4 min

Community services are threatened

Ottawa looking to cut $100 million from city budget

Credit: Erik Faure

Ottawa queers could be hit hard by the city’s current budget-slashing exercise.

The effects of cutting up to $109 million in order to balance the 2004 operating budget will likely be felt at the heart of every community and in the corners of every neighborhood, but GLBT residents could be one of the city’s most deeply affected communities.

Anne Wright, a member of the city’s Equity and Diversity Advisory Committee, says the proposed budget cutbacks could have a devastating impact on the programs and services directly serving the GLBT community.

Even a moderate funding reduction, Wright says, would be of concern, as the city’s current level of per capita spending on public health is already below the provincial average.

“(Proposed) cuts to health and prevention services will mean the peanuts we’ll save in budget 2004 will result in much more expensive treatment costs down the road,” she says.

According to Wright, at risk are community grants funded through the city’s Innovation, Development and Partnerships program, which could lead to the loss of youth workers at the Youth Services Bureau, the reduction of program funding for Pink Triangle Services and the loss of momentum toward program expansion for the GLBT community.

In addition, she said outreach services to high-risk youth – funded through the city’s sexual health program – could be affected. And cuts to the Gay Men’s Wellness Development Services could also be implemented.

“HIV and sexually transmitted disease rates are going up in this community, not down,” Wright says. “(And) for every HIV case we prevent in this town, we save $154,000 in health treatment costs.”

She added that the AIDS Committee of Ottawa, Bruce House and Oasis – a city-funded drop-in centre that assists at-risk low-income and homeless residents – could also see a sharp reduction in funding.

“For every dollar the city contributes to emerging communities like ours, our community contributes 10 dollars in volunteer time, contributions in kind and donations,” Wright says.

The potential indirect impacts of proposed budget cuts on the GLBT community include the loss of 1,000 affordable housing units, 1,400 child care spaces, 100 shelter beds and 22 community centres, as well as the potential for increased bus fares and recreation fees.

City staff submitted its first draft budget to council on Feb 11. For that draft, staff was asked by council to prepare a budget that included expenditure reductions but no municipal property tax increase.

There are, however, three other budget-balancing scenarios also under consideration.

The first calls for a property tax increase of three percent. This would raise the average Ottawa homeowner’s tax bill by $70 and would reduce cuts needed to balance the budget to $55.6 million.

The second option would involve a 6.3 percent tax increase, with an average annual property tax increase of $148. This would reduce required spending cuts to $27.5 million.

The third scenario calls for a 9.7 percent tax increase, which would add $228 to the average Ottawa homeowner’s property tax bill. This third option would require no expenditure reductions in the city’s operating budget.

The current position of the council, however, is no new property tax increase. The city has not raised municipal property taxes in 11 years.

But city councillor Diane Holmes says there has already been a noticeable “reduction of (the city’s) service and staff” over that 10-year tax-freeze time period.

“And if these (proposed) cuts are made, it will be a different city,” Holmes says.

She adds that although hard choices will have to be made – and many community-wide programs may be affected – councillors must keep in mind those residents who have come to depend on city-funded programs and services.

“I will not balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable people,” Holmes says.

Davis Colbeck says he too is concerned about many of the city’s proposed budget cuts.

Colbeck is one of countless gay men who has benefitted from a city-funded program or service.

Colbeck had been a heavy smoker for more than two decades, until he was able to quit five months ago with the help of the Gay Men’s Stop Smoking Group – a smoking-cessation program offered through PTS.

Over the years, Colbeck says, he had tried to quit smoking several times by joining other groups, but found it difficult to be open and honest about his lifestyle and the intense peer pressure that often comes along with it.

“Male image is so important in the gay genre,” he says. “So it’s very important to be in a group of your own peers, so that you have a relaxed foundation to focus on your goal.”

Colbeck says the PTS program allowed him to concentrate on what he needed to do to successfully stop smoking, and not on how others perceived his sexuality or his lifestyle.

He adds that he is still in contact with many of the group’s members, who not only provide a network of continuing support, but friendship.

“I honestly don’t think that I would be a non-smoker today if I didn’t have this (program),” he says. “Emotionally, I feel like I can do anything.”

Wright says she is concerned that if city council implements many of the proposed budget cuts, programs like the one that helped Colbeck stop smoking won’t be there to improve the quality of life of others – not only in the GLBT community, but in Ottawa as a whole.

“My key message to our community is call your councillor and let them know that you don’t want to lose this city’s commitment to diversity and heart. Get out to public meetings, write letters to the editor, let your voice be heard loud and clear.

“Ottawa’s a city with heart and energy that comes from diversity and inclusion,” Wright says. “Let’s not cut the heart out of this city.”

Council will be deliberating on the draft budget throughout February and standing committee budget reviews will be held in early March.

“Our community needs to be heard at councillor consultations in late February and at city committee meetings in early March,” Wright says.

She says a key meeting will be the Health, Recreation and Social Services Committee, which will be held at City Hall on Mar 4.

Council will vote to approve its final draft of the 2004 budget on Mar 24.