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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."

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A tale of two boards and a committee

In politics, timing is everything. So learned the agencies, board and commissions coming before the Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee last week.

The committee was dealing with the operational budget. Traditionally, that has been the part of the budget that has received the most attention. It accounts for the bulk of spending and affects services to the public as well as the paycheques of employees, direct and indirect. Last year, council managed to keep rises in that budget down so that taxpayers saw no increase in their levy but it wasn’t easy, especially since costs keep going up.

This is particularly true of the agencies boards and commissions which set their own budgets but which are heavily funded by property taxes—police, the library, London Housing, the conservation authorities, the public health board. They operate under their own provincial legislation and have their own mandates while depending on the city to cover some or most of their operating costs.

In May, council had set targets for each body and most had come back explaining that they couldn’t possibly meet council’s expectations. While some councillors were prepared to leave it at that and try to find the money elsewhere, eventually it was agreed that wasn’t good enough; they had to go back to the drawing board. After all, city departments were meeting their targets and most of them were held to zero. Some even came in at less than zero. There was no reason to let the police, London Housing, the Conservation Authorities, and the Board of Health off the hook.

That was in December, and now they were back to report the results.

First up were the police. They have never, in my recollection, come within glancing distance of the target and they didn’t now. The chief, who had been asked to keep his delegation time to 20 minutes, four times what is accorded anyone who actually picks up the tab, warned that he might need some extra time and he did. He and the two board members he brought with him held forth for more than twice that, explaining that they understood times were tough but there were all these expectations they had to meet. They had managed to cough up an extra million dollars saved from provincial uploading which was more generous than originally anticipated, there was a bit of a surplus that would normally be socked away to deal with sick leave, and some general belt tightening. So now they were at 3.7%. To get to 3% would have serious implications for response times and some important although optional programs.

Council was impressed. Paul Hubert applauded the efforts made and Steve Orser stated flat out that he would be supporting it without questions. There were a few of those too, with queries about the relationship with Neighbourhood Watch from Joe Swan and Bud Polhill, cutting back on non-mandated programs from Denise Brown, and greater use of auxiliary officers and cadets for educational programs from Paul VanMeerbergen. Dale Henderson wanted to know if the police could bill outlying communities for police service but was informed that the police don’t perform such a service. All in all, it was an easy ride.

But not for the health unit whose turn it was next.

Dr. Graham Pollett, the medical officer of health, had not prepared a presentation. He had found an extra $100,000 of the half million or so demanded by council and was prepared to answer questions. It was not a good strategy.

Mayor Fontana started it off. As a member of the Police Services Board who had supported the original police budget, he had been very sympathetic to their dilemma. But not so with the health unit. For some years now, the province and city had been moving to a 75/25 cost-sharing arrangement. It had happened in a number of jurisdictions. Why was London still paying 31% of the costs?

According to an earlier information session on this, when the move to the improved cost-sharing arrangements had taken place, the funding in  London had placed it at or near the bottom of municipalities, so catch up would take longer. Pollett tried to point out that the unit was not receiving more money from the city than the previous year, that the additional half million demanded by the city was actually a reduction from the previous year.

But not many on council were listening. Even health unit board member had gone to some trouble to get numbers that showed a much more favourable funding split in other municipalities.

Nevertheless board member Steve Orser strongly defended the unit. He had been appointed to replace Joe Swan on the board “in my absence” he announced to general laughter. He warned that since there were mandated programs which are cost-shared with the Middlesex County, anything that London did would affect them. Cutting back could create devastating results for the city—lost time at work and school, ballooning emergency hospital costs, deaths—didn’t Dr. Pollett agree?

Pollett wasn’t prepared to go quite that far but Orser was on a rant. He believes in supporting whichever board he is on. Fortunately that’s not many.

“Thanks for putting him on the board,” Fontana told Hubert, dryly.
From other members Pollett received a barrage of questions. When had they last done an organizational review? Weren’t there too many managers and directors? How many enforcement officers did they have? Couldn’t they share enforcement responsibilities with city by-law enforcement officers? Didn’t they recently do some hiring? How could that be when city departments had a hiring freeze? And what was the point of a billboard about bedbugs? How many bedbugs did that get rid of? And what were they spending on rent?

Pollett tried to answer although he was given scant opportunity to do so before the next question. He pointed out the increased demands and accountability standards which followed the SAARS outbreak, that the 38 new hires were provincially mandated and paid for, that their inspectors were specially trained for health and safety, that their role was public education, enforcement and prevention. It didn’t cut a lot of ice, although Swan tried to support some of his arguments.

“Circumstances have changed,” chair Nancy Branscombe told him. “We have asked everyone to get as low as possible.”   She didn’t buy the argument that he couldn’t do the mandated services with a reduction.

“Are you saying that you can’t deliver the mandated services with 500 thousand less?” she demanded

“That’s right,” Pollett replied.  

“I don’t believe you,” Branscombe retorted. She asked for a legal opinion on the ability of the unit to require the city to pay.

There were two other agencies to come, the Conservation Authorities and London Housing.

Joni Baechler chairs the Upper Thames Conservation Authority. She had managed to get the increase down from 6.7% to 3% by one vote. They wouldn’t go further. The authorities had been severely cut in the 1990’s and hadn’t recovered. They had done restructuring and layoffs, they were working out of portables, they had to keep pace with the technology, there were 17 other municipalities involved.
There was again a question about the legal requirements to pay. City solicitor Jim Barber responded that council “considers and approves estimates” but has limited control. It has to pay the estimates.
“Guelph took on their health unit and didn’t do that well,” he said in an understatement.
Similarly, the Conservation Authority can appeal to the Ontario Mines and Lands Commissioner.
London Housing had also had difficulty meeting its target. It had found $102,000 as a result of some new information and was taking $300,000 out of its weather-related surplus. Let’s hope the weather stays good. They were still $170,000 short.
Knowing how tight the budget is, Bill Armstrong wanted to know if the units were all in good condition. The newly hired manager acknowledged there were challenges but they were doing the best they could.
Dale Henderson and Joe Swan serve on that board. “Dale and I found those savings,” Swan said. “We care about those people.”
Denise Brown wondered if the cuts would leave them with enough resources.  She had been in one of those buildings. She had not been impressed. “I was disgusted,” she said. “I was afraid to get into the elevator.”
I would tend to agree both on the basis of having visited people in the buildings and on the calls I received while I was on council. The condition of the buildings leaves much to be desired.
Following an in camera session and a quick lunch, the committee reconvened and gave it verdict. This time, the health unit was first in line. It was also out of luck; it would be cut back by another “$496,000, in accordance with the previous direction of Council.” Only Armstrong, Swan and Orser disagreed.  
Having taken its dissatisfaction out on the health unit, council cheered up. The remaining agencies boards and commissions were deemed to have done a satisfactory job although they too had failed to make the target.
The police, in particular, were deemed to have done all they possibly could. It was enough. In fact, Swan literally wanted to make it enough by suggesting that the original request be lowered by half a million dollars so that the police could be seen to have come in on target. It was pointed out that the committee could not change the recommendation which had come from the Service Review Committee.
When it came to a vote, only Baechler, Branscombe, and Matt Brown voted against the motion, but that’s two more than last year when Branscombe stood alone.
The motions to accept the offers from the Conservation Authorities and London Housing passed easily.
It just means finding a few more dollars elsewhere before February 21st when the budget goes before council. If they are still wedded to zero.


John said...

I always thought shelter and food were a higher priority than security. Apparently not.

Anonymous said...

no John, 1st comes the right to security of person, life and limb...the right to life, then come the rights to what we require to survive, first after life, comes shelter, then food, then healthcare, then education.

Anonymous said...

When rationing, security comes first. If you happened to be a housewife entitled to purchase a pound of sugar you hid the cookie jar. That's what those inaccessible over the fridge cubbyhole cabinets in upwardly mobile workingclass kitchens were designed for.