3 min

Stopgap budget passes

Councillors sharpening knives for next year's deep cuts

Is council shortsighted or willfully blind?

The City of Ottawa budget passed unanimously Feb 26 in less than an hour. The progressives got what they wanted — no cuts to services, a little money for planting trees, repairs to public housing and the arts investment strategy — and the conservatives got what they wanted — a zero percent tax increase.

Sounds good, right? But then, doesn’t the too-good-to-be-true feeling leave you a bit uneasy?

Unanimous? But these councillors can’t agree on anything! How could the process have been so painless without somebody pulling the wool over somebody’s eyes? And in this case, I think the folks councillors are deceiving are themselves.

I say that because they’ve made next year’s budget (2008) impossible to balance without (a) massive cuts or (b) a bigger tax hike than would have closed the gap this year. And since Mayor Larry O’Brien has been upfront about his tax ambitions, this year’s freeze more than likely represents the first domino to fall in a line that ends in a municipal wasteland: gutted services, offloaded controls and crumbling roads, city buildings and pipes, let alone withering arts, festival and quality of living projects.

To be sure, today’s good news could be the last good news we get from the city for a while. The warning signs? Look past the euphemisms used by Councillor Peter Hume, who drafted the plan and who says that the proposal “does recognize that there could be budget pressures in 2008.” He’s referring to $23 million coming from Ottawa’s 2006 surplus and $8 million coming from the tax stabilization fund, draining to less than $1 million the money set aside to handle fluctuations in revenue. This creates what Councillor Gord Hunter calls the “$31-million hole” in the budget.

And the hole in next year’s budget could top $70 million if not a lot more, with the cost of $2 billion in city services rises faster than inflation. One councillor cited a report received from staff that suggested a sustainable budget — which maintained services and allowed them to repair ailing facilities — was $200 million out of reach.

Yikes. As the shortfall becomes clearer — or as councillors begin to acknowledge it — we’re going to be looking at fighting for each and every service in our community. That’s the AIDS Committee Of Ottawa and Pink Triangle Services, as we reported in Capital Xtra Feb 22. It also includes the Centretown Community Health Centre, the Youth Services Bureau, and the clean crack-pipe program.

Here’s the most optimistic argument I’m able to muster. Usually, Pride gets almost no money from the city — just $1000 last year, for instance. That’s because a few big players currently carve up most of the pie. This year, the city will add $1.5 million to the arts and festival pot, with about half going to festivals. It’s the best chance Pride has seen in a long time — possibly in its 20 year history — to get hold of some city cash. If that money is later clawed back, next year or in a future year, perhaps festivals will take a hit that’s proportional to what they received in 2007. That’s the best-case scenario I can come up with: that when the envelope shrinks again, we’ll be on the inside rather than still on the outside.

I think I’m frustrated partly because the city’s progressive councillors were poised to spank Larry over the budget. He’d undid himself with enough councillors that even two weeks ago it seemed that a rate-of-inflation increase seemed like the most likely outcome of the budget talks.

Now, not only have they lost their best chance to assert themselves, they’ve also lost momentum. And while a one or two percent tax increase annually to account for inflation is hard for some to swallow — a big looming 4 or 5 percent increase will go down even worse in the suburban areas that forced Larry and rightwing budget-obsessed councilors on the rest of us.

So, city council over the next few months will be attempting to come up with an attempt to make a sustainable plan — a much more difficult task than today’s stopgap budget. And that means that activists — and reporters — will be following the municipal budget process for months to come.