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Rob Ford: Challenges loom for new mayor

A new era is opening as Mayor Rob Ford officially assumes office with a mandate for radical change in the direction of Toronto’s government. And he appears to be wasting no time. The first step in Ford’s avowed “stop the gravy train” mission is a meeting today with TTC chief general manager Gary Webster, and hitting the brakes on a planned network of light rail lines is expected to be on agenda.

Ford campaigned on killing Toronto’s Transit City light rail expansion and redirecting $3.1 billion from that project to subway construction, mostly in the east end. But making good on his promise will be extremely difficult. With $130 million already spent on Transit City, and contracts worth about $1 billion already signed, stopping this work and switching to subways would mean a huge loss to taxpayers. Ford may not care, since the money at stake is almost entirely the province’s, but Premier Dalton McGuinty would be exceedingly ill-advised to accept such costly changes.

Axing Transit City is just one challenge confronting Ford. He should have little difficulty keeping some promises, such as eliminating Toronto’s unpopular motor vehicle registration tax and trimming councillors’ widely resented perks and entitlements. But these are relatively minor matters compared to his core pledge to cut spending by almost $3 billion over four years without affecting city services. The bulk of those projected savings are supposed to come from ending bureaucratic “waste,” yet to be identified.

But the library board’s request for a 3.3 per cent budget increase next year illustrates how difficult that will be. In asking for more money, the library cast aside existing instructions to all city departments and agencies from the departing Miller administration to cut spending by 5 per cent. The library’s increase would only cover the cost of inflation and staff salaries and benefits, as required by contract. A 5 per cent reduction would trigger reduced hours and the closing of some branches — in other words, service cuts. The library is one of the first city agencies to submit its budget, and it foreshadows demands from the rest. Ford’s fundamental dilemma is that there isn’t $1.7 billion worth of “fat” in the system waiting to be cut.

Glib promises are made easily on the campaign trail — a place where staying “on message” is more productive than explaining policy details. But details are important. And Ford will soon find that the practicality of a promise ultimately determines whether it can be carried out.