Saturday, November 29, 2008

Budget time at City Hall

It's that time of year again, when our fair City looks at its financial position for the following year, sees a mess, then proposes to cut vital community services to make up the difference.

As part of the requisite song-and-dance, town hall meetings are held for each ward for the public to come out and ask questions. Five central-area wards (Somerset, Capital, Kitchissippi, Alta Vista, and Rideau-Vanier) combined their meetings to this past Monday, November 24, from 7-9pm at the Assembly Hall at Lansdowne Park (which, by the way, is located in the Civic Centre, by going to the rear of the building and going down the stairs next to the upramp. Pity that the Lansdowne Park website and on-site directional signage doesn't tell you this.)

The meeting was fairly well attended, though there were plenty of spare seats.

They had a good system for speakers: instead of having everybody line up and wait, they gave out numbers early in the meeting so that people could remain seated. In all, 37 people were scheduled to speak, though some people left before their turn came up.

By luck, I was in the right place at the right time and got a low number.

I pointed out that all of the attention in communities and the media and by the many individuals and groups who came out to meetings such as this one was centred around a mere $10M in social spending, and that this was a red herring compared to the tens of millions of dollars of road-building projects in the budget, each of which add annual operating costs in future budgets. Later in the night, Old Ottawa South Community Association (OSCA) President Mike Jenkins echoed this when he lamented that one of the wealthiest cities in the country is talking about cutting daycare, volunteer-run rinks, and community centres.

Ted Horton of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa asked for support for the U-Pass pilot project, which would see $125 added to each U of O student's tuition fees in return for a transit pass. There is a real possibility that this pilot will finally come to fruition after years of hard work and negotiations by University groups and Councillors alike.

I happened to step out of the room again and caught the CTV cameras interviewing Ted before leaving at 8:30 to file their report:

Delegation #10 made a splash. I didn't catch the name of their garderie, but they did say that they were the only francophone daycare, I believe in all of Ottawa. A dozen or so of them on both sides of the aisle stood up, all wearing little blue scarves to represent the childcare services slated to be cut:

She then presented each of the Councillors at the table, plus City Treasurer Marian Similuk, with a scarf. Similuk, Holmes, and Doucet all donned their scarves.

Other interesting points that I caught included:
  • Christina Tessier, Director of the Bytown Museum, described the perennial stress that community service groups like hers face: Every year, the draft budget threatens to cut funding to programs like the Bytown Museum. While there is a decent chance Council will reinstate the funding, staff still must face the possibility that their job will not be there January 1st. Ms. Tessier said that after many years of this, she has made the difficult decision to leave her position for a more stable job in the private sector. I encountered this problem with my staff each year while on the board of a community group which used to run City programs.

  • Someone from the McNabb Skatepark, which the budget threatens to cut entirely, pointed out that a skatepark caters to all income levels, that it promotes health and wellbeing through physical activity, and that kids will skateboard anyway, so we'd be better to provide a positive alternative to, say, the human rights memorial!

  • City Hall denizen Catherine Gardner, of Bells Corners, pointed out that the rinks in Bells Corners are proposed to close yet kids won't be able to get to rinks in other parts of the city because of transit cuts!

  • As the official meeting closing time passed, Helen from People for a Better Ottawa compared the Consumer Price Index, which has an inflation this year of 2%, with the informal "Municipal Price Index", which is going up by 4.1%. This is because municipalities don't buy much bread or milk--things in the CPI--but lots of asphalt, concrete, and other materials whose prices are inflating quickly. Councillor Holmes said that Statistics Canada had been working on a MPI, but they took the person off of that project. Councillor Doucet pointed out that the Federation of Canadian Municipalities is developing a MPI, on his recommendation.

  • Loretto Beninger, who is the vice-chair of the City's volunteer Arts, Heritage and Culture Advisory Committee, described the philosophy of the City's budget process, which dates back to the 1950's "grooved thinking" or "male breadwinner" model. In this outdated model, everything that was important to men (such as roads for a man to get to work, sports recreation for him when he gets home, plus sewers and garbage collection) was deemed "core" services, and womanly activities (such as arts and culture) were deemed "special interests". Despite the tremendous leverage in terms of return on investment that cultural spending brings to Ottawa (e.g. in tourism dollars), this model based on gender relationships continues to this day.

  • For the first time in 8 years, average tax assessments in Capital Ward are roughly at the municipal average. This is not the case in Somerset Ward, particularly in Dalhousie, where assessments are skyrocketing. This will magnify the effects of the inevitable tax increase.
The delegations finished at 10:30pm--an hour and a half past the scheduled closing time. By this point, two councillors had left, as had much of the audience who had already spoken.

Next week, Council will be hearing delegations from the public from Monday, December 1 until however long the delegations go. Originally, they were planning to have delegations on Monday and Tuesday, with Council to debate and decide on Wednesday to Friday, but last I heard, they were booking delegations into Thursday afternoon! It's going to be one hell of a week (or two) at City Circus!

People for a Better Ottawa are holding a rally at City Hall on Monday, December 1. At 10am residents are called upon to fill Council chambers to the rafters, then at noon there will be a rally at the newly-named Marion Dewar Plaza (formerly Festival Plaza--it's the Laurier entrance of City Hall), to "ask City Council if people matter as much as sewers and roads".

May we live in interesting times...

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