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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."

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Show her the money

Nancy Branscombe, chair of the Services Review Committee, had issued the challenge: council had to find about $30M, $15M in service growth requests alone, if it was to arrive at a budget with zero percent increase. It was time for members of council, especially those who had campaigned on zero, to step forward with their suggestions on how this could be accomplished.

The mayor was the first to step up to the plate. He had four big ideas to bring forward, ideas that would save money and add revenues.

The first suggestion was very interesting.

It had to do with the incineration of waste at the Greenway Pollution Control Centre.  Every year, the city spends millions of dollars incinerating and hauling away solid waste, Fontana pointed out. But there are new technologies in renewable energy and conversion to energy from waste approaches that could turn a cost into revenue. He wanted staff to bring back a report on this.

The mayor knows a thing or two about energy from waste, having been closely involved in businesses dealing with this. In fact, according to the GPEC Global website a week ago, when he was making this suggestion, he was still the chairman of the management board of that company. His name has since been removed. Perhaps the company has had difficulty in updating its website.

Branscombe pointed out that as this was only a suggestion to be referred to staff, she wouldn’t declare a conflict, but if there was to be any further discussion, she could not be involved because her spouse has a pecuniary interest in waste management.

Secondly, Fontana pointed out the significant costs associated with the removal and replacement of trees that have been targeted by the emerald ash borer. He suggested that the trees to be removed could be a resource to bring revenue to the city. In fact, a report had been presented to the Trees and Forests Advisory Committee on this matter only in September. Nevertheless, it was a good reminder.

Thirdly, he was concerned that information technology was eating up too much of the city’s budget, with the department employing about 120 people. Surely there was room for some savings there. And indeed, we later heard from city manager Jeff Fielding that staff had already identified contracts for software that was rarely used. The contracts were subsequently cancelled, saving the city about $1M. That was one of many ways in which the civic departments had managed to meet the zero tax increase for several years now.

The final suggestion was a barn burner: Fontana suggested that the fire department, although it had met all its targets, should implement a hiring freeze. Not hiring the eight new firefighters in 2012 and 2013 would save $1.5M, he announced, although the actual request was for $420,000 in each of those years. The fire chief was quick to point out that the new hires were to replace retiring employees, not additional ones.

But at least the mayor was taking the challenge seriously and for him there seemed to be few sacred cows.

Councillor Joe Swan also had a suggestion or two. The first one was a bit of a surprise. Having just supported keeping the request for cameras on the list to go to the budget deliberations, he now gave notice that he would be challenging anything on the add list. He couldn’t justify any new services or spending to be added. He also wanted a “cleaner picture” of the capital budget, a better understanding of the value of pay as you go, the debt situation, and the value of the existing reserves.

He was especially critical of the practice of allowing savings to be reallocated within a department; if they didn’t need it all, why shouldn’t it become part of the surplus, to be used at council’s direction? He singled out affordable housing. Why shouldn’t the $2.4M not spent become part of the revenue for economic development?

What he didn’t mention was that when he was previously on council, he had been very proactive in the cause of affordable housing, getting money and setting up the Affordable Housing Committee. And he knows full well that you can’t spend that money until you have the right project and matching federal and/or provincial dollars. So although the money may not be spent at year’s end, it has to be available to take advantage of the higher order government programs when they present themselves. The city’s $2M annual investment has leveraged many times that amount in government, non-profit and private sector investment. It has made us a leader in providing affordable housing.

Councillor Harold Usher has served on the Affordable Housing Committee for many years. He pointed out that the city has adopted an affordable housing strategy that has been approved by the province. An important part of the plan is having money to invest. “That’s what saved us in the past,” he concluded. “We had money available when the province and the federal government came forward.”

Councillor Joni Baechler is not one of those who campaigned for a tax freeze. But fiscal responsibility has always been her strong suit; she had come up with a list of 10 suggestions.

First, she noted that consultants are expensive and may cost as much as $600K for one environmental assessment. She suggested bringing design services in house so that the city could maintain its own centre of excellence at a  significantly reduced cost. The private sector doesn’t always do things cheaper and better.

Second, create centralized services for fleet, information technology and finance that include a number of Boards and Commissions, rather than having each do its own.

Third, eliminate downtown cameras. They don’t reduce crime and have cost more than a million dollars to date.

Fourth, collect development charges when a subdivision is being approved, rather than waiting until building permits are taken out.

Fifth, impose escalating fines on properties encroaching on Environmentally Sensitive Areas.

Sixth, stop picking up the tab for developers in the downtown. Charge them the requisite development charges. This would save $3-5M per year.

Seventh, start a modest development charge for industry. Currently, this is covered by taxpayers.

Eighth, raise the price of industrial land. Currently, the taxpayers subsidize industrial land by about $40-50K per acre.

Ninth, use city-owned vacant land such as that at the landfill at W12A for growing trees to stock the street tree program.

I didn’t hear the tenth idea; that had to be discussed in camera. 

I didn’t envy Councillor Denise Brown, whose turn came next. It was a hard act to follow. Brown wanted to sell off city assets like the market and the golf courses. She thought staff could bring forward some other suggestions.

Councillor Dale Henderson had his own views on Baechler’s suggestions. He thought February was too late to wait before bringing the work done by consultants in house; he wanted a moratorium right now. “Most are hired in January for the year,” he asserted. Where he got this piece of information he didn't say. He also thought the city could sell police cars and delay purchasing new ones. 

City engineer Pat McNally informed him that consultants are hired on a project basis and are hired well ahead of time. January has nothing to do with it. But if the work was to be brought in-house, council would need to put the resources in place to make that happen. It was not his job to point out that police cars are already sold for taxis and that, rather than delaying purchases, the previous council had bought up a number of Crown Victorias before they were needed because they were going out of production.

But Henderson was not discouraged. “There are a whole bunch of things that we can turn into cash,” he reiterated.

Finally, it was suggested that the additional Park and Display machines for downtown be brought on earlier, along with the stiffer fines for parking violations. They’d raise more money to cover the $500K for the parking garage which will subsidize the owners and employees of downtown businesses.

There were others who had embraced the tax freeze concept and campaigned on it. But they had no suggestions to offer. Nothing from VanMeerbergen, nothing from Polhill, nothing from White, nothing from Orser.

Perhaps they didn’t get the memo.


Shiller said...

My beloved Ward 9 Coucillor has never let facts get in the way before. Good to see he's still consistent. Let!s delay the police car purchase we already made in advance. Priceless!

Upper Crust said...

It's clear that Joe Swan has gone over to the dark side as far as affordable housing is concerned. But I suppose that's not a high priority for his neighbours up in the trendy North end of town.

Joe's not the Corley Road Socialist any more... just the Corley Road spear carrier for Arva Joe.

Tony Soprano said...

Three words for the Mayor: Conflict of Interest.

His pushing of waste management ideas while involved with a waste management company don't pass the smell test.

Consistency Cop said...

Is the Mayor who wants to cut fire department services the same guy who said that we could have Zero tax increases without cuts to service?

pissing knickles said...

still no mention of London Hydro, except for Mrs. Brown's suggestion that we sell it...what is she nuts?!!! That place gets more money out of me in a month then the milkman and breadman ever did, and I'm poor. I have a very small house with no grow lights and don't even use an electric stove.

As for Joe's conflict of interest...yep, definately, BUT, it's a darn good idea and if we're going to reject it just because our mayor is the only one who came forward then we deserve to continuing paying for the priviledge of not having to use an outhouse, instead of being paid to use indoor plumbing.

colin hendry said...

We should buy the technology to minimize the effect of burning garbage and sewer sludge from waste treatment plants. Buying it is like pouring money intot he landfill.

Gina Barber said...

For the record, Denise Brown has not supported selling London Hydro.

Anonymous said...

Our mayor would never let a thing like the conflict of interest legislation get in the way of a good deal for himself, his friends, and the city in which he works (but doesn't live). Would he?

Barry Wells said...

What meeting was this, Gina and when?

Gina Barber said...

This was at last week's Services Review Committee. I hope to catch up on this week's meeting of the Strategic Planning and Policy Committee tomorrow.