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Ford basks in a day of triumph

by Kelly Grant
City Hall Bureau Chief

Rob Ford scored a trio of triumphs at his first working council meeting as mayor, including slaying the $60 vehicle-registration tax and winning council approval for a ban on TTC strikes.

Mr. Ford, who spent much of the campaign season fending off taunts he’d never win a vote, garnered wider support than expected on all three of the major promises he kept Thursday.

Councillors voted 39-6 in favour of killing the auto tax on Jan. 1, 2011. They voted 40-5 in favour of slashing their own office budgets by about 40 per cent, to $30,000 from $50,445.

“It’s a great day for the taxpayers of Toronto,” Mr. Ford said after eliminating the vehicle fee. “We just put $64-million back in their pockets. They can do what they want. They can go out and spend it, create jobs and stimulate the economy or they can save it.”

Council even opted to ask Queen’s Park to make the Toronto Transit Commission an essential service, an item that was supposed to be a nail-biter. Instead, the mayor won 28-17.

The president of the transit workers’ union immediately threatened labour unrest if Dalton McGuinty’s government fulfills council’s wish.

“If the province in fact deems us an essential service, you will ensure that there will be more work-to-rule [campaigns,]” said Bob Kinnear of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 113, which represents about 10,000 transit staff.

“If that’s an opinion that he holds, it’s one that I don’t share,” TTC chairwoman Karen Stintz retorted. “The workers are committed to public service.”

Mr. Ford did suffer one surprising defeat. Late Thursday night, councillors voted 27-14 to request an apology from Maclean’s magazine for a provocative article headlined “Too Asian?” First published online Nov. 10, the story probed whether some students are avoiding elite postsecondary schools because the institutions are perceived as “too Asian” - so academically competitive they don’t leave time for fun.

The mayor voted against the motion, but it passed without debate.

Otherwise, Mr. Ford’s victories were widely telegraphed, in part because he and his staff ensured they had the votes before deciding which pledges to tackle first.

The mayor will have a tougher time rallying support for the more controversial planks of his platform, including killing the Transit City light-rail network, freezing the budget and eliminating the land-transfer tax.

But on Thursday he was free to bask in the glow of support from such David Miller lieutenants as Shelley Carroll, Paula Fletcher and Glenn De Baeremaeker and newcomers like Mike Layton, son of the federal NDP Leader.

“I think we have to own up right now to the fact we actually failed in a way in the implementation of this tax,” said Ms. Carroll, one of 11 councillors who flipped positions on the fee since voting for it in 2007.

Only Janet Davis, Sarah Doucette, Pam McConnell, Joe Mihevc, Gord Perks and Adam Vaughan voted to keep the tax.

Their chief concern was the loss of revenue. Neither the mayor nor city staff have explained how they’ll make up an estimated $64-million next year without the tax.

“We’ve heard a whole bunch about the benefits of following the mayor’s lead on this. But we haven’t heard a word about the costs,” Mr. Perks said. “We’re being asked to take it on faith that there’s $64-million, I don’t know, being burned at a money-burning party somewhere.”

Mr. Ford has instructed the city manager, Toronto’s top bureaucrat, to draft a budget that freezes property taxes, is no larger than the 2010 budget and includes “no major service cuts.”

City manager Joe Pennachetti has said repeatedly that he can meet those targets. The draft budget is slated to be unveiled Jan. 10.

The mayor said again and again on the campaign trail that city hall was squandering money, pointing frequently to questionable office-budget spending like former councillor Kyle Rae’s $12,000 retirement party.

That’s part of the reason he faced scant resistance to reducing the size of the pot - only Frank Di Giorgio, John Filion, Ron Moeser, Ms. McConnell and Mr. Perks voted to maintain the $50,445 budget.

Still, the move saved just $440,000, less than 1 per cent of the $64-million lost to scrapping the vehicle-registration tax, which came into effect Sept. 1, 2008. Because council rejected a motion to eliminate the fee retroactively to Sept. 1, 2010, some Torontonians will end up paying it twice, others three times, depending on their birthdays.

“The public didn’t like this tax,” Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday said. “They don’t receive anything for it. It was no more than having to pay extra money to get nothing.”

Mr. Holyday cast a key symbolic vote in favour of making the TTC an essential service.

The last time council considered asking the province to ban TTC strikes - Toronto doesn’t have the power to do it alone - Mr. Holyday voted against making transit essential because it is believed to drive up the cost of contracts.

A C.D. Howe Institute study predicted the TTC could face a $6-million annual increase in its wage bill if strikes were illegal.

“Frankly, Madam Speaker, I don’t know why we’re doing this,” Mr. Mihevc said. “We are certainly not doing this to save money.”

Council’s new Speaker, Frances Nunziata, kept councillors on a tight leash during the meeting.

“Merry Christmas,” she said in a rare moment of levity after the vehicle tax was scrapped.

Mr. Ford, too, had the holidays on his mind. Asked how he’d spend his extra $60, he replied: “I’m going to buy my son and my daughter two Christmas gifts.”