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."

Monday, January 14, 2013

Ground zero: Part 3

As I was leaving the public information meeting on the top floor of city hall on Saturday afternoon, a couple of other participants stopped me at the elevator. They recognized me as having previously served on council and wanted to ask me a few questions.

What did I think of the event, they wanted to know. They had been surprised at how knowledgeable and approachable the staff were. They, like me, were delighted at the number of youth who were there to ask intelligent questions. All in all, they had learned a lot.

It wasn't what they had expected. A few times they had watched the council proceedings on Rogers Cable TV and they had not been impressed with the behaviour of the council members. They had spoken with one of the councillors who assured them that there was absolutely no voting bloc, but they were still skeptical. What they had seen suggested quite the reverse.

They were right on both counts, of course; the city staff is excellent and there is a voting bloc on council known as the Fontana 8. That it is not always called into play does not negate its existence.

This was the second opportunity last week for members of the public to learn more about the budget and the implications of yet another tax freeze. On Tuesday, staff had made a very detailed presentation to the council on this same topic at the Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee (formerly, Committee of the Whole), followed by delegations from boards and commissions which would be affected by the implementation of various options.

Among them were Margaret Mitchell on behalf of the London Public Library which, despite being the most used and cost efficient library system evaluated by OMBI (Ontario Municipal Benchmarking Initiative), will have to cut Sunday hours and its collections acquisitions in order to avoid any tax increase. Also speaking to the proposed cuts were Steve Matthew of London and Middlesex Housing, Brad Duncan, Chief of Police and Larry Ducharme of the London Transit Commission. All had the same story: high demand and low cost relative to other communities.

Staff had prepared an excellent presentation on what had to go to get anywhere near a tax freeze for another year. It listed 29 adjustments just to get to a 2.5 percent tax levy increase taking into account decisions made by council since the last budget. Just to maintain the status quo would have taken a 4.3 percent increase. As it was, the cuts proposed would save $8.5M. Another 26 cuts would be needed to get to .7 percent. Still not zero, but getting closer. Fortunately, a higher than anticipated assessment growth—nearly a full percent higher—could also be called into play.

At the outset of the meeting, the mayor had warned councillors that this was not the time for debating the various items; it was a time for hearing from staff and the boards and commissions. However, technical questions and questions of clarification would be in order.

The first person to speak up was Sandy White.

She had difficulty understanding one of the items. Among the cuts that staff had proposed was $1M from the contributions to the affordable housing reserve fund. She thought all of that had been resolved last year when council had approved the cut in the contribution. “Maybe I'm confused,” she said but she had thought that it was a one time only cut. It was to have been restored in the current budget.

City Treasurer Martin Hayward pointed out that when you put it back in, that adds $1M to the base; you can't do a one-time cut and expect that it won't have any impact on the bottom line when you restore it. Staff was suggesting that making the cut permanent would help to reach the tax freeze demanded by council.

This had been explained time and again during the last round of budget manoeuvres. In fact, it was the fallout from the decision to reduce the contribution to the affordable housing reserve and the public backlash that had weakened the resolve of one of the councillors, Dale Henderson, who began to speculate in the media that he might want to reinstate the money. Only the warm support of his colleagues at the Harmony Buffet induced him to stick to his guns. But he, like White, had only been reassured by a commitment to make this a one time only deal. Even then, the subsequent public outcry had resulted in council putting money from a one time windfall into the reserve.

But one time money is not the same as inclusion in the budget. That money was well and truly spent; there would be no more of it for the following year. That's the problem that some councillors have difficulty comprehending. An ongoing commitment requires predictable funding.

The same problem arose with the police budget. Twenty officers were hired toward the end of 2012 where they wouldn't have much impact on the budget. But here it is 2013, and they still expect to get paid. Where oh where will the money come from? Surely, we can't expect them to be laid off! And they all get raises, too. Their contracts will be re-negotiated next year. Zero has not been in the police association vocabulary.

Henderson was the second on the speakers' list maintained by the mayor. As a member of the London and Middlesex Housing board, he had a solution for the housing issue, or rather, two housing issues. First, there was the matter of the $2M to be put back into housing. Second was the fact that city-owned public housing pays taxes. Why should there be taxes on city-owned housing? All that needed to be done was to waive the taxes for public housing. The same went for taxes paid by the LTC. Problem solved.

Hayward reminded him that the city has no authority to waive taxes; it is a provincial responsibility to determine who does and doesn't pay taxes. It's covered by legislation. And even if one could waive the taxes, the city revenues would be reduced. Where do you get the money to compensate for that loss? For someone who bills himself as a businessman, Henderson has some curious blind spots. And how any of this had anything to do with the affordable housing which deals with the construction of new housing, not public housing, will remain forever a mystery.

Incidentally, every dollar the city puts up for affordable housing leverages $7 in federal, provincial and private contributions.

Then Bud Polhill spoke up. He wanted to know why housing was paying for garbage pick up and policing. Weren't those police responsibilities? Why was there extra payment?

The answer wasn't clear, but council has covered that territory many times. Poverty and marginalization bring their own problems and reactions. That should come as no surprise to anyone. Increasingly, high needs persons—persons with mental health challenges and victims of domestic violence—have been given priority in access to public housing, including family and seniors housing. Together with the cutbacks that have eliminated resident superintendents, residents are intimidated and frightened by the behavioural problems that arise. And so, off duty police are hired to restore the peace. As Duncan pointed out, residential complexes don't normally have their own police patrols; those have to be hired extra. For the most part, London police operate on a reactive basis; they wait to be called in response to a specific incident.

Then it was Joni Baechler's turn.

Last year, when they still had the Services Review Committee, its chair Nancy Branscombe had asked councillors to come forward with some suggestions for saving money, now and in the long run. What had happened to the suggestions? Would any of them be discussed as part of these deliberations? Although most councillors hadn't bothered to respond, she herself had put in quite a few, including phasing out subsidies for developers. “When will those be brought into the conversation?” she wanted to know. Perhaps on January 24th and 25th when they debated the budget?

Hayward didn't think so. Those were longer term matters, part of the developments charges background studies. They wouldn't get to them until April at the earliest.

After a couple more questions by Stephen Orser about selling off city assets and Joe Swan about the authority of the boards and commissions which makes it difficult to tell them what to do, the mayor introduced the subject that was most on his mind. Interest rates were low right now. Why couldn't they just borrow a lot of money?

It's not the first time that Fontana has suggested that increasing debt would be the way to go.

Hayward reminded him, as he had done previously, that it has taken some pretty hard work for council to get out of the hole it dug itself into in the late 90s with a lot of spending and issuing of debt. With discipline, council has managed to retain its triple A rating and get its debt under control. You don't want to jeopardize that. Already, the debt is climbing again. 

“Don't borrow to create expenditures,” Hayward warned.

At this juncture, Duncan made his pitch for more money, pointing out a Metro News survey that showed Londoners were happy with their police force and considered it to be a very high priority. To get to zero, they would have to cut 53 positions. Crime-stoppers, family consultants, school safety, crime reduction programs, high school liaison officers, foot patrols, community-oriented response unit.--all would be on the chopping block.

But Henderson, as always, had a solution.

"Come in at zero, you’ll be a hero!” he enthused. The way to do it would be to start an auxiliary force, start them at $15 an hour. They could issue tickets. There were a lot of unpaid tickets. If they could issue more tickets via auxiliary officers they could reach zero pretty quickly.

Like so many of Henderson's suggestions, this one fell flat.

Duncan pointed out that by statute, tickets must be issued by sworn officers. Furthermore, “We can’t have two tiered officers,” he added. And besides, ticket revenue goes to municipality, not to the police. It wouldn't help his situation.

There were many other questions about policing. Of special interest was one by Sandy White about the mental health strategy. What made it interesting was the fact that she had, at the outset, declared a conflict on this issue by virtue of work she is involved in and the funding therefor. A conflict means you can't discuss the issue as well as not vote on it. But she couldn't resist trying to take credit for the current mental health strategy. A big announcement about funding was coming the next day, she gloated.

There obviously aren't any easy answers. Among the improvements that council voted for itself is a more than $100,000 to give them more assistance with their responsibilities. That will have to be paid for by a cut somewhere else. Library acquisitions? A police officer? Garbage pick up at a public housing complex? Reductions in bus service?

And we haven't even begun to address the matter of the Investment and Economic Prosperity wish list.

Staff has done its part by presenting the options and the corresponding businesses cases. Note that they are options, not recommendations, Hayward pointed out. The decision will be that of council.

"I don't envy you your decision,” he concluded truthfully.

But the decision will be that of eight or more councillors.

We'll see if there's a voting bloc.


Anonymous said...

Interesting meeting indeed last week. I understood the garbage issue at London Middlesex Housing this way when I read the business case. Instead of the London garbage trucks and its irregular cycle, London Middlesex Housing pays a private firm to haul it away once a week. Surprise, that costs money. Cut the service, and the trash will pile up making the area look awful. Is that so hard to understand Councillor Polhill?

Chris M said...

I went to the saturday "sell the zero budget" meeting. (it is what it felt like to me). Denise Brown was there, and she said to me that there was no need to cut anything, that in fact places like the library were just "sensationalizing" things to make us frightened to back us off zero increase. You know what I wrote on one of their white pages? I don't care WHO is manipulating WHO it is the poor who get HURT. We have so little money right now, how much can we afford to pay for our kids to have something to do on a sunday? How about during the whole summer when jobs for teens are only "for those who live in the appropriate areas" read here Northeast or South in the complexes. My family is on welfare, we are just as poor as any other place in London but that is what we get told by YOU when I send my sons there to find a job. SO should they hang out around city hall because they have no where to go? Should they do what some youth are doing? Getting into trouble? I don't know obviously I'm just a dumb citizen and have no idea how to budget. It's simple really. I pay my rent, I use what is left of the food budget after rent and hydro are paid, to pay for food. Nothing left for clothes etc. Then I get nothing else. If London can't find money for zero budget without stealing from the poor, why are they putting on a lightshow, and fancy planter pots? Why are they going the extra mile for something I CANT AFFORD TO GO SEE? My family won't be at the Figure Skating, we're not rich enough. When does the City start listening to us and not those who have all the money.

Anonymous said...

I was born and raised in this city by upwardly mobile white-anglo-saxon taxpayers. Some of their money, that they earned and was taken off their paychecks was supposed to fund the community services and courses that are cataloged in the Spectrum and every resident Londoner whose income is below the poverty line IS ENTITLED to enroll in 2 for free, the funding is pro-actively provided, it's already been paid for, by our parents, and their parents...yet every single year after Mike Harris violated the Family Benefits Act of Ontario, I've applied and been denied, denied, denied. I've been told my credit is already being used, which would mean someone stole it from me and my boys, or that I'm already receiving social assistance so I'm not entitled to benefits, those are for charity cases, apply for charity...so I do and I'm told I'm already receiving social assistance so I'm not entitled to charity...and to make matters even worse I PAY PROPERTY TAXES TO THIS CITY!!! My kids get harassed by community patrol officers for stuff like riding their bike on the sidewalk, meanwhile the tenant next door gives his kids guns for Christmas and permits them to target practice and do any cops bother to intervene...oh non, that's a civil matter, the landlord's responsible for the behavior of tenants, you'll have to sue the landlord permitting their tenants to disturb the peace, take pictures, keep a journal, in other words do their job...geesh, this had bloody well better be as bad as it gets cause if it gets any worse it'll be civil-war, not social unrest.
Public includes everyone, including those of us who were born here and have suffered defeat due to enviro-mental factors.