Toronto council appears poised to undo the last of its controversial 2012 spending cuts, despite the budget committee’s opposition to temporarily restoring funding to the High Park Zoo, Far Enough Farm and a hardship fund for the city’s neediest.
“There’s going to be a floor fight on council on this item,” Councillor James Pasternak said. “We’re going to move it straight up there and that way all 44 councillors and the mayor have a say in what’s important to Torontonians. I think the most important thing is we have to cut through a lot of the histrionics of financial despair that were plaguing the budgetary process into the fall and early 2012.”
The North York councillor and newest member of the budget committee on Monday proposed using more than $1.7-million of the $292-million 2011 surplus as a short-term rescue fund for a slew of programs left on life support after the January budget vote.
He also moved a motion asking that $258,000 of the solid waste department’s $37-million 2011 surplus be dedicated to waiving a contentious new waste fee for charities.
The budget committee rejected Mr. Pasternak’s proposals, most by votes of 3-2, with Councillors Peter Milczyn, John Parker and Doug Ford voting against, and Chin Lee voting with Mr. Pasternak.
The committee endorsed a separate motion from Mr. Lee allocating $180,000 of the surplus to “extreme cleaning” for bed bugs, provided the province kicks in $500,000 in 2012 for bed bug eradication.
Despite the thumbs down at budget committee, council will have a final say in June.
Budget Chief Mike Del Grande said he was frustrated a member of his own budget committee tried to revisit the 2012 budget months after it was settled.
“My feeling is the budget is the budget. You can’t keep re-opening it. It’s closed.”
He suggested that councillors in favour of restoring operating spending are ignoring whopping backlogs on the capital side.
“I see their eyes light up when they see a [surplus]... but you don’t hear them when we say, ‘Well, how are you going to pay for the streetcars? How are you going to pay for the backlog in transportation?’”
Based on council’s recent history of pushing back against Mayor Rob Ford’s spending cuts, Mr. Pasternak predicted his motions have a good chance of passing at council's regular meeting in June.
“That surplus was much larger than anticipated and it should be no surprised to anyone that we would resuscitate the programs that we were told to cancel,” Mr. Pasternak said.
When council voted on the 2012 budget, members were working with an estimated surplus from the previous year of $154-million.
The final figures, released last week, show the surplus is actually $292-million, most of which is supposed to go toward paying for a new fleet of streetcars and topping up rainy-day accounts.
Even when councillors believed the surplus was smaller, a slim majority still rebelled against the mayor and voted in January to reverse about $15-million of the most controversial service cuts.
Other contentious items remained on the chopping block, some with promises that staff or councillors would be given time to find alternative sources of funding before the axe fell.
Mr. Pasternak’s motions would spare the axe for some of those items until at least the end of this year.
He proposed: Spending $450,000 to keep the Hardship Fund alive until the end of 2012; restoring $200,000 in funding for dentures for seniors; dedicating $50,000 as a “contingency” allocation to keep the High Park Zoo open; spending $110,600 to keep Far Enough Farm open this year; increasing by $787,000 the Parks, Forestry and Recreation budget to keep funding youth outreach programs until the end of the year; and spending $110,000 or $2,500 per ward for a one-time sports equipment fund.
“I think January was fairly premature,” Mr. Pasternak said of this year’s budget debate, held three months earlier than under the previous administration. “At times we felt like we were amputating before we really did the diagnosis. That’s why you saw the budget rebellion on the council floor back in January.”