This evening our city councillors will in all likelihood declare London to be a Compassionate City.
Fortunately for the city, this declaration will not be subject to any tests or commitments; a simple resolution of council will suffice. No need to be concerned about whether or not you make the grade. No business plans to present, no measurables to identify. A simple self-proclamation is all it takes.
Especially considering that the following day, Committee of the Whole will be looking for ways to freeze the budget for year two.
That will be a lot more difficult.
The first year was the easy one: let some projects wait, delay some hiring, find some contingency funds.
But now, the work has to be done, and those who will be hired later this year will have to be paid. And the cost of living increases are currently well in excess of three per cent. Where to find the money?
And then, there is the ticklish problem of the water and wastewater infrastructure. You can’t let that go indefinitely. After all, safe drinking water and sanitation are pretty basic for a city.
On top of that, the previous council committed itself to an aggressive agenda for developing more affordable housing, especially units addressed to meeting the needs of the poorest of the poor. And what about the planned expansion of public transit?
Then, too, a lot of expectations have been raised about amazing projects like arts districts, expressways and a new city hall that will deliver a New Economy. Those things don’t come cheap.
And some costs are proving difficult to contain. Police, for example. And Fire. They’ll be looking for a four and a half per cent increase just to cover the costs of what council approved earlier this year.
These are some of the issues that council will be grappling with on Tuesday. All indications at present are that in order to maintain basic service levels will require a 2.5% increase in the tax levy before assessment growth. So at a minimum, a 2.5% growth rate will need to be achieved in order to break even. That was the target the Mayor and Council set for themselves but reaching it could be difficult. Since annexation in 1993, assessment growth has averaged less than half of that.
There are some bright spots. As a result of provincial “uploading” of Ontario Works and other social program costs, some savings can be achieved. Although it would be nice (compassionate?) to re-invest these in meeting the needs of the city’s most vulnerable, that isn’t likely to happen.
It will be virtually impossible to maintain current service levels in the city let alone follow through on plans for improved environmental programs or social housing. Recreational fees and transit fares seem likely to be increased; library and museum hours to be reduced. There is even talk about a “special levy” (read “tax”) to provide a revenue stream for economic projects.
Less money for social housing, Ontario Works savings used to keep down taxes, increases in bus fares- none of these sound like the earmarks of a “Compassionate City”.
When London undertook the Creative Cities initiative, it formed a taskforce which issued a report with recommendations. A committee of council was established to ensure that the recommendations were implemented and consideration of issues ongoing.
When London was accepted as the first Canadian city to be included in the World Health Organization’s Global Network of Age-Friendly Cities, it was on the basis of a working group’s report and a commitment by council and administration to developing and implementing a plan for action.
To become a Compassionate City requires only words and a show of hands.
Words, not deeds.