David Reevely, Ottawa Citizen
Every year, Mayor Jim Watson dares city councillors to find a way to mess with his budget. This year, a record eight councillors are taking him up on it, proposing a small one-time infrastructure levy to fix crumbling roads and maybe replace a pipe or two.
Unless something truly extraordinary happens in Wednesday’s city council meeting, they will fail. Ten councillors are firmly against them, two are openly very skeptical, and 12 votes is the ballgame.
But that eight councillors signed up for a rebellion is something.
Council’s downtown lefties, whose idea of what the city government should do differs from the mayor’s, took a while but eventually realized they had that in common. Gloucester-Southgate’s Diane Deans has been at the pointy end of Watson’s barbs a lot and has had it. College’s Rick Chiarelli and Kanata North’s Marianne Wilkinson are suburban infrastructure fiends, so they’re in, too.
Other suburban and rural councillors have weighed their interest in infrastructure against their interest in keeping taxes down, plunked Watson’s disapproval on the scale as well, and made their decisions.
Ottawa has a long history of underspending on infrastructure. A year ago, the city bureaucracy told councillors we need to spend about $195 million a year just to maintain the roads and pipes and buildings and bridges we already have, but we actually spend about $125 million.
You can see it in the potholed roads, the cracked water mains, the concrete sidewalks patched and re-patched with asphalt (“Watson warts,” maybe?), the pools that close for annual scrubbing but then stay closed for months because the walls are full of mould. We do not spend enough on this stuff and the results are obvious. Watson acknowledged this in his budget speech and said there’d be more pothole-filling and sidewalk-fixing in 2018.
OK, say the Group of Eight, we think this is an even bigger problem than you do. Let’s hike taxes a wee bit and get even more done. Watson scorns them, because the two per cent tax hike he supports is exactly right and the extra half-point they propose is obvious madness.
This year’s capital budget is $729 million. Transportation and environment spending — where most of the hard-infrastructure stuff is — account for $524 million of that.
Eight million dollars would buy a lot of fresh paint and coldpatch, if cosmetics are good enough for you, but heavier work is much more expensive. Just the road-resurfacing budget — intermediate work between pothole-filling and total reconstruction — is $40 million. The pedestrian bridge over Highway 417 west of downtown is due for a fix-up, for more than $11 million. Rebuilding a few blocks of Elgin Street is costing $30 million.
The tininess of the tax increase, about $12 per household, just for the one year, is supposedly a selling point, but it’s also a flaw. The $8 million it would raise is not enough to make a very big difference in a city the size of Ottawa but would come at a huge symbolic cost to Watson’s prestige, breaking his 2014 election promise to cap tax increases at two per cent, in the last budget before the 2018 election.
More importantly, it would assert that the mayor is not in charge of the city budget. And that, folks, is something we cannot have.
Watson has designed a budget process that stifles dissent by never offering a time to register it when it might make a difference. City staff draft each year’s budget under his direction. Councillors pre-emptively agreed in 2014 to take each year’s draft and never to propose spending increases without equivalent cuts in the same area of the budget.
Orléans Coun. Bob Monette, who opposes the levy, says the pro-levy councillors should have brought the idea to council’s transportation committee for a full debate.
Had they tried, it would have been disallowed. That’s too early. It’s never in order for a councillor to say ‘Hey, what if we’re just not spending enough?’ until the final council meeting.
Which eight councillors are now doing, only to be told they’re rushing something in at the last minute, grandstanding, playing political games, pandering, even bullying. Bullying! By bringing a motion to city council’s budget debate.
This is a council that’s gone so long without honest, open dispute on anything fundamental that it’s forgotten that’s supposed to be normal. Some of the newer councillors have never seen it.
They’re used to quick meetings. If a councillor has complicated questions, you can see how quickly they embarrass, half-apologizing for taking up so many people’s time. “We can take this offline,” they inevitably offer, volunteering to get answers in private where they won’t disturb anybody else.
Under mayors Bob Chiarelli and then Larry O’Brien, council meetings were long, often sloppy affairs. We had some lazy councillors who didn’t do the reading, councillors who loved to hear themselves talk, councillors who couldn’t see past their ideological priors, councillors who were just plain thick. That was no golden age.
But at least they argued things through, and mostly respectfully. Getting out of meetings with minimal fuss was not one of city council’s key values until 2010, and it shouldn’t be after 2018.