The City of Toronto will find itself with a huge deficit in 2012 and there is no doubt that property taxes will be raised, along with other forms of taxation, including road tolls. The City should be actively seeking ways to reduce the impending deficit and increasing revenue.
Councillor Doug Ford usually jumps at the chance to save taxpayers money.
But disagreeing with most members of the city’s budget committee, the mayor’s brother defended spending $5.2 million to pay police officers to watch over city road and sewer repairs.
“I’m okay with that,” Ford said. “Is there room for efficiencies? Absolutely. But overall, $5.2 million for a billion dollars’ worth of work, I don’t think that’s too bad,” he said estimating the value of work done each year by the city to upgrade its roadway infrastructure.
This is a different tune from the one the penny-pinching Etobicoke councillor usually sings.
The Fords campaigned to victory on a platform of austerity and Doug Ford has been helping lead the charge on cutting costs at the city — for instance, by going after councillors’ expenses, salaries and free food at council meetings. This ultimately saved $1.46 million for the city, which has a budget of $9.4 billion.
Councillor Adam Vaughan, a former member of the police services board, is bewildered by Ford’s attitude toward the cost of paid duty.
“I’m really mystified by Doug Ford’s comment that $5 million is a drop in the bucket; $5 million would have put every single TTC route back to full service,” he said.
The money could also go a long way to keep low-income kids swimming in pools and attending recreational camps this summer. This year, for the first time since its inception in 1999, the city’s Welcome Policy — which subsidizes low-income families who want access to recreational programs — has been capped.
The Welcome Policy, budgeted at $8.7 million for 2011, has not accepted registrants since March 25 because there is not enough money. The program will reopen to registrants on June 4.
“I do think we have skewed priorities at the city,” said Councillor Joe Mihevc, who has advocated for improved access to recreational programs for low-income residents.
“I don’t know but I would guess that ($5.2 million) would make a big dent (to the Welcome Policy).”
A report from the city’s auditor general said paid duty costs $29 million a year, including private-sector companies which hire officers for sporting events and traffic control at private construction sites.
The city pays $7.8 million of that amount, of which $5.2 million goes for officers to guard city work being done on roads, sewers, transit and hydro lines.
It is the city’s own rules that require the hiring of paid-duty officers.
At Tuesday’s budget committee meeting, Ford defended the system, parting company with fellow councillors on the committee who want to pare back the expense.
He chastised his colleagues for spending 90 minutes on the issue.
“It just seems like we’re just pounding away on the police here when there’s so many other inefficiencies happening all over the city,” Ford said. “I think it’s ridiculous.”
But councillors made no apologies for hammering away on paid duty, which some said is a concern to taxpayers who don’t want to pay $65 an hour for work that could be done for much less.
“If it’s okay to have a civilian walk kids across the street, why can’t that same civilian guard a hole in the road?” Vaughan said.
He also congratulated budget committee chair Mike Del Grande for tackling the controversial issue, which was the subject of an investigation by the Star in 2009.
Del Grande said paid duty can reflect badly on the police if citizens are sitting in a traffic jam caused by construction and the paid duty officer isn’t directing traffic.
That kind of experience doesn’t bolster the police service’s image, said Councillor Peter Milczyn.
“With all due respect, I think sometimes it actually brings police officers into ridicule,” Milczyn said. “We’ve all heard those jokes about police officers standing around with cups of coffee at the side of the road.”