Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is defending the city's decision to offer buyouts to thousands of staff members, telling reporters on Tuesday that the planned cutbacks were "just the tip of the iceberg."

Ford said cutting down on payroll was the first step toward balancing the city's budget and that council would also need to find more services that can be contracted out to the private sector.

"We have to start looking at getting the private sector delivering some of these services. We just can't afford it anymore; that is the bottom line. And this is just the tip of the iceberg," the mayor said.

"We have too many employees down at city hall. We have to find ways of giving them packages to move on, or entice them to move on. We just can't carry 53,000 employees anymore.

"The labour force is too big and it is taking a huge part of our budget."

With Toronto facing a $774-million shortfall in 2012, Ford said cutting costs was the top priority.

City Manager Joe Pennachetti outlined the city's Voluntary Separation Program on Tuesday, saying as many as 17,000 workers were eligible to take a buyout to leave their jobs.

"Management will have sole discretion to either approve or not approve (a buyout)," Pennachetti said. "There may be circumstances where a position to us is too important… and we would want that position maintained."

Pennachetti said there was no way to say how much the buyouts would cost because it is not yet known how many people will take the offer. Staff has until Sept. 9 to apply for the buyout.

Those accepted into the buyout program will receive a lump sum worth about six months of pay in exchange for agreeing to leave their jobs.

Union members and non-union employees will be awarded three weeks' pay for every year they have worked with the city, to a maximum of six months. Managers would receive four weeks for ever year of service.

Police, transit workers and library employees are not included in the buyout offer.

Union boss calls plan shortsighted

Mark Ferguson, the head of CUPE Local 416, says he has met with the city officials twice to discuss the buyout plan and warned them that staffing levels were already paper thin.

"We are trying to protect public services and we will continue to do so with whatever measures we have at our avail," Ferguson told CTV Toronto.

"We believe that the city as it stands right now is bare-boned. We have gone through over six years of hiring freezes. To put more people out of work puts those services in jeopardy."

It is the first time city employees have been offered buyouts since former mayor Mel Lastman took the step during amalgamation in 1998.

Ferguson said that the numbers attached to the leaked deal are "substandard" and not high enough to convince employees to abandon their jobs.

Ferguson added that the city would have been more successful in cutting staff costs by relying on natural levels of attrition over the next few years.

Proposed cuts to arts and heritage programs

The employee buyout plan comes amid a backdrop of belt-tightening at city hall. A massive report based on a review of the city's core services is being released in stages this week, pinpointing how the city could cut to save money.

The latest section of the review, conducted by KPMG LLP, was released on Tuesday outlining cuts that could be made to services that report to the Economic Development committee.

According to the report, the city could save millions by reducing or eliminating funding to cultural services, including arts programs, cultural development and heritage programming.