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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."

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Playing Scrooge

Council held its final meeting of 2011 on Tuesday, assembling as what was formerly the Committee of the Whole but which is now the Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee. Only Joe Swan failed to attend the meeting although it proved to be difficult to maintain a quorum once 6 o’clock had passed. However, members managed to deal with all the items. It probably helped that the minds of some were obviously focused elsewhere. It made for somewhat less objection to at least one of the matters under consideration.

There were only two big items to be discussed. The first was the A list, the list of cuts and adds that would assist council in meeting its target of 1.4%. The items on the A list were to be the easy ones, the ones that avoided actual service cuts.

The major contribution to the A list came from re-evaluating the needs of Ontario Works. Executive director of Community and Social Services Ross Fair suggested that $1M could be saved if the current situation of 500 fewer cases held for the next year.  Currently the practice is to put any extra resources into a savings account “buffer” in the event that there is an unanticipated influx of additional cases. Fair believes that the risk of that is low. So this is not a “cut” to community services but an adjustment. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile remembering that the city does not have the option of not coming up with additional money if the need arises and the city is not allowed to run a deficit. It’s why there is almost always a small surplus; it can’t afford to run short.

Next, on the A list was the elimination of all capital grants. These are small amounts of money that have been used to assist some nonprofits to undertake a building or expansion initiative which provides additional service to a segment of the community and often helps them to leverage further grants and donations. In the past council has dealt with grant applications to assist with the Byron Ski Hill, the Potters’ Guild, Childreach and other organizations. Staff proposed that $200,000 be cut from that program, leaving only $50,000 to meet the existing commitment to the Aeolian Hall.

It was also hoped that additional $110,000 in revenue could be generated from rentals at the South London Neighbourhood Resource Centre and by increasing  parking fines starting at the end of February.

Finally, another $1.1M could be saved by “corporate position management”. Details of this would be revealed in camera. In all, the A list freed up $2.4 for the budget, or approximately half of one percent of the budget.

What would still be needed was for the boards and commissions—police, London Housing, ambulance and the health unit—to come up with another $3M by meeting the targets previously set by council.

The proposals were not received without resistance.

Steve Orser, having recently been appointed to the health unit to replace Joe Swan who had difficulty meeting the attendance requirements, immediately sprang to its defence. It was his understanding that the city couldn’t make the unit meet its targets, or so he had been told at a recent meeting of the unit. So what was the point of trying to force the issue? He wasn’t about to become a “budget assassin.” It would affect jobs and public health; he just couldn’t do it.

The public health unit is funded jointly by the province and the city. The province has committed to picking up 75% of the costs, but as the province has put in more money, the budget requests by the unit have also increased, so that the city is still picking up 31% of the tab. According to information provided by Councillor Nancy Branscombe, this is because the unit was among the most poorly funded in the province and has therefore been permitted to do catch up. Unfortunately, all the catch up is being provided by the city; the province hasn’t done a re-evaluation of it financial status.

Councillor Sandy White wondered what the (budget) numbers for civic departments were. She was informed by departing city manager Jeff Fielding that they had been at zero for the last three years.

“I can’t understand why other agencies can’t do the same,” Fielding complained.” For example, when fire was given a target of 3%, we had to eat that!”

White also worried about the significance of the observed 500 reduction in welfare caseloads. She was concerned that the decrease might be due to the fact that it is often hard for people to access the system.

Councillor Joni Baechler was also concerned that, by removing $1M from Ontario Works, was the city putting itself at risk of a shortfall? 

Fair assured her that the risk for 2012 was low, but thereafter it could be a different story as persons recently laid off ran out of Employment Insurance benefits.

Mayor Fontana considered adoption of the A list as a done deal since, in his opinion, it involved no service reduction. He was more interested in the prospect of collecting on unpaid fines. He had heard that would generate millions of dollars but recognized that it would require help from the province to act on this. City treasurer Martin Hayward noted that the city is actively engaged in trying to recover unpaid fines, but that the impact on municipal budgets is not as significant as suggested.

Paul Hubert was more interested in the proposal to eliminate $200K for community programs. “That gives me a little bit of concern,” he said, pointing out the various initiatives that have been launched by this program. For nonprofits, this is the only game in town to leverage money from other sources. 

He noted that every year the city provides big dollars to attract industry to London. But the nonprofit sector is also a huge employer and there is no capital in the market for them. As executive director of Pathways, he understands this sector and its challenges well. Removing even this small amount of money was “picking on a group that provides significant benefit to the community.”

Branscombe pointed out that these things don’t have to be forever, and there are other community grants. Her concern was “How do they meet our plan?” When she first was elected to city council, nearly 12 hours had been spent on doling out $250K in what she saw as a purely political debate. 

Hubert  replied that he wouldn’t mind giving it up for a year, but he was afraid that it might indeed be gone forever.

Joni Baechler has always opposed the capital grants. “The community doesn’t expect their tax dollars to go for that,” she asserted, noting that once Council gave money to an out of town initiative. 

“There are many good projects,” she conceded. “But is this the business we should be in?”

This is one area where I have disagreed with Baechler. Although too much time has been spent on them, and yes, the debate is often very political and there is tremendous lobbying behind the scenes, the money provided has often added substantial benefit to the city and its residents in providing needed recreational and cultural programs as well as community revitalization and employment, without the ongoing operational costs.

Councillor Dale Henderson insisted we have to look at the arts, because “That’s where jobs come from.” Stratford was actively looking for projects, and raising $7 for each dollar of municipal investment. Citing a need for “moral suasion” to have projects coming to town, he began to talk about a billion dollars, and the need to “get more velocity”.  With the help of the MPs, London could create 2,000 jobs through a film credits program .

“In Toronto, movie making is the #1 business.” He thought we could be doing that here. “Why isn’t Orchestra London playing on TV?” he demanded. He wanted a royalty fund at the federal level.

When he gets excited, as he usually does when speaking, it’s hard to follow his train of thought. Most of his colleagues had given up trying. It seems they had been through this litany the previous week when the MP’s had been at city hall.

Fontana cut him short. “We can’t do that here,” he stated.

Then Henderson took up a familiar theme. “1% of the budget is going to JLC and the Convention Centre.” He wanted to sell them.

Hayward didn’t argue with him. He just reminded him that the city was looking at some assets: the hydro loan, surplus land, the JLC, but there were contracts to be considered. And the $2.5M in the reserve fund was being used to help fund the downtown renewal.

Judy Bryant is the downtown ward councillor. She was not in favour of reducing program grants but understood the need to tighten up the granting process. But the grants provided much needed cultural infrastructure.

Finally, Councillor Bill Armstrong returned to a familiar theme. What happened to the money that police got for off-duty private security work? Was that money included in their budget?

No one had an answer. My recollection is that the money goes to the individual officer and that the police department charges 10% extra for administrative costs.

It is a question to be asked on January 18th when the boards and commissions appear before Services Review Committee to plead their cases.  With that, and the dozens of new proposals for projects to be included in the 2012 budget, the committee has its work cut out for it.

Christmas will be long past; there likely won’t be any Santa handing out goodies to the petitioners.


Rockinon said...

Since the sandy beach at the forks is now being questioned, according to The Free Press, maybe a little of the money earmarked for downtown improvement could be shifted to other parts of the city, like Byron, and the Byron ski hill. The volunteers who keep the Byron bump running are amazing. That hill and the experience of taking skiing lessons there enriched the life of one little boy that I know --- a little boy with a single mom who watched her funds very carefully. The mother was not originally from London. That hill helped to make London a great place to raise her child. Byron Mountain delivers a lot of bang for the community buck.

Anonymous said...

Santa Claus will so come Gina, even to the petitioners of London City Hall...and poo hoo on you for disseminating disbelief.

Santa always comes, always came, and always will come.

Santa's spirit lives in the soul of everyone whose become intoxicated with the joy of good news about good will toward all mankind living in peace and comfort on earth.

Merry Christmas Gina.

Vicki Van Linden said...

Merry Christmas, Gina:

And thanks so much for the work that you put into keeping Londoners so well informed. The amount of work that you do for your blog is amazing, and you provide background that is very helpful.

Have a great 2012.

Sandy Levin said...

What the civic admin has done for those departments it controls is as follows (Fielding had to clarify his comments after saying "three years in a row at zero")

2006 - 0.7%
2007 - 3.1%
2008 - 3.1 %
2009 - 2.6%
2010 - 0%
2011 - 0%
2012 - 0.3%