Tonight sometime after 6 p.m. will be council’s last opportunity to debate the various elements of the budget. Once the final vote is cast, there will be no turning back.
Last year was the first year for many years that the budget was unanimously endorsed. For the past decade or so, Paul VanMeerbergen was the only one to vote against it. Last year, with a zero increase, he also voted in favour of its adoption.
So, what will happen this time around? Will those who were on the losing end of an 8-7 vote, indeed several 8-7 votes, be willing to throw their support behind the zero tax increase regardless of how it was achieved?
In my four years on council, I always supported the final budget. I didn’t agree with everything; I fought hard for or against some items. But I lived with the final decision, recognizing that not everyone can get everything she wants. In fact, as I wryly pointed out to council on at least one occasion, in my case, hardly ever.
But this is a different council and a different dynamic is at play. It’s no longer a matter of doing the best you can in the interest of both the citizen and the taxpayer; now everyone is exclusively a taxpayer. The needs of the community have limited resonance. It’s all about zero. And a scant majority on council seem to be prepared to sacrifice almost anything to be able to say they have achieved it. For two consecutive years.
But at what cost? How many individuals and families will have to wait another year or two before they have access to decent affordable housing? What will be the fallout of diverting nearly $8M from the reserves? How many people will lose their jobs as a result of “efficiencies” in city departments, efficiencies that were discussed in camera? How many jobs will be contracted out?
The impact of these decisions is not readily discernible, which makes them easier to make. But they are the really big ones, with big price tags. Smaller decisions hits closer to home: closing wading pools, shorter hours at resource centres, less arena time. No wonder councillors had difficulty supporting reduced grass cutting or street sweeping. These are the things that everyone notices. But if people lose their jobs, they hide in shame. If people are evicted from their homes, they become invisible.
I heard lots of talk at council a week and a half ago about how the needs had changed. The big thing facing people, so some said, was losing their homes because the taxes would be too high if they were raised by a dollar or two a month.
I don’t buy it. People aren’t in jeopardy of losing their homes or not being able to feed themselves because their property tax went up by a few dollars; they are losing their homes and hope because they are losing their jobs and their pensions. A tax freeze will not help the EMD or Ford workers. Ask them if they want a tax freeze. A tax freeze will not help our children get jobs, especially not summer jobs at city facilities.
But the needs have changed from what we perceived a year or two ago when we appeared to be climbing out of a worldwide recession. Before the Drummond Report struck fear into our hearts.What we need to do now is work together to build our community and support each other through our services and programs.
And more and more people seem to becoming aware of that fact. As the hardship for some increases, more of us are taking an interest and becoming engaged. There is no better example of that than the overwhelming response of the community to a survey on the proposed budget cuts sent out by Paul Hubert at the end of last week.
Within a matter of days, more than 1300 residents responded. And while they were divided on some of the individual details, they were overwhelmingly opposed to cutting the affordable housing contribution or the funds for improving accessibility. Nor did they want to place the burdens on the next generation by raiding the reserves. Check here for the full report of the survey results.
Is the survey representative? Maybe not. But as one housing advocated noted on Twitter, neither are voters. But together with the discussions on Facebook and the proliferation of blogs and emails, these are probably quite indicative of an emerging consciousness of Londoners about the changing nature of their community. And they want to do something about it.
And they will. They will send emails to their councillors asking them to show some compassion. They will turn up in the public gallery tonight to hear the debate of their councillors and to witness their votes.
It’s not too late for change to happen. Over the last few days a couple of councillors have expressed a willingness to reconsider some items as more information became available to them. Perhaps they’ll find some dollars elsewhere; perhaps they can forgo increases in their own pay and expenses accounts, and share the pain that they are prepared to inflict on others.
And then again, perhaps the mantra of zero will lose some of its charm.