Toronto residents come out in droves to defend services in cost-cutting debate

TORONTO – The people of Toronto came out in droves Thursday to defend their services as a right-wing mayor hell-bent on slashing city spending launched a marathon public hearing into where the axe should fall.

Nearly 350 people signed up to weigh in at City Hall, a crowd considered so extraordinary officials were forced to set up an overflow room to accommodate them.

Some estimated it could take more than 24 hours to hear from everyone who turned out. And by about 1:30 a.m. Friday, fewer than half of those who had signed up _ about 145 people _ had said their piece.

Mayor Rob Ford, a controversial figure who rode to power nine months ago on a promise to “end the gravy train” in Canada’s most populous city, described the budget debate as one of the biggest community consultations in Toronto history.

“We’ve started a great debate over what is ‘must have’ and what is ‘nice to have’,” he said as the spectacle began.

A consultant’s report has recommended the mayor take such drastic measures as closing libraries, eliminating overnight buses, shrinking the number of police on the streets and even selling the Toronto Zoo.

After some initial public outcry, the mayor said Thursday final decisions might not come until the new year.

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Still, he isn’t backing down on a pledge to cut the city’s bulging 2011 $9.4-billion budget by $775 million. Toronto must do something to address that shortfall in its budget next year, Ford warned.

Arts groups, community centre workers and unions were among those who stepped up to speak.

Many said the city is failing to consider how cultural programs and arts grants – many of which could be on the chopping block – contribute to Toronto’s economy and its reputation on the world stage.

The review ignored “the ripple effect” cuts would have on the larger economy, complained Karen Tisch, president of the Toronto Arts Council.

“You’re also not considering the values of Toronto residents within that process,” she told Ford’s committee.

Kim Fry, a University of Toronto graduate student, said the city needs an even greater library network, not less.

“These services are used by Torontonians and it’s that public space that makes our city great,” Fry said.

The committee pushed back with complaints that speakers couldn’t provide any alternatives to cost cutting.

“A number of groups have come to make presentations indicating the importance of what they’re doing,” said the city’s budget chief, Mike Del Grande.

“But I’m not hearing, at the end of the day, the suggestions as to the real problem in terms of our financial shortfall.”

Tensions among the city’s politicians ran high. The elected officials cut each other off and even heckled one another as the day went on.

In the end, it was decided speakers should be limited to three minutes, not the usual five in an attempt to give everyone their say.

“It’s a challenge,” Ford told reporters.

“I’m being as fair as I can to each person and councillor that has come down to speak.”

The mayor said the committee would sit “right through the night” if that’s what it took, but his council could make a motion to break until the morning.

In an astonishing admission, Ford acknowledged he was the target of at least one death threat in recent weeks.

But the controversial mayor said he doesn’t think it is related to his cost-cutting agenda. Police have charged a man with threatening death in connection with the July 14 phone call.