Toronto city council approved a two per cent tax hike for residential properties Tuesday as it continued to debate the city’s proposed budget for 2013.

The spending plan also includes cash to kickstart a 10-year overhaul of the crumbling Gardiner Expressway, budget freezes for agencies including the TTC and Toronto Police Service, more money for the arts, and the hiring of more paramedics.

Despite the elimination of 101 vacant firefighting jobs, the budget contains a proposal to hire 15 fire prevention officers and 20 firefighters.

Speaking to CP24 after council voted in the two per cent property tax hike, Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday said the increase was just the right amount to meet the city’s needs.

“It was the right thing to do. What it does is stops people from adding more expense to the budget unless they have a way to pay for it,” Holyday said, responding to proposals from other councillors to set a higher rate. “Two per cent is about the rate of inflation and it's the reasonable thing to do.”

Councillor Gord Perks first suggested a tax increase of 3.1 per cent, while councillor Janet Davis suggested an increase of 2.25 per cent. Both proposals were rejected, with council voting 36-8 to approve the two per cent rate proposed by the city’s Executive Committee.

Council also voted 28-16 for a tax cancellation program for households making less than $38,000 a year.

As councillors debated the property tax hike earlier, Coun. Giorgio Mammoliti drew laughs from the chamber after he tabled a motion that proposed a zero-per-cent tax rate.

After he was questioned by Coun. Josh Matlow, Mammoliti said the solution to a zero-per-cent tax rate would be revenue from a casino, claiming a casino could generate $500 million.

Mammoliti said the casino could be situated on the city’s waterfront or on a boat.

In an odd twist, Ford voted against his own proposal of a two per cent hike, voting instead to support Mammoliti's vision.

He brushed off his vote later on to reporters, telling them he was simply being open-minded.

Ford's spokesperson, George Christopoulos, later explained the situation to CP24.

"If council supported it, he'd happily find the money. But they didn't and he is fine with that," he said. "He is pleased with the budget that's been assembled."

The meeting began Tuesday morning and is scheduled to last three days as council debates potential changes before giving its final approval of the city’s $9.4-billion operating budget and $2.7-billion capital budget for 2013.

It may be the final council meeting for Toronto Mayor Ford, who is awaiting the outcome of an appeal of his conflict-of-interest conviction. Ford will be ousted from office if he loses the appeal.

The mayor has a different kind of fight on his hands at the marathon council meeting, where he repeated his vow to trim costs. But Ford again heard criticism from some councillors, who argued that certain cuts would hurt public services.

Before the debate began, Ford explained why he thinks the proposed budget is good for Toronto, and he urged his council colleagues to approve it.

At a news conference Tuesday morning, Ford described the budget as a “turning point” for Toronto.

“For the first time in Toronto’s history we have a budget that will not rely on prior-year surpluses or one-time found money to be balanced,” Ford told reporters.

He said the budget bring improved services, lower debt, affordable taxes and sustainable spending to the city.

Firefighters protest cuts

One of the most contentious issues leading up to this week’s debate is the proposed cuts to Toronto Fire Services.

The Toronto Professional Fire Fighters’ Association says the loss of Fire Station 424 in the Runnymede area, four fire trucks and 101 vacant front-line jobs will hurt response times and put people in danger when there’s an emergency.

Ford has said that the same number of firefighters and trucks will be in service this year compared to 2012. However, Toronto Professional Firefighters Association President Ed Kennedy said emergency crews need more personnel.

“There’s no difference compared to the last year and a half where they have not hired appropriately for firefighters. (The mayor) is talking about current vacancies due to them not hiring,” Kennedy told CP24. “What that’s done in the city is take trucks out of service on a daily basis.”

He called the move “reckless” and said the fire department has had the same number of trucks since amalgamation and can’t afford to lose any more.

Wearing red T-shirts, dozens of firefighters took up most of the seats inside the council chamber at the start of the council meeting Tuesday, as they held a visual protest. Additional firefighters stood at the back of the room.

During the meeting, Coun. Sarah Doucette presented a petition with the signatures of more than 400 people who are opposed to the fire station's closure.

Before the meeting, Ford took aim at his critics, including the firefighters’ union, which has traded barbs with the mayor over response times.

“This budget, folks, did not come without the usual fear-mongering from the usual suspects,” Ford told reporters before addressing proposed additions within the fire services budget.

In a bid to debunk the TPFFA’s claims, Ford said the budget provides the money to hire for 35 positions, in addition to the 40 firefighters who will graduate from a training program in February.

He said the budget contains funding for the ongoing construction of four new fire stations and two new EMS facilities, new radios for emergency personnel, and new bunker suits and breathing gear for firefighters.

Speaking earlier, Kennedy referred to Ford’s speech as “smoke and mirrors.”

Kennedy said the capital projects – new fire stations – were proposed years ago.

“In regards to the new radios, it’s a project that’s funded every 10 years,” Kennedy told CP24 reporter Katie Simpson. “It’s just something that happens, so he’s not telling the public the truth.”

Kennedy said the city refuses to hire additional personnel at a time when fire trucks are out of service on a daily basis.

“It’s impacting response times and public safety,” he said.

Accept Gardiner plan, CAA tells city

In addition to the 2013 budget, council members will vote on the city’s 10-year, $15.2-billion capital plan, which includes more than $500 million in funding for Gardiner Expressway repairs and an additional $1.2 billion for transit.

CAA South Central Ontario is urging city council to accept the funding plan for the Gardiner, saying the 50-year-old expressway has suffered from years of neglect and will pose greater safety and congestion concerns if repairs are delayed even further.

“There is no more time for debate. We’re at the tipping point. The highway is deteriorating and experts have warned that any delay could be devastating,” CAA spokeswoman Faye Lyons said in a statement.

Each week, there are more than 750,000 trips on the Gardiner in both directions, the automobile club said.

With files from CP24 reporter Katie Simpson

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