It was a budget debate unlike any I have ever witnessed. Fortunately, there won’t be another until next year.
Not that there were many surprises. Councillors had already laid out their positions at meetings of the Committee of the Whole and subsequently the Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee which preceded council’s deliberations on Tuesday. Most seemed firmly entrenched in those positions. The votes had already been counted.
Perhaps that’s why a number of them decided to remain silent. Bud Polhill and Bill Armstrong distinguished themselves by not uttering a word, and Paul VanMeerbergen reserved his remarks until the budget had been passed, more than six hours after the debate had started.
However, others made up for their silence, most speaking on every item on the B cut list, and some requiring an extension of the usual five minute limit per speaker. It made for a long night.
But even before the actual debate began it was obvious to the spectators in the crowded public gallery that there were real and personal hostilities at play. As council was preparing to receive a variety of communications pertaining to the budget, Nancy Branscombe asked that the survey report provided by Paul Hubert be included as part of the public record. While her motion succeeded, four councillors—Steve Orser, Paul VanMeerbergen, Dale Henderson and Denise Brown—as well as the mayor himself, voted against it. That set the tone for the evening.
The meeting had started at seven p.m. Members of the public had started to arrive at four in order to secure a seat; by five the gallery was filled with concerned citizens from all walks of life. At five-thirty the regular council business was concluded. The public had expected the budget meeting to begin at six but instead they were asked to leave the gallery and wait in the lobby while councillors discussed some sensitive items in closed session. And oh, by the way, they had to have some dinner first. Don’t leave the building to get something to eat, though, the visitors were told; you’ll lose your spot in the gallery if you do. And so, when they were allowed back in the gallery an hour and a half later, many were disgruntled, tired and hungry.
The mayor lectured the gallery on proper deportment. No poster or banners were to be displayed, he told them. There was to be no laughter and no applause. And, while he appreciated that people were there because they had strong feelings on some issues, they were not to impugn the motives of those on council who might have a different point of view. They were to be tolerant and respectful.
He should have directed the comments to himself and his colleagues. The behaviour of some in their attacks upon others was nothing short of embarrassing. It was hard for members of the public to be respectful.
Matt Brown chaired much of the debate. He did his best to keep his fellow councillors under control but it was not any easy task. Orser was looking to take someone on, ridiculing Hubert’s survey, referencing Harold Usher’s family, and inviting someone, I’m not sure whom, to a “free-for-all”. Then there was Sandy White, attempting to taunt Branscombe for her political affiliation. But come to think of it, I do recall a few rather childish incidents during my own term of office, with some name-calling and pencil throwing. I was the target of only the former.
And then there were the attempts to divide the council along class lines, both in terms of their personal circumstances and the residents of the wards they represent. White, Orser and Denise Brown vied for the distinction of having experienced the greatest economic hardships. Orser didn’t have “a big $500,000 dollar house in Masonville”; Brown knew what it was like to have no indoor plumbing and a three bedroom apartment for eleven people; White knew what it was to struggle as a single parent.
And White and Swan knew how tough it is for the residents of their wards to pay their taxes, even though they themselves live in the west end of the city. People there weren’t saying “Tax me more.” Swan thought that the councillors from the more affluent wards seemed to have "an addiction to taxation." But of course, that wasn't impugning motives to those who disagreed with you.
But the most discouraging part of the evening was the blatant ignorance of several councillors about the issues on which they were making decisions, the process by which policies are made and the basic principles of budgeting.
This became especially clear when they were debating the reduction in the affordable housing reserve fund. Despite staffs best efforts to educate them on the difference between the London Housing Corporation which administers the public housing complexes downloaded to the municipality by the province and the social housing that forms part of the planning department of the city of London. The contribution to the affordable housing reserves has nothing to do with London Housing. It is a reserve that is being built up to provide long-term housing by leveraging additional dollars from the province, the federal government and the private sector. The contracts result in building activity and jobs, and safe, affordable and supportive housing in small complexes. It is part of an overall housing strategy, which includes rent supplements, affordable home ownership, convert to rent, and other housing options unanimously endorsed by council only a few months ago.
But all staff efforts were to no avail. Denise Brown, Steven Orser and Sandy White continued to disparage the horrible state of the public housing complexes within their wards. White wondered why the item was part of the cuts.
“How did you come up with it?” she asked staff. Executive director Ross Fair replied that the mayor had asked for it, but staff wasn’t recommending it. “Are you secretly opposed?” she wanted to know.
“I wasn’t aware that I had a vote,” Fair replied dryly. “I’m just providing information,” he added. “I’m not making a judgement.
But White had come to her own conclusions. “Times have changed,” she announced. She wouldn’t put another penny into housing as it is.
“Next time,” she suggested, “Just go across the whole budget and just slash. Housing, I think it has to be temporary. I don’t want it on a long term basis.” Whether she was referring to the housing or the cuts, it was hard to say.
Here she was echoing the mayor who had, at the eleventh hour, come to the conclusion that $1M for rent supplements that could get people into vacant apartments would be much better than $2M to leverage additional money for building new units across the city. He had even gotten some rental property managers to send letters of support.
He may have a point; perhaps a greater emphasis on rental supplements would be beneficial. But it doesn’t add to the housing stock, it doesn’t create jobs, and it doesn’t leverage private sector money. Nor does it meet many of the housing needs identified in the development of the council endorsed policy. People like Paul Hubert to tend become suspicious when there is a sudden change of direction without debate, without public consultation. And just why would it be better with less money? This, several councillors pointed out, was policy on the fly. It was disrespectful of council and the public. It wasn’t developed to meet the legitimate needs of the community but to achieve a zero tax increase.
Despite her rhetoric, White initially chose to oppose the cut to the affordable housing contribution but a misunderstanding during the actual vote caused the whole matter to be reconsidered. At that point, she decided she really couldn’t go against the mayor. She virtually begged him to tell her that the cut would be for one year only, then she would be able to support it.
Despite being told by the city treasurer, Martin Hayward, that this was a permanent reduction because it had to come off the bottom line, she succeeded in getting an amendment to say it would be under consideration the following year. “And next time would you please consider the other things that aren’t on the backs of the poor?” she demanded. “Like trees.” She seemed quite resentful that funding had been provided for the million tree challenge.
But given the circumstances and her wish to please the mayor, she voted for cutting affordable housing, which is definitely on the backs of the poor.
And should it be reconsidered next year, that will add $1M to a budget that is already overburdened with deferrals to the future.
So, with the housing cuts and the cuts to the Accessibility for Ontarian with Disabilities Act reserve, will the mayor get his tax freeze? Will the reserves perform their magic? Will the councillors sing Kumbaya?
Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion of Budget 2012.