The quandary facing Rob Ford’s budget chief

ANNA MEHLER PAPERNY
Friday, February 18, 2011 – Globe and Mail

Mike Del Grande is having a rough day.

It’s been madness since he got in at 7:30 a.m., he says: Meetings with the mayor, chasing down councillors and staff, dealing with endless phone calls and supplications. It’s barely noon, and the city’s budget chief looks world-weary against a backdrop of budgetary binders and Knights of Columbus certificates.

But he likes the gig, right? Head of the budget he spent the David Miller years picking through and railing against?

“Do I like the job?” He grimaces. “That’s a relative word. I have a hard job. And I have a job that is not enviable. But I’m not afraid to roll up my sleeves.”

Mr. Del Grande is in the unenviable position of delivering a budget even he admits is not his. The parameters of the first budget of Toronto’s Ford era – a property-tax freeze, the axing of the vehicle registration tax and no “major” service cuts – were dictated before he was even named chair. Once they pass their final hurdles at city council next week, they’ll have been rushed through in record time.

“This is basically a direction to staff from the mayor, directed by the mayor,” he says. “I’m overseeing it, but in terms of actually getting into the nitty-gritty and stuff, I haven’t been able to do that.”

It’s frustrating, he says, for someone who would routinely preface his quibbles at fractious council meetings with his credentials as a chartered accountant to be prevented from diving into the nitty-gritty. But that appears unlikely to change.

The city’s been told to gird itself for a 2012 budget that staff warn won’t have the luxury of this year’s surpluses and reserve funds to balance itself. But rather than decentralizing or ceding control over who pulls the strings at city hall, the mayor’s influential brother Doug Ford wants to see even more power vested in the mayor’s office.

“The mayor should have veto power,” he said in an interview this week. “The mayor should be the mayor. At the end of the day … he’s responsible for everything.”

The Fords may never realize that wish – indeed, Mayor Ford laughed off his brother’s veto aspirations, saying he doesn’t share them – but it indicates their intention to keep calling the shots from their adjacent second-floor offices. And that puts people like budget chair Mike Del Grande in the awkward position of being straw chiefs of files over which they have no say.

Doug Ford strenuously denies this: The executive has “100-per-cent” input, he says. “And they’re going to take more ownership as we move forward.”

Mr. Ford’s critics argue the centralized, expedited decision-making is undemocratic and unconsultative – that it sidesteps council’s consensus-building imperative. Mr. Ford’s office and his supporters counter that he was elected to shake things up, and he damn well intends to.

But it seems odd, says former budget chief Shelley Carroll, to have a budget chief who, well into January, professed near total ignorance as to what was actually in the budget.

“Once you know who your budget chief is, you want him to be in full briefings,” she said. “It seems like that started late in the game.”

It was perhaps a telling moment earlier this month when anti-poverty protesters stormed the last budget committee meeting and made a beeline for Doug Ford, rather than Mr. Del Grande. Of course they did, OCAP member Lisa Schofield said after the tense standoff. They know who’s calling the shots.

THE BEAN COUNTER WITH BITE

For the first time since entering city hall in 2003 as a councillor for Ward 39 (Scarborough-Agincourt), Mr. Del Grande is finally on the inside. He admits it’s frustrating not having as much autonomy as he’d like. “I’m one guy,” he notes. “I don’t have extra staff, okay?” But he adds he’s not in it for fame or a high profile.

“The easy thing for me is to say, ‘You know what? I quit.’ Who’s going to do the job, okay? It’s not a glory job as far as I’m concerned, okay? I would prefer a low profile, rolling up my sleeves and doing what needs to be done.”

Mr. Del Grande cut his teeth on the Toronto Catholic District School Board’s budget in the 1990s, a job he juggled with his work as an accountant for Shoppers Drug Mart’s Scarborough office (he notes he also has degrees in commerce, theology and education, in addition to his accounting certification). He still misses the school board, he says, and prefers trusteeship to his duties as councillor. “It was all about the kids,” he says, sounding almost wistful.

He later adds, “if it was about the pay, I would’ve been a school principal by now. I would’ve been at $130,000, $140,000 with two months off or whatever it is.”

He ran for council in 2003 because he felt he’d done his time as a trustee – and he didn’t like his local councillor, Sherene Shaw. His eldest son, John Del Grande, who ran his campaign, now holds his dad’s old trustee seat.

Once on council he earned himself a contrarian reputation – both on the budget and elsewhere. He was among several councillors who lobbied vocally to keep then-police chief Julian Fantino.

In contrast to the Fords, aw-shucks everymen who grew up in relative wealth, Mr. Del Grande often prefaces his fiscally conservative, spending-trimming stance by noting he grew up the son of struggling Italian immigrants in Toronto.

“I know my roots, I know my background,” he says. “No one needs to teach me lessons about being poor, okay. I don’t need those lessons.”

At a recent budget committee discussion debating funding for bedbug eradication, Mr. Del Grande said he has had personal battles with the creepy-crawlies himself.

“I have a lot of experience with bedbugs. Lots of experience,” he said. “It’s a battle. … They are a psychological terror.”

And while he says he needs more time to look at trends for individual line items, he has no shortage of opinions on how to tackle the budget and the city’s financial blind spots. For one thing, he’d like to abolish property taxes altogether, in favour of giving the city a permanent share of income tax. Failing that, he’d at least like to see the city trim the services it offers, offset by the uploading of some city-funded programs so they’re the responsibility of other levels of government.

“Out of every dollar that people pay in taxes, the city gets, I think, about six cents,” he says. “We get more than six cents when the federal government or the provincial government tosses us a bone, but the problem with tossing bones is that they’re not consistent. There’s no reliability.”

If his talk of what he calls “a new deal with cities” from the province and the feds sounds familiar, it’s because former mayor David Miller had a similar refrain. Mr. Miller argued incessantly that Toronto’s systemic funding challenges stem from senior levels of government not stepping up to the municipal funding plate. Mr. Miller campaigned tirelessly and fruitlessly for a penny of the GST.

THE DIPLOMATIC CHALLENGE

“The budget requires a personality who is focused, who is strong, who can deliver the city’s mandate but who also is knowledgeable,” said former council colleague Jane Pitfield, who argued Mr. Del Grande is just the guy.

It’s that painstaking attention to detail, however, that could also make Mr. Del Grande’s life a lot more difficult.

“He sometimes sees himself more as a staff person than a politician,” says now-retired councillor Brian Ashton. “‘Howmany beans are you counting there? Let me count them. I’ll go in there, I’ll do that.’ … He’s a good instrument if there’s a solid visionary and leader at the city who has mapped out a course they want to follow: He’s the guy you want to step on like a gas pedal. But he has to back up from the forest, or he’ll just keep banging into trees and getting bruised.”

His temper could hinder him, as well. Mr. Del Grande still remembers being dubbed “Oscar the Grouch” by a cheeky reporter seven years ago. He’s not a fan of the moniker, or of the criticism he garnered by insisting people speaking at budget consultations stick to their allotted five minutes.

“When you start bringing in widows and orphans, saying, ‘Give them more time because they’re special and stuff,’ well, as soon as I do that, I’ve got to do that with everybody.”

But winning over recalcitrant councillors is in itself a diplomatic exercise that doesn’t require accounting skills as much as “babysitting and parenting skills,” notes David Soknacki, who steered the budget through Mr. Miller’s first term.

“Trying to get a majority and trying to bring people along really does try one’s parenting skills,” he said. “It’s a recognition that you as one vote are not going to pass the budget.”

As for his relationship with the strong-willed Ford brothers, Mr. Del Grande notes that despite communication challenges and growing pains, “I’ve got an open door to the mayor’s office.” And while he’s not in it for any adulation, some recognition wouldn’t hurt.

“People don’t understand. I’m awake at four in the morning worrying about this place,” he says.

“But I don’t have a cupboard full of magician’s hats with rabbits inside.”

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