Let city’s true needs set budget increase

pg04-n-editorialDon DimanligIt’s one thing to keep a campaign promise: it’s another to disregard the needs of a city and its residents. Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson campaigned on the guarantee to cap the property tax increases at two per cent annually, but there must be flexibility to do more as city council sets the 2017 budget.

The city’s draft budget is to be released Nov. 9. When the final budget is set later this month, city councillors should take a hard look at the two per cent cap that has constrained their decision-making in recent years. If the revenue isn’t enough to cover major infrastructure and service expenses, then they should consider going higher. 

Four of the five city councillors who voted against the 2016 budget expressed concerns that there wasn’t enough money being spent on critical needs. One critic was Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney. In last year’s consultations she said: “It’s my role to invest where we need to invest and to spend where we need to repair. If two per cent means we can do that, I support that. But if we need 2.3 per cent, I won’t forgo important services.” 

McKenney made a good point then, and it’s a wise approach today. If the arbitrary cap prevents the successful delivery of core services to the citizens of Ottawa, then it should be challenged. The budget must mirror the realities on the ground – the true needs of the city. 

We are facing a complicated moment in Ottawa’s history with mega-projects like a new flagship Central Library, the LRT line and celebrations for Canada’s150th anniversary. While money is being thrust into these projects, it has the potential to take money away from stressed services and deteriorating infrastructure.

Politicians have to deal with realities they didn’t anticipate. While it can be argued that Watson is good at reading the needs of the public, there’s no way he could have predicted that a major chunk of one of Ottawa’s busiest street would collapse into an apocalyptic sinkhole. 

When that stretch of Rideau Street disappeared earlier this year, an army of city employees had to work overtime to repair the damage. That’s why flexibility is so important: it provides room to re-adjust when things don’t go as planned. 

In 2014, Watson said: “We think this (two-per-cent cap) is a reasonable level to bring in enough revenue to provide the services we need to the public and make the city even more affordable on a go-forward basis.” But compromise is key to how politicians operate. 

Councillors come to the table with competing interests and urgent demands. McKenney – with fellow councillors Jeff Leiper, Tobi Nussbaum and Diane Deans – all voted against the 2016 budget, arguing that social programs were in dire straits and needed more funding.

Council must weigh the urgency of appeals from councillors and the public and set the budget accordingly.

Yes, Watson campaigned on a promise of capping budget hikes at two per cent. And yes, he won a city-wide mandate when he was elected mayor. But not all members of city council made the same promise. Watson accounts for just one of the 24 votes. 

No doubt keeping a lid on taxes is a good thing – that’s indisputable.  But, when councillors approve the final budget on Dec. 14, the two-per-cent cap should be seen as a guideline. Our elected officials need to remain flexible to meet the demands of the city.