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"Ever wonder if City Council is as contentious and chaotic as it is sometimes portrayed? Here you can get a progressive perspective on some of the issues from someone who spent four years in the trenches. Totally unbiased, though! Feel free to comment but keep it respectful, just like they do at council."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Keeping the levy alive

“Eighty percent of success is showing up,” according to Woody Allen. But what happens if you don’t?

The mayor learned a bit about that when he returned from his jaunt to China, a trip which he called “unequivocally successful.” But he was somewhat disconcerted about the goings on at the Investment and Economic Prosperity Committee (IEPC) while he was away. A challenge to the 1% levy or surtax to fund a council wish list of projects including interchanges, land redevelopment, and downtown makeovers was not the kind of welcome back that he was anticipating. However, he took the news philosophically, pointing out that it was always going to be discussed during the budget deliberations, and he welcomed a debate.

That debate came last week when Chair Joe Swan reported on EIPC’s recommendations to the assembled council.

That assembly did not include Councillor Steven Orser who serves on the committee and who has been quite vocal about a levy that doesn’t fund his ambitions for his ward. His absence created a bit of luck for others, especially Swan and Councillor Matt Brown. With only fourteen members present, there is always the possibility of a tied vote, and a tied vote always loses.

The first recommendation was that the committee be permitted to have two vice-chairs as discussed previously in Not just the spending committee. That raised alarm bells for some.

“Wouldn’t that be setting a precedent for other committees?”  Councillor Bill Armstrong wanted to know. He has spent some time cosying up to Swan, so his question was a bit of a surprise. Although he supported the recommendation, the damage had been done. Without Orser, the motion lost on a tied vote with Councillors Baechler, Bryant, Branscombe, Matt Brown (one of the vice-chairs), Hubert, Henderson, and Bryant opposed.

However, this turned out to be Swan’s lucky day. His choice for vice-chair, Matt Brown, was immediately nominated and supported by council. Brown no longer had to share that glorious title with Councillor Paul VanMeerbergen.

Nonetheless, VanMeerbergen still got to present the recommendations from the second meeting of this fledgling committee, since both Swan and Matt Brown had been in the minority when voting on this issue.

This was an analysis of the projects council had identified as its wish list. The request for staff to bring forward its analysis had been made a week earlier. Staff had certainly been busy. Director of Planning John Fleming had provided a presentation of 45 slides crammed with facts and figures, including some preliminary estimates of the cost of each item and whether there was any money for it in the budget.

Fleming had asked for this information to be received as just that, information. Later, the projects could be ranked in order of priority but only when council had approved a process for doing so, including establishing principles and objectives and evaluation criteria. He asked that the process he had outlined be endorsed.

With Fontana out of town, the committee had simply received the information and not recommended any action. And then it went one step further: at the suggestion of VanMeerbergen, it recommended that the 1% levy endorsed by council in September be reconsidered. With Fontana and Polhill both absent, the motion passed 3-2 with Orser and Denise Brown supporting VanMeerbergen’s motion.

But now they were at council, and Orser was away and the Mayor wasn’t. Amidst concerns about the timing of the information, whether there could be additions to the list, how would it look to the public, and at what point the public would be consulted, Bud Polhill asked that the matter be referred back to staff. The motion failed on a tied vote. A motion to simply receive the information carried. It was no more than had been originally recommended by staff.

But what of the process of dealing with the projects? That was eventually received and endorsed in principle, with Henderson, VanMeerbergen and Denise Brown opposed.

Then it was time to discuss the levy.

Noting that "we have an ailing economy," VanMeerbergen recommended that no action be taken on the levy from now to 2016.  To tax people in the name of economic development makes no sense, he argued. In fact, “it has a Depressive effect, sucking disposable dollars out of people’s pockets.” Here was a brand new tax with a compounding effect. Council should raise dollars in another way.

But Swan saw the situation as urgent. “We have to get $800M new money into economy,” he said. He wanted them to refer it to the budget process and identify key projects near the top of the list in time for 2012 since the province had announced that $80M would be coming this way. “We need to have something in place,” he urged.

It didn’t take long before confusion reigned with most unclear about what motion was or wasn’t on the floor and whether it had been amended and if an amendment could be referred. City manager Jeff Fielding suggested a five minute break.

It took a little longer, but when they returned, the mayor ruled that the motion on the floor was to take no action, and that this motion was being referred to the budget by Swan.

Branscombe was clearly still in provincial campaign mode. Noting that she is a conservative, she recited its philosophy. She is of the school that “government doesn’t provide jobs,” although as a radio listener mischievously pointed out the next morning, it created her job. 

Branscombe has been chairing Services Review and knows how hard it is to find savings and, with a council wanting a tax freeze, coming up with the necessary 10 to 15 million dollars in the operating budget will be tough, let alone an extra $4.5M for a wish list. She wouldn't be supporting the levy.

Armstrong reiterated that the concept is to raise money to leverage other money. But he’s concerned about where that other money will come from. “$80M. That’s for all of Southwestern Ontario. Over four years, is that enough?” he wondered. He supported referral.

Usher was excited over the possibilities. These are good projects, what we really need. He was confident that jobs would be created. He was at FCM (Federation of Canadian Municipalities) the previous week and he learned that the feds are planning a long-term infrastructure program and another stimulus program, but they are doubtful that the municipalities will have the capacity to take advantage of it. And there will be money coming for Canada 2017. All it takes a 1% levy for five years and borrowing another $30M on top of that. Then we’ll have something to start with. But we’ll have to do a better selling job with the public. It’s not a tax, it’s an investment.

His enthusiasm spilled over onto Dale Henderson.”This is a great debate,” he chimed in. “It’s about people, not bricks and mortar.” The problem, though, was “We can’t  come up with enough money.” But he had a solution: the chamber of commerce has good connections to get money. And the university, the hospitals, people in real estate, they are all dying to put in some money. “Everyone wants to belly up to the bar.” He thought they could easily get $100M, maybe even $200M. No need for a levy. Just get the lists and start knocking on doors. “What about filmmaking? He suggested. “That’s where all the business is. People are looking to put money into this country.”

Not to be outdone, Fontana took the floor. The city’s current 1% growth is not sustainable “if you want a city of opportunity.” Just a small investment, $30, no $24, only 2 cups of coffee a month. It’s not a tax; he can distinguish between a tax and an investment. The $24 will be returned  to taxpayers five times over. He has travelled to China. He knows we have a great product to sell. 

“Come on.,” he urged. “The citizens of London want to feel as excited as you did last week and the week before. We’re on the move, we have three new companies,” He named them. “Sometimes governments have to invest, have to lead.” He acknowledged that it might be a tough sell to some people, but he had received more emails on fluoride than the levy. 

“Our future can be as promising as we want to make it,” he challenged. “ I’ll be there leading the charge.”

Judy Bryant would have been happier referring it to the 2013 budget; she wouldn’t want to squish it, but perhaps look at other alternatives. This was all going too fast without information. The current budget was already higher than it should be.

Sandy White had been receiving a lot of emails asking her to give it the axe. She couldn’t support it; she had too many constituents who are hurting financially. “Not one person in the ward supports this levy,” she asserted, but then added “When I go downtown with my rich friends, they want the levy.”

Paul Hubert was blunt. “If we don’t refer it, we kill it,” he pointed out. “Am I on board with all of this?” he continued. “No. But we have 9.8% unemployment.  You have to invest; all levels of government have to invest. It’s not about downtown. It’s not 401/402.  I feel my constituents voted for a compelling vision for the city.  We need to take the next step.”

In his ward, Joe Swan said constituents are asking “What are you going to do for me?” They are prepared to put aside $30 to attract jobs to London. He wanted to leave all options on the table—London Hydro, corporate assets, and the levy. The mayor made  two promises, he pointed out: hold the line on taxes, and job creation. He wants to “Get back to those dreams and aspirations we had two months ago.”

When it came to a vote, the referral passed 8-6 with Branscombe, Baechler, Henderson, VanMeerbergen, Denise Brown, and White opposed. Even Orser’s presence wouldn’t have made a difference in this vote. But it was close and there were some who were clearly hesitant. And some unusual alliances.

And although the talk was about $24 or $30 increase for the average household, that’s only the first year. Because you don’t get to $70 million in five years by adding on another $4.6M per year. So that will be 1% in the first year, 2% in the second year, 3% in the third year, and so forth. And as your assessment and taxes increase, so does the value of the additional 1%.

That’s not exactly a couple of cups of coffee per month. Not even a couple of lattes.


Anonymous said...

If the Mayor can save $30 dollars, or even $24 by giving up just two coffees, my question is, what's he been putting in the joe?

anon one

Anonymous said...

Councillor Orser might have more luck greasing the wheels in his ward if he showed up for the meetings.

Just a thought, Steve.

Anonymous said...

A word to Joe, Bud, Steve and Matt(and any other clandestine Liberals on Council).

The word is Solidarity.
Haven't you guys ever heard of party discipline.

Do you think I'd be where I am today if I hadn't ruled with an iron fist as Premier?

Get with it.

Bob Rae

Penny Pincher said...

"I'll be there, leading the charge," Mayor Fontana.

Er, Joe... I think that's what a lot of people are worried about.

Charge this, charge that... and then you're out of office.

Penny Pincher

Anonymous said...

I really wish these beggars would stop trying to conive more money out of us by saying it's only the cost of a few cups of coffee...if people stopped buying coffee our unemployment rate would skyrocket into double digits and businesses would go bankrupt.

Perry Como said...

Thank Sweet Jesus Mayor Joe's economic development levy is still alive!: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z84AYN6_iUY&feature=related

Veteran Observer said...

Re Sandy's rich friends: I figured Joe and Bud had a few bucks salted away, but all Steve's got is chickenfeed!

Veteran Observer

Anonymous said...

I like the film making idea. Big box stores are great if they are a new breed. We have a royal flush at our fingertips... the 401. London can get millions of people to stop and spend with glitzy signage on or near the highway. Everyone is looking for something to see or do, greenspace is a dime a dozen. What "fun" man made structure did you last visit? Now picture it 10x bigger... get it?