Welcome to London Civic Watch

"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 6, 2011

Target practice for police

It’s no longer Committee of the Whole; now it’s Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee (SPPC). Even so, it deals with many matters previously assigned to the former and its composition includes all the members of council.

Not all were there at the beginning, however. In fact, most arrived a little late, although eventually only Councillors Denise Brown and Steven Orser were absent. I learned that the former  was ill, but no one seemed to know what had detained the latter.

The first meeting dealt with the draft budget for the coming year. It would be presented later in the evening, but first, there was a revisiting of the council decisions that had led to it.

In introducing the lead up to the budget, departing city manager Jeff Fielding reminded council that, although it had set a target in May, it could set the target wherever it wanted. The original target had been set at 2.4% minus assessment growth of 1% leaving a net target of 1.4%. the assumptions included $4M on new revenue sources.

“This is not about the base budget,” Fielding informed the councillors, noting that administration had not been able to meet the 1.4% target, even after counting in assessment growth. “This is about finding service cuts and cost containment; we’re looking for guidance. The puck’s in your end of the rink.” Noting that "You've been all over the map" in the last few weeks, he hoped that by end of evening “We’ll have a clear idea of where you want to be.” Staff had prepared a two lists of cuts, an A list that would have limited service implications and a B list that would go much deeper.

The reason staff had not been able to achieve the May target was clear: some agencies, board and commissions, notably the London Police Service Board, had not met the council approved targets.

Councillor Nancy Branscombe was the first to speak. She’s been chairing the Services Review Committee (SRC) which has spent several years identifying potential efficiencies in the various services offered by and to the city. "The cut list, that has to be a council decision," she insisted. She challenged council to come forward with suggestions about where they want to see the cuts.

Fielding pointed out that if council wanted to get to a zero increase, it had to find $10.7M, about $15M if it wanted to include something equivalent to the 1% levy for economic development and a few other items like cameras along Dundas Street. It couldn’t get there through efficiencies on the A list.

For Branscombe, the answer lay with the boards and commissions.  They had to come in on target. She made a motion to that effect.

It was a big challenge. The Police Services Board has never come in on target and, although our council representatives had voted against the budget request in 2010, the police were adamant; they needed the money. Ultimately, all members of council accepted their ultimatum, except Branscombe and I. Last year, Branscombe was alone in voting against the police request.

As it was, the police target was 3% increase although the civic department was coming in on target at 1.5%. The police wanted 4.8%. And council's own representatives on the board, Mayor Fontana and Councillor Judy Bryant, had voted in favour of the demand.

Councillor Joe Swan wondered how the adjustments to zero could be made. He thought there were some savings that had been identified at SRC that could be applied, or maybe some reserve funds  could be tapped, maybe a bigger dividend from London Hydro. He thought that administration had gone as far as it could go in negotiating with the boards and commissions.

City treasurer Martin Hayward agreed. But he warned council about tapping into the liquidity that the contingency reserve fund provides. You never know when you’re going to need a few extra million bucks. He didn’t want to be an Angela Merkel.

Fontana was not daunted by this discussion. “In any budget there are things you can do,” he asserted, noting that there were still two and a half months before the budget had to be finalized. “We did it last time; nothing has changed.” Acknowledging that there were difficult choices ahead, he reiterated that his target was still zero” if we can get there.”  There was the surplus, there must be additional revenues. And the money for investment “doesn’t necessarily have to be a levy.”

Councillor Paul Hubert was furious with the continued demand for zero and no suggestions of what cuts could be made. How many hours had they spent in service review? he asked Branscombe.  “We haven’t found chicken scratch. There’s a reality that we have to suck up.” Noting that council wanted a filet Mignon diet on a ground beef budget, Hubert demanded “What do you want to give up?”  

“Read the report for crying out loud,” he continued.  “The Moody’s report says we’ve done a really good job.”  He was opposed to increasing the debt load in search of money to invest. “Not on backs of our children.” He wanted them to be clear on what they wanted to cut. Stop plowing sidewalks and pathways? Reduce cops on the street? Green bins aren’t in? “WE have to make the tough calls,” he concluded. He had run out of metaphors.

Councillor Joni Baechler decided it was time to second Branscombe’s motion. “Staff have done tremendous work in bringing cuts to departments,” she observed. Others would have to carry their fair share.

Councillor Dale Henderson had a better idea. He had come up with a 4 point plan which would: reduce all budgets by 3.7%; identify surpluses for boards and commissions; get more money from hydro; have the new interim manager identify some efficiencies, such as contracting out some services. He wanted the zero to include 1% set aside for economic growth. In short, he wanted staff to redo the whole base budget. He moved his 4 point plan  forgetting that a motion was already on the floor.

Fielding was exasperated. Civic departments had coughed up $25M in savings, he pointed out. The CUPE locals had accepted 1% settlements. By using innovative and creative approaches, staff had found $12.5M without service cuts. 

“You’re looking across the table at the guys that have given you that.,” he said. “I just don’t understand.”  What he didn’t understand was why anyone would be suggesting further cuts to the Civic Administration while “the police budget’s in at 4.8%.”

Bryant, who had supported the police budget in her role as a board member, was not interested in raiding the reserves.  Staff had done a remarkable job . None of her constituents were saying cut this or cut that.  “At police services board, we are still looking at it,” she suggested. She thought some push back was in order.

Fielding was not reassured. “We’ll cough up the 1.4%,” he pointed out. “I know which ones are cast in stone. My guys (referring to the Civic Administration) are telling me ‘we want you to protect us for once.’ That B list is going to get pretty serious.”

Fontana decided it was time to call the vote to insist that boards and commissions meet their budget targets.  It was unanimously supported.

I was amazed. It’s the first time that council has indicated the necessary backbone to stand up to the police. Let’s see if it can maintain that resolve when the police come back with warnings of layoffs and crime in the streets.

All that was left was a motion to set the target at 1.4% as previously determined. Fielding assured council that if boards and commissions came in on target, it could be done using only the A list.

Paul VanMeerbergen saw no reason why council couldn’t give a clearly delineated target of no increase. “You have a community that cannot pay," he insisted.  And Londoners were already being hit with water and sewer rates increases.

But Councillor Sandy White disagreed. She was mindful of the growing gap between rich and poor. "It 's the people who are not struggling who support the 1%," she claimed.

I was unclear as to which 1% she was referring: The levy? The overall tax increase? The 1% identified by Occupy London?

I was sorry she didn’t persist. Because, although times are precarious and difficult for some, for many others, it is business as usual: regular pay increases, regular income, predictability. For many, their greatest concern is not how they will come up with a few extra dollars to make their community a better place, but what to buy for people who already have too much. And in many cases, the more they have, the more they resist paying additional taxes. Not all taxpayers are created equal.

Even Bud Polhill acknowledged that “You can see who is hitting the taxpayers too hard. People who have no jobs are supporting the 3% increase [for police]."

Fielding was dubious that boards and commissions would reach their targets.

“They’re going to have to,” responded Branscombe.  

The motion to maintain the target at I.4% was supported by all except Henderson and VanMeerbergen.

Then it was time for council and staff to go for their dinner break at the top of city hall. 

That may be at the top of the A list.


Anonymous said...

Is there a reason The City of London can't be told that in the Year of such and such, let's say 2013, they will have so much money to spend...then budget accordingly...even just once, one single year, I double dog dare them to try it. No more counting chickens before they are hatched or borrowing from Peter to pay back Paul.
I was listening to people calling into CBC yesterday complaining that Mr. Ford the Mayor of Toronto suggests they pay a toonie to use the city pools. What? We've always had to pay something in London, there are no free passes...vouchers maybe, but that just means we get tagged in the system and receive less from the foodbank.

Anonymous said...

Mr Full Time ORser missed a meeting. do tell. Probably out sniffing out his next photo op.

Barry Wells said...

A levy is a tax and a tax is a levy, according to the dictionary

levy (noun): an imposing or collecting, as of a tax, by authority or force.

tax (noun): a sum of money demanded by a government for its support or for specific facilities or services, levied upon incomes, property, sales, etc.

COMMENT: The only proper way to debate the merits of a special levy on taxpayers is to clearly identify the specific project the levy will pay for. That's not the case in London.

And to say that we need to have a pot of money from the levy in place before we know what it will be used for (in case the federal or provincial government suddenly provides matching funds for infrastructure projects) is Enron-style financial thinking.

London has about $207-million in reserve funds for emergency purposes that the city council can use at any time by majority vote.

Barry Wells said...

CAVEAT EMPTOR: An elementary principle of responsible money management is to never spend a dime without knowing what you're buying.

But a few members of London city council (Mayor Fontana, Joe Swan, Matt Brown and Paul Hubert) want to impose a levy on Londoners for an unidentified project.

As in, trust us, we know what we're doing with your money. Give it to us now and we'll let you know later what it will be used for.

And these council all-stars wonder why the vast majority of Londoners are opposed to it.

Anonymous said...

If there really is 2.5 months left before the budget has to be passed, what amounts are depts, boards and commissions spending now? It is always harder to make changes the longer you wait before passing a budget.