With last year’s budget battles and funding cuts still fresh on the minds of many, there was a collective sigh of relief among Ottawa residents when the city’s 2005 draft budget was released early last month.
The draft budget, which was tabled by city staff on Dec 15, does not propose any cuts to the city’s 2004 operating budget. Instead, the budget includes a three percent property tax increase (excluding police services) needed to maintain the city’s current level of programs and services, as well as a “rate of inflation increase” in user fees/ charges such as mass transit fares.
But while the budget may not make any new cuts, it does nothing to stop the bleeding from last year’s budget hacking, especially in the arts community.
And Anne Wright, the gay community’s representative on the city’s Equity And Diversity Advisory Committee, says with city manager Kent Kirkpatrick promising to find $7.5 million in savings through administrative reductions and efficiencies, there is still concern that Ottawa’s queer community may face further cuts.
"We are concerned about what that’s going to mean for city programs. They really did deep cuts last year, and they are using last year’s budget as their base and they haven’t restored any base funding that they cut last year, and that still is a concern,” says Wright.
Many of those cuts last year affected the city’s arts community, and local queer artists say they haven’t recovered.
Ottawa-based artist Carl Stewart, president of Enriched Bread Artists’ board of directors, says the city’s lack of adequate investment in the National Capital Region’s arts community makes it that much harder to create and maintain a vibrant, local sense of Ottawa culture.
"I don’t think that the status quo is a good option to say the least,” says Stewart of the 2005 draft budget.
He adds that the city’s per capita spending on arts and culture is behind most major cities in Canada, including Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.
"What does that say about the nation’s capital?” asks Stewart. “When they are trying to attract people to [relocate] to the city, it’s not just a bus service or a leaf pick-up or the arts – it’s all essential, it’s all necessary."
As well, SAW Gallery co-artistic director Stefan St-Laurent says even though there are no proposed cutbacks to city’s arts funding in the 2005 budget, the cost of living and operating as an artist in the city continues to climb – with little or no relief from the city.
"Even a 25 percent increase in the budget spending [for the arts] would have such an huge impact, it would change the whole landscape in Ottawa as far as arts and culture,” says St-Laurent, adding that the large amount of turnover in Ottawa-area arts organizations is due, in part, to chronic under-funding. “Within two years people burn out… they want us to be happy [with this budget], but we’re not."
Somerset Ward councillor Diane Holmes agrees.
"We are seriously underfunding the arts community now, so we should be increasing our arts funding,” says Holmes. “I mean, it is good news that we aren’t cutting, but perhaps if we can get this budget of non-cutting through this year, maybe next year we can look at increasing arts funding."
Wright says she is also concerned about the lack of festival funding in the budget.
"Pride struggles every year, so we would like to see more thorough support from the city in regards to that – even if it’s just in terms of the insurance cost,” she says.
Holmes says with many city festivals dependent on weather, it is important they not only secure additional funding, but recurring funds, as well.
Holmes adds that council members had hoped to create a hotel room tax to help fund Ottawa festivals – as well the city’s marketing and promotion, and tourism venues – but Ottawa is still waiting for the provincial government to change the legislation needed to enable the city to enact the tax.
Wright also points out that the city’s “one-time community grants” have not been reinstated in the 2005 draft budget. She says the grants were “very important” for the queer community, as well as other newer or emerging communities.
"The GLBT community has very minimal infrastructure relative to its need and its size in the city. And so we’ve relied on one-time grants to seed new initiatives over the years,” she says. “And we have a lot of new initiatives in the pipeline in the community and we’re very concerned that we don’t have access to start-up money."
Wright, who also serves on the planning board for the proposed gay community centre, adds that the community centre committee is concerned “on behalf of all of the citizens of Ottawa” about the draft budget’s recommended increase in user fees – and in particular, how that would impact youth, seniors and people on fixed incomes.
"We recognize that costs rise and that we need to find ways to increase revenue, but the city needs to find ways to help people on fixed income deal with the increase in user fees and to advertise that so people know about it,” she says.
City councillors currently are holding their second round of public consultations regarding the 2005 budget, including a series of councillor-led ward meetings that began earlier this month and will continue until the end of January. Council will debate and then vote upon the final draft of the budget from Feb 1-4.