What people really don't realize is that it is the mayor's budget and I'm basically an implementer."

What may aid him is a surprise $275-million surplus that the city announced last month. That however, still doesn't cover the city's structural budget shortfall — including the surplus, Toronto still has to find ways to close an expected $225-million gap.

In a letter sent to city manager Joe Pennachetti on Wednesday, Ford asked for an operating budget no greater than last year's, with no tax increases or service cuts.

He wrote that departments will have to be "creative and exhaustive in their search for efficiencies."

"We're working on it. There's a number of avenues we are looking at," said Del Grande, who stressed the budget process is very much in its infancy. He said his team is expecting extra revenues from back taxes and is asking all departments to cut spending.

Quick work expected

But asking departments to tighten belts may be easier said then done.

Last year, outgoing budget chair Shelley Carroll asked all city departments in October to slash their budgets by five per cent in an attempt to balance the city's books.

That appeal fell on deaf ears as many departments, including the Toronto Transit Commission and the Toronto Police Service, which together account for around $2.4 billion of the city's $9.2-billion operating budget, asked for more money instead of less.

Del Grande will also have to work quickly — Ford wants draft versions of both the capital and operating budgets ready for the first meeting of the budget committee in January and would like the entire budget process wrapped up by February.

In the past, council has approved operating budgets only in the early spring. The expedited process earned criticism from Coun. Adam Vaughan.

"This budget will be comprised behind closed doors. It will be presented with no time to measure the impact and then it will voted on by a group of councilors, a third of whom are new. It is going to be catastrophic," he said.

Meanwhile, David Soknacki, who was the budget chief under former mayor Mel Lastman, said Ford's plans are "great in the short term" but may be hard to sustain.

"Perhaps he knows something that we don't know. Perhaps there is a greater windfall . Perhaps there is more savings. Or perhaps he can let everybody know that there is a new sheriff in town and he's making decisive action on his own," he said.