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One man's gravy is another's essentials

As City Hall fights to meet a budget shortfall, residents cannot reach a consensus on what should be cut

On the streets of midtown Toronto, under a light drizzle and gloomy skies, it smells like fall.
It sounds like it, too, as resident after resident brings up the issues that have been burning inside City Hall lately, and will again come September when city council deliberates over what services the municipal government should be providing, and, later, the upcoming budget.

Libraries. Services for seniors. Funding for the arts. Margaret Atwood. Councillor Josh Matlow's St. Paul's constituents have been following the news and most people have an opinion.

The first-time city councillor went out door knocking this week, part of a periodic "check-in" but also to get people's thoughts on the financial drama that has been playing out at City Hall.

"I get the sense that people are feeling a little anxious," said Councillor Ana Bailao, on a similar pulse-ofthe-people mission. She is canvassing her Davenport ward all month.

A core-service review conducted by consultants has listed a raft of programs the city could cut back on or stop providing, because it deems them not to be "core." Suggestions such as shuttering the Riverdale Farm, closing library branches and cutting daycare spaces have been met with outrage.

Mayor Rob Ford is adamant that the city has long been spending beyond its means, and it has to separate the need-to-have services from the nice-to-have services. Just how deep the city will have to cut to balance its books remains to be seen, with political critics saying the estimated $774-million budget shortfall is inflated, and the Mayor allowing for a property tax increase of no more than 3%.

But it's going to be a battle on council over what stays and what goes. Councillors Frances Nunziata and Karen Stintz, both Ford allies, say they oppose closing libraries. Where unaligned or centrist councillors such as Mr. Matlow and Ms. Bailao stand on possible cutbacks could make all the difference.
Mr. Matlow, a former school trustee, bounds up the steps of a constituent's porch near Davisville and Bayview, a mixed-income neighbourhood.

A Toronto resident who did not want to give her name called last month's overnight meeting to give the public its say on cuts "an exercise in 'we're listening to you' but we're not really listening." City council should never have cancelled the vehicle registration tax, she said. Mr. Matlow, who voted to scrap it, said given the chance now, he would vote to reinstate it. "I really am trying to find solutions and don't want to see hasty, arbitrary cuts to our city," he told her.

Even if Rob Ford's cuts go through, he will still have to raise taxes 3% to make up for the shortfall caused by cutting the vehicle registration fee.

The city isn't allowed to have a budget deficit. Push comes to shove, Rob Ford will have to raise taxes.

"I just think it's all very interesting, this whole Margaret Atwood thing," said a woman in the Brentwood Towers, over by Yonge Street and Davisville Avenue. "I'm sorry, who is that?" Mr. Matlow joked, playing on Councillor Doug Ford's infamous comments about not recognizing the celebrated Canadian writer on the street.

The residents Mr. Matlow spoke with during a canvass earlier this week were overwhelmingly against Mayor Ford's apparent tack on budget issues. But spend some time in Forest Hill and people will tell you not to raise their taxes, said Mr. Matlow. Too bad, taxes will be going up at least 3% regardless. The longer Ford waits, the higher the tax rate increase will have to be.

Likewise, most of the constituents Ms. Bailao spoke to near Col-lege Street and Lansdowne Avenue want to preserve services, while two people the previous day told her to cut everything. (Two people who evidently don't care about whether their garbage is picked up, their streets cleaned, police are on duty, firefighters are out there responding to calls, etc.)

"The question we've been asking everyone is, if you had to choose between a tax increase or cuts, what would you choose?" posits Ms. Bailao on Robert Kennedy's doorstep. He doesn't like what he's been hearing, and he thinks the Mayor has "created the problem" by getting rid of a tax. "I don't think anybody objects to cutting gravy, but it seems to me he's cutting services," said the real estate investor. Down the street, Ken, a "jack of all trades," had another thought. "You know what I think? David Miller made everything bad in the city before he left," he told Ms. Bailao. Mr. Ford "is trying to help but he's gonna kill a lot of people because he's playing with people's jobs."

Sharon Latchana, a law clerk, believes some proposed cuts would hurt lower-income families. Katherine Needham's suggestion: "You hunker down and you say, how many more years?"

Ms. Bailao takes it all in. She believes the city has to seek out more "efficiencies." Perhaps some services should be outsourced, but there is no guarantee outsourcing will be cheaper or adequate. And she supports an inflationary tax increase. "People know there's gravy, but we're not talking about gravy when we're talking about daycare spots and libraries. And that's why people are so upset."

Rob Ford isn't cutting the gravy. He's cutting the meat and potatoes.

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