Every year, in advance of the City’s budget-setting and approval process, I solicit input from Capital Ward residents about what they would like to see changed (or kept) in the upcoming budget. The Mayor does the same on a citywide basis. In an election year, this formal exercise starts later than usual, but with all the debates, questionnaires and doorstep conversations, an election campaign is a fairly comprehensive budget consultation exercise in itself. So I feel I have a pretty good sense of what people are thinking and feeling.
However, what I hear during an election tends to be very general: More funding for transit, hold the line on wages, support affordable housing, stop widening roads, etc. This is helpful as broad guidance, providing a general sense of your priorities, but really useful budget direction needs to be more specific.
For example, what programs or specific projects do you feel should be maintained or boosted, and by how much? Why are they important? Which programs should be decreased or eliminated, and why? Are they a luxury or counter-productive? I want to hear your arguments for and against budget items because I will have to weigh them against the arguments I hear from others. Ultimately, I must present a credible argument to Council in defence of any proposed cuts or increases.
Some people wonder if it’s worth their time writing, coming to budget consultation meetings or speaking as a delegation at committee meetings where we welcome the public. Will anything really change, or will the “draft” budget be passed with minimal tweaks? I get it. You see little value in participating if you feel the consultations are a sham and the budget is a done deal.
Based on the few changes made to budgets during the last term of Council, I understand — and share — that conclusion. The 2011–2014 final budgets were but modestly amended versions of the draft put forward to the public. Why? I offer this commentary as useful context, but I’ll understand if it comes off sounding like an excuse:
- A lot of the City’s spending is locked in through union agreements, long-term commitments, multi-year construction projects and other limitations.
- There is no “gravy train” to be slashed in the quest to achieve a magical “zero” tax increase. If there were, successive councils prompted by engaged citizens would have found and eliminated it by now.
- What you consider an unnecessary frill may be a core service to your neighbour. Every line item and program was created for a reason. Each is well intentioned, though not necessarily run as efficiently as it might, nor as relevant today as it was when first initiated. But each program, service, grant or subsidy has its staunch defenders. Eliminating or reducing services is messier than you or I would like it to be.
- Increasing spending on any program, service or project involves a difficult choice. Either we offset increases with matching funding cuts to keep the impact budget-neutral, or we agree to raise taxes.
With that in mind, I ask you to share with me the following, bearing in mind that the 2015 Draft Budget will be released on February 4:
- What do you wish to see more, less or none of in the budget?
- What projects do you think are unnecessary or could be delayed?
- What services or programs merit more funding?
- What projects should be funded or advanced?
- If recommending new spending, how would you pay for it? Identify specific cost savings or tell me how much you’re prepared to pay in additional taxes. Council approved a target 2% maximum tax increase for 2015. How much higher are you willing to go?
Few citizens are experts at reading City budget documents, or have the time for it. I get that too. In order to help you provide useful feedback, I will prepare a summary of the Draft Budget, with specific commentary on Capital Ward projects and impacts, as well as citywide priorities that came up frequently during the election (transit service, affordable housing, pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, park maintenance, urban tree protection/replacement). I will post the summary to my website and include it in an upcoming Capital Ward newsletter.
Several pre-budget consultation meeting are planned for the second week in February. Find out more at bit.ly/ottawabudget2015.
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Councillor David Chernushenko