Maintenance projects added to cash-for-parks policy

on .

Fears regular parks budget will be slashed

By Emma Jackson, Ottawa Community News

Despite Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper's best efforts, the city will now let councillors use their ward accounts to renew and repair existing parks instead of create new ones.

Each ward across the city has a cash-in-lieu account that gets filled up as developers build in their wards.

While the city's first choice is to have the developers install new parks to accommodate residential growth, sometimes that's not always possible – particularly downtown, where there's little room for new green space. In those cases, the builder can instead pay cash in lieu of parkland.

Sixty per cent of the payment is given to the ward account, which the councillor controls. The other 40 per cent goes into a citywide account to fund larger projects like the Lansdowne redevelopment.

Until now, the cash-in-lieu money could only be used to expand or create new park facilities, not to repair or renew existing ones. But in a policy review earlier this spring, staff said adding this kind of lifecycle repair would give councillors the flexibility to more quickly address problems with aging infrastructure in their neighbourhoods – especially if the park in question was far down the waiting list for regular budgetary funding.

That sparked a debate between councillors who believe strongly that repairs and maintenance should come from taxpayer dollars – Leiper, Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney, Capital Coun. David Chernushenko and College Coun. Rick Chiarelli were among the most vocal – and those who wanted the flexibility to take care of repairs more efficiently if they so choose.

LACK OF SUPPORT

Leiper said his downtown parks can barely support their existing communities, let alone the thousands of new residents who are moving into new condos and infill throughout his ward.

"We're diverting money meant to mitigate development and growth, and instead using it to backstop repairs," Leiper said. He argued that park maintenance is a "municipal necessity" that should be funded through the tax-supported budget.

Chiarelli was less diplomatic.

"Committee was sent out to buy some groceries and came back with a bag of magic beans," Chiarelli said. "Cash-in-lieu (payments) are a consolation prize. We require developers to give us parks ... or to instead give us money so we can add to our inventory of parkland and park facilities. It was never meant to be a secondary source of our maintenance funds."

The concern is that staff will now have an excuse to strip down the city's already meagre parks maintenance budget and tell councillors to use up their cash-in-lieu accounts for maintenance first.

City treasurer Marian Simulik denied this possibility, noting that maintenance and renewal priorities are decided separately from cash-in-lieu requests.

"We would not build into the budget an assumption that a piece of work was going to be funded by the cash-in-lieu account in the ward," Simulik said.

Any lifecycle projects done through a ward's development accounts would be a bonus, and would simply free up space on the waiting list to potentially get other projects done faster too, she added.

Mayor Jim Watson supported adding lifecycle repairs to the policy, on the grounds that it gives councillors more choice.

"It's perfectly reasonable, and perfectly permissible under provincial law, to allow you that flexibility," Watson told council on Sept. 9 before they voted on a motion from Leiper to remove repairs from the policy. "For those who do not support this, the answer is simple: don't use it for lifecycle. Just say to your community that, on principle, you won't use it for that."

Leiper's motion was defeated five to 18. Another motion from Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Tobi Nussbaum was deferred to the larger budget debate expected later this fall.

Nussbaum wanted to change how two temporary park planners are paid from the cash-in-lieu program.

Right now every project over $100,000 skims 10 per cent of the project cost from the ward account toward the planners' salaries.

Nussbaum wanted their salaries to be instead taken out of the citywide account off the top every year, to make it more equitable between wards and to offer some predictability for staffing and budgeting.

Staff have made it clear that the current staffing model is causing problems, because it's hard to attract and retain talent with temporary positions.