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Ford's council votes TTC essential

by Natalie Alcoba

Mayor Rob Ford knocked off three major campaign promises in the first substantial meeting of Toronto’s newly elected government, after city council voted Thursday to kill the vehicle registration tax, slash office budgets and ask the province to ban public transit strikes.

Repealing the $60 fee that is tacked on to license plate renewals, seen by many residents as a twisted birthday present from the city, was pitched as an obvious decision, considering how unpopular it was among voters. Council voted 39 to 6 to cancel it effective Jan. 1.

“It’s a great day for the taxpayers of Toronto,” said Mayor Ford, who took a brief break from the meeting to speak to reporters before returning to “save the taxpayers more money”.

The much closer 28 to 17 vote to ask Queen’s Park to declare the TTC an essential service, however, stoked the ire of the transit union boss, who threatened more work to rule and longer labour unrest in the future.

“I think it’s a case of dumb and dumber here,” Bob Kinnear, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, told reporters. “Some people would characterize the last council as a dumb council. We most definitely have a dumber council.”

The current transit contract expires in March. That then potentially puts transit workers in a strike position if the province fails to declare essential service legislation before then.

“[Transit workers] shouldn’t have the right or the ability to hold the entire city hostage,” argued Councillor Cesar Palacio, a member of the mayor’s executive, who spoke in favour of making it essential. A report from the city’s economic development, culture, and tourism division calculated that the cost of a transit strike to Toronto’s economy is $50-million a day.

TTC chief general manager Gary Webster told council that management remains opposed to the essential service designation because it limits the ability to bargain with the union. Contract disputes are settled through arbitration, and often result in a higher settlement. Workers may be allowed to work to rule, city staff told council.

A report by the think-tank C.D. Howe Institute estimated designating the TTC essential would cost an extra $23-million over a three year contract. It also does not guarantee service, the report concluded, because workers can always strike illegally.

“What price are you willing to pay to prevent a strike? We are going to pay more, either through negotiation cost, labour costs, arbitration costs, to abridge the union’s basic civil rights,” said Councillor Adam Vaughan. “If I’m going to put any tax dollars into the TTC, I want it to be for service, not labour negotiations.

TTC chairwoman Karen Stintz said the city has successfully negotiated two contracts with firefighters, which are deemed to provide an essential service, without going to arbitration.

“There’s no need to suggest that these contracts will be more expensive or that they will be arbitrated. If we have good will with our labour partners then we will be able to find a way to work through these issues and deliver a reliable service to the public, and we will continue to move the city,” she said.

Mayor Ford did not speak about essential service on Thursday. He did, however, make an impassioned plea to cancel the car tax.

“This $60 is going to create jobs. It’s going to put money back in people’s pockets, they’re going to go out, they’re going to spend that money, it’s going to stimulate the economy. We’re the only city that has had this burden put around our necks and it’s just not fair… This is just going to be one of many taxes we’re going to be giving back to the people of this great city.”

Several councillors who originally supported the tax admitted the city had failed to handle it properly because the money was never earmarked for transportation projects, even if it appeared to speed up road construction.

“We failed because we brought in the tax,” cried Councillor David Shiner, and “took money that we didn’t need.” He pointed to ballooning surpluses in recent years as proof that Torontonians are overtaxed.

Still, critics warned against abolishing the money maker before knowing how the city will make up the lost revenue.

The car tax brings in $48-million a year. Cancelling it as of next month will cost $64-million because the city has to refund those who paid for two years in advance. A motion to repeal the tax retroactive Sept. 1, 2010, so that all vehicle owners would have paid $60 the same number of times, failed.

The mayor also voted against a couple of motions that sought to put, in writing, that services wouldn’t be cut as as a result of abolishing the tax. Mr. Ford insists services are not in jeopardy. “I support exactly what I put forward. I’m a man of my words. I said there won’t be any service cuts, and there won’t be,” he told reporters.

Council also voted 40 to 5 in favour of slashing the office budgets of city councillors from $50,445 to $30,000, saving the city a total $899,580. The mayor has cut his office budget from $2.7-million to $2-million.