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Friday, February 17, 2012

Compassion and cuts

Last night I attended City Symposium, a monthly forum which features members of the community who have a passion about some aspect of their community—arts, politics, enterprise—you name it, you present it. It’s a great way to talk, listen and share.

The first presenter was Jannet Anne Nordemann. She’s the regulatory compliance lawyer who founded Canadians for Compassion in 2010.

Some of you may remember reading about her in an earlier blog. She brought a proposal to council to declare London to be a compassionate city, the first in Canada to give itself that designation. Council had staff check out the request, decided it was harmless as it wouldn’t bind it to any particular course of action, and took the plunge.

Nordemann reminded those in attendance about that event. She was puzzled. Why had everything gone so quiet after the unanimous decision of council to make the city compassionate? Why wasn’t anything happening?

Indeed. Compassion quickly takes a back seat to expedience when a zero tax increase is at stake. That was all too evident if we look back at the decisions undertaken by the champions of compassion when push comes to shove.

Funding for AODA

This is the money the city has to set aside for implementing the requirements of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. To date, municipalities have been required to do some pretty easy stuff, and the city has been conscientious about including accessibility features when opportunities arise as part of planned replacement of infrastructure such as traffic lights. But eventually, all the adjustments will have to be made so that those with physical or cognitive impairments are able to participate as fully as possible in society. So we have to be putting money aside to meet those obligations. We owe it to our citizens with disabilities and to the taxpayers of the future who ultimately will have to pick up the tab.

Still, at the Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee meeting last week, Mayor Fontana and Councillors Joe Swan, Dale Henderson, Bud Polhill, Steve Orser, Paul VanMeerbergen, Denise Brown and Sandy White agreed to cut $500,000 from the staff recommended contribution. So much for compassion.

New Affordable Housing Reserve Fund

For some time now, taxpayers have been contributing $2M each year to the New Affordable Housing Fund. This was pioneered by Rev. Dr. Susan Eagle, former Ward 9 councillor and housing activist. She had found an ally in Joe Swan who encouraged her to ensure that a committee of council was established along with a sustainable fund that could leverage provincial, federal and private money to get new affordable liveable housing to eventually replace the large urban ghettos for the poor built in an earlier era. That housing is deteriorating, and, together with inadequate funding for its maintenance and a tenant mix that undermines community, becomes a breeding ground for social problems.

While I was on council, there had been a number of unsuccessful attempts to divert this money to other uses but those of us who understood the leveraging value fought hard to keep it in the base budget. It helped to make London a leader in social housing. Whenever other levels of government were prepared to invest in housing, we were ready to take up the offer through our ready contribution. It allowed us to develop and redevelop small complexes and units in mixed housing throughout the city for the next 25 years. And it generated construction jobs while providing the stability of a permanent home for hundreds of families and individuals.

But once again it was under attack.

I was particularly disappointed that the mayor, who was once the federal minister of housing, would be so quick to seize upon this money which funded a highly successful program. But he had a justification: he could do more with less. He would take the money and use it for rent supplements in vacant apartments. Instant housing. Cheap.

The city already has a rent supplement program. It’s easy to do a bit more of that, but that doesn’t mean you cut the program, because that’s only short term housing. Currently, the city's rental vacancy rates have been declining. And when they were high, they were high for a reason. The units that went unrented were not affordable or not liveable. We have too many of these in the city. That’s why we needed to build new.

The mayor also suggested that the way to get more affordable housing is to make it a condition of new development applications. Here I would agree with him whole-heartedly. I leave it to him, however, to fight that one out with the development and home-building industry. To date, they have not been keen.

I also found Swan’s readiness to take away money from affordable housing disconcerting, especially when he called upon the ghost of Jack Layton to witness the righteousness of his stance. He had introduced Eagle to Layton, the national champion of affordable housing, but those were different times and he was now representing a different ward, Ward 2, where people are struggling and worried about losing their houses. He himself, however, still lives in a comfortable home in northwest London.

Some members seemed not to understand the difference between the new affordable housing fund and the public housing complexes that the fund would help to replace. Sandy White spoke of the horror of public housing—the drugs, the gangs, the violence—to be found there. She certainly didn’t want any more of those. As a social worker, one would think she would understand the difference. Let’s hope the opinions she expresses are not those of her employer. Similarly, Denise Brown, after describing her own impoverished childhood—and yet she had managed to hold her head up high—talked about how disgusted she was with the publicly funded housing in her ward, not appreciating that that was exactly what the fund was set up to combat.

The plea by several councillors to protect the funding fell on deaf ears. Nancy Branscombe described how Eagle, who came from a different end of the political spectrum from herself, had convinced her of the importance of funding affordable housing, that it saves money in the long run, money on health care and policing and lost productivity. “I had an unusual friend in Susan Eagle,” she began, at which Sandy White snorted loudly. Unfazed, Branscombe pointed out that council had unanimously endorsed the housing policies. Without this funding, its goals could not be met.

The arguments were to no avail. Mayor Fontana and Councillors Joe Swan, Dale Henderson, Bud Polhill, Steve Orser, Paul VanMeerbergen, Denise Brown and Sandy White agreed to cut the New Affordable Housing Program contribution by $1M. So much for compassion.

Raiding the Reserves

Toward the end of the evening, having cut as much as it could stomach from recreation and park maintenance council was still short $1.372M in its quest for a tax freeze. It was time to raid the piggy bank. VanMeerbergen proposed it and Orser seconded the motion.

Over an objection by Joni Baechler who was concerned about violating their prudent economic principles which had stood them in good stead, Swan who declared that “We're in an economic crisis.” He wasn’t buying the “$1M, the sky is falling in approach.” His committee would come back in full force in September to put people back to work. The reserves were plenty healthy. All that was needed was a buoyant economy which would get people back to work. The job now was to control taxes. To tax people now, they’d better have a darned good reason.

Every year monies are added to various reserve funds in order to meet upcoming expenses. The total of these funds would be $207M at end of 2012 including reserves held by boards and commissions. It helps to get good rates when we need to borrow money and it needs to be on hand to maintain cash flow and in case of a rainy day.

For Fontana, however, the shower could not get much worse. He declared it was hailing; this was the time to use the reserves to ensure that no one paid a penny more than last year. Besides, they weren’t really raiding the reserves; they just weren’t putting as much in them. And, although they weren’t paying down debt, at least they weren’t increasing it. It was a responsible, principled move.

”Don't tell me you can't afford to defer a contribution,” he said. “I know some of you don't want to hit zero because it is my target; it's not my target.”

Then, in a sudden turnabout he triumphed, “We can say yes, we've managed to hold the line two years in a row! The dollars aren’t as important as showing the public we can hit the target. At LUMCO (Large Urban Mayors Council of Ontario) we were the only municipality that hit zero. It’s a great day when we can show that we can hit a target.”

It’s hard to show compassion when it stands in the way of pride.

But it will be the next council and the taxpayers of the future who will have to pay for that pride.

Voting to remove $1.372M from the reserves were Mayor Fontana and Councillors Joe Swan, Dale Henderson, Bud Polhill, Steve Orser, Paul VanMeerbergen, Denise Brown and Sandy White. This time Bill Armstrong joined them.


Chris McDonald said...

Perhaps if those councilors had to LIVE in those townhouses/apartments and got to see what the people had to live with, they'd finally understand what it's all about. I wonder if I still have the old pictures of my unit lying around. My family decided to move out of "London Housing" because of the conditions there and I don't think Mr. Fontana has any idea just how hard it is to find a semi-decent apartment you can afford, especially on the unrealistic Ontario Works program.

Anonymous said...

There would be ample material here for a great comic opera with all the fumbling, bumbling, short memories and self-serving deception. But the real life consequences for taxpayers and citizens at the bottom end of the economic scale make it more of a tragedy.