Toronto city council has passed the 2013 budget in what Mayor Rob Ford is touting as a “historic” vote.

After a day and a half of debate, council voted 37-8 in favour of the budget on Wednesday morning.

Some of the highlights of the $9.4 billion operating budget include a two per cent property tax hike, more than $500 million for repairs to the aging Gardiner Expressway and $6 million in additional funding for arts and culture.

The budget does not dip into the surplus from 2012, which is believed to be in excess of $230 million.

“Our 2013 budget does some things that we have never, ever done before,” Ford told reporters following the vote. “This budget features improved services, lower debt, affordable taxes and for the first time ever this budget does not rely on any prior year surplus. That’s amazing. They said it couldn’t be done but we are proving people wrong. We are turning the corner and changing the culture at city hall.”

Council backs away from firefighting cuts

The approved budget includes a few compromises, including an amendment that will see the city largely back away from a series of contentious cuts to Toronto Fire Services.

Councillor Paul Ainslie’s motion, which was supported by Ford, called on the city to hire an additional 63 front-line firefighters and hold off on an earlier decision to close Fire Station 424 in the Runnymede area.

It was approved 35-10 following a heated debate.

Ford had previously argued that the cuts to Toronto Fire Services were necessary to balance the city’s books, but on Wednesday he told reporters that he was happy with the compromise reached, which would still see the city save about $3 million.

The motion will fund the new firefighters until July, at which point the results of an efficiency study are expected to be known.

“I’m not falling victim to fear-mongering,” Ford told reporters ahead of the vote. “I sat there and looked at everything and said if we could get the expenditures down $3 million instead of $5 million I’d do it.”

The city’s 2013 budget had initially called for the elimination of 101 vacant positions, which would have put five trucks out of service.

Now, with the hiring of 63 firefighters in addition to another 20 the city had already agreed to those trucks will remain in service.

“I’m extremely happy that the mayor and councillors listened to what we had to say,” Toronto Firefighter Association President Ed Kennedy told reporters following the vote. “They are doing the right thing by keeping these trucks in service.”

About 160 firefighters clad in red T-shirts were present for the vote.

In an impassioned speech to council, Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday warned against the dangers of bowing to union pressure, saying the cuts are needed to balance the city’s books.

Holyday then went on to slam the Toronto Professional Firefighters Association for fighting against a budget that Toronto Fire Chief Jim Sales has publically backed.

“We have hired 63 more people than the chief thought we needed. That’s a lot of people to hire when the chief originally told us we wouldn’t need them,” Holyday told CP24. “I just wonder what message it sends to our senior staff when they are trying to help us control our costs, the union objects for their own reasons and we side with the union. It makes you wonder who is running the place.”

Speaking with CP24 Wednesday morning, Coun. Maria Augimeri said the tone of the debate was understandable given the subject matter.

“I have been through many budgets and what I find is that the emergency services sector is always the most contentious," she said. "It’s not that people are for or against firefighters themselves; it’s about the expense. Emergency services take up the bulk of our budget and that’s why people are so adamant about being on one side or another.”

Budget vote came a day early

Voting on the city’s 2013 budget began one day earlier than expected, wrapping up at around 12 p.m.

The budget includes about $12 million in additional spending after council voted in favour of several amendments, including the firefighters compromise and a motion to inject $1.63 million into student nutrition programs.

A motion to add $5 million to the budget of the Toronto Transit Commision was defeated.

Last year council needed 49 days to pass the 2012 budget.

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Budget chief steps down

Just hours after the budget was passed, the city’s budget chief announced that he was stepping down from the position.

In a telephone interview with CP24 Wednesday night, Coun. Mike Del Grande confirmed that he was leaving the post after two years.

“I think it’s time to move on,” Del Grande said. “I’ve accomplished, as far as I’m concerned, things that needed to be done.”

Del Grande said the challenge of try to please 44 city councillors, combined with the task of trying to make Toronto residents happy, was a daunting one.

“The vilification and the hatred part and the nastiness that I received during the period – it just doesn’t make it worthwhile to take that kind of abuse,” he added.

Del Grande said he will now be focusing his attention on his work with the Toronto Police Services Board.

In a statement released late Wednesday night, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford thanked Del Grande for his service.

“He has been a key leader on my team, helping Toronto turn the corner and achieve the sustainable budget we passed Wednesday," the release said. "I look forward to the contribution he will make as a member of the Toronto Police Services Board."

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