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Rob Ford attacking unions, not gravy train

For Mayor Rob Ford, no matter what he says, this painful budget exercise is not about slaying Toronto’s annual deficit.

Ford’s actions and words, to the public and those around him, are not those of a bean counter trying to solve a financial puzzle. While real, the hefty “structural deficit” is his ammunition, not his target.

The colourful gut-led ideologue is on a mission to radically reduce the size and cost of city government — amputating services, grants and agencies. In doing so, he wants to erase most or all the 5,000 mostly unionized jobs added under his predecessor, David Miller.

In carefully chosen words before the start of Thursday’s epic executive meeting, Ford decreed that “must have” services stay and the “nice to haves” go. In his mind-the-shop view, cities don’t hand out arts grants, bolster poor student’s meals, spur environmental research or own a zoo.

(And yet he is also seeking to slash libraries, firefighters and 750 police jobs too.)

The public consultation process that included deputations to the executive committee is an elaborate sham, something apparent to most of the long line of Torontonians who passionately pleaded for Ford to keep his election promise not to reduce services.

After hearing thousands of words, and seeing some tears, the 13 executive members voted with lightning speed to refer all of KPMG’s suggested cuts to their Sept. 19 meeting. Ford and his policy chief Mark Towhey are weighing what and how much they can cut. The plan will be predetermined.

The challenge for them isn’t erasing the deficit, but convincing city councillors and the public they need to keep slicing after it’s gone.

The budget surplus from 2010 and other monies, including an expected 10-cent TTC hike, bring the 2012 operating deficit from $774 million to $443 million. In addition, the administration is looking at forgoing a traditional annual transfer of $200 million from the operating budget to capital. Efficiencies will be found, user fees hiked.

Still, Ford’s staff are priming his right-leaning council allies and centrists, saying they are serious about high-risk moves — including shedding nine of the city’s 10 long-term care homes — even as the administration wobbles.

Rob Ford and his councillor brother Doug are committing gaffes; the marathon meeting has energized their opponents; and a hasty, ham-handed budget process is alienating centrists and fraying the Fords’ hold on at least two inner circle members. (And to make matters worse, Rob Ford fell asleep during the meeting and was caught on camera sleeping on the job.)

Some say Ford won’t overreach because he doesn’t have the votes. But this is the mayor who, despite the urging of all around him, needlessly snubbed Toronto’s gay community. His deficit-fighting rhetoric targets even money-makers for the city such as the parking authorities. Ford’s gut rules even when his brain tells him he should do something different.

Force of will and tactical tricks have got him this far. The mayor’s true test lies ahead, when he invites 22 councillors to follow him into choppy, untested waters, propelled by zeal and a certainty that Torontonians need leaner, meaner government, not a fiscal fix.

But what happens when he pisses off the unions and causes a massive strike?

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