Will there ever be a city meeting at which Councillor Sandy White does not feel a need to chide someone—another councillor, the mayor, a staff member, even a member of the public?
It happened again Monday evening at the public participation meeting arranged so that ordinary citizens, whether speaking as individuals or as groups, would have an opportunity to weigh in on the budget that will determine what services stay or go as council works toward an arbitrary target of zero percent increase.
At this gathering, council was meeting as a committee of the whole known currently as the Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee. Its job was to listen to the public to get its ideas and feedback on the options facing the city. After all, when the exercise is completed, it’s the members of the public who will be footing the bills and living with the impacts of the decisions for better or worse. The role of council was to listen and perhaps ask a question or two if clarification was required. It was not a time for debate or decision.
And clearly Londoners were interested. When I arrived, an hour after proceedings had begun as I had been delayed at another meeting, there were few spaces available in the public gallery. One of the security staff members on hand pointed one out to me across the room. I hurried to claim it before someone else did. It’s hard to take notes standing up.
The fourth presenter was just concluding his remarks as I sat down. This was Sean Quigley of Emerging Leaders arguing the need for investment in the city, in its amenities and services, if we want to attract and retain the post-college and university demographic in our city. Last year around this time he had experienced the ire of White when she called his city-funded employer to complain about a blog post on affordable housing by Quigley. There had been no intent to intimidate, she claimed, but her actions had created a chill nonetheless.
Quigley’s presentation had been scheduled to conclude at 4:20 p.m. but it was an hour later before the next speaker, former councillor Sandy Levin, addressed the council. Although the presenters had been careful to stick to the time limit of 5 minutes, some of the councillors did not feel similarly constrained. They were supposed to limit their questions to simple clarification but the fact that they had used twice as much time as the members of the public suggested otherwise.
No such problem with Levin’s presentation which was short and to the point. Zero is nothing, was the title but “Londoners certainly deserve better than nothing,” he began. His focus was on assessment growth. Some members of council seem to have been dazzled by the extra $5M coming into city coffers as a result of assessment growth but, as Levin pointed out, even with a doubling of assessment growth—which hasn’t happened in the last decade or more—after providing services to the new residents and businesses and using half of the remainder to avoid issuing debt as required by council policy, there would still be only an extra $6.8M available for holding down taxes or building pet projects.
It’s a lot of money, but it doesn’t go very far. More than twice as much will be needed just to hold taxes at zero next year.
“Assessment growth is good,” he concluded. “But it won’t fill the potholes on the road to zero.”
No questions followed. Those who most needed clarification and who most would have liked to talk were silent. Levin’s grasp of the situation far exceeded theirs and they didn’t need to have their fantasies shattered.
Levin's presentation was followed by one from the Urban League, a charitable organization dedicated to improving the quality of life in London. Some on council have been suspicious of the Urban League, seeing it a subversive organization which unduly influenced the past council into supporting limits on noise and times of operation for open air festivals in the downtown. For a bit of background about this, see my prior post, A league of our own.
Although Levin is also a member of the Urban League, this presentation was made by Stephen Turner, who provided an interesting perspective on taxes.
Turner pointed out that, for the average home assessed at a little over $200,000, the taxes that you pay are only a little higher than the average communications technology bill for Internet, telephones and television.
But look at what you get!
Round the clock ambulance, police and fire protection. Roads and road repairs and maintenance. Snow clearing. Garbage collection. Bus service. Libraries (where you can actually get Internet service). Parks and recreation. Cultural activities. Various types of housing, including emergency shelters. And the list goes on.
Some of the budget challenges facing council were of its own doing, Turner pointed out, noting that failure to accept staff expertise on matters of planning has resulted in urban sprawl and premature greenfied development that is costly to service. As far as what to do in relation to the 2013 budget, the Urban League was adamant that services not be cut and that the reserves not be tapped to make up the shortfall. Better to have a tax levy increase of 2.5% which would cost the average taxpayer about $5 per month.
The presentation drew a round of applause from the gallery and a curious question from Councillor Harold Usher. In the past, the Urban League had been a strong supporter of social enterprises. Why wasn't Turner advocating for that now?
“We continue to advocate for social enterprises,” Turner rejoined. “We were also only given five minutes.”
The next five minutes went to Dr. Abe Oudshoorn, assistant professor of nursing at Western University, appearing on behalf of the London Homeless Coalition. His appeal was twofold: don't cut the funds to public housing that will result in less maintenance of these buildings, and continue to invest in long-term creation of new housing. While rent supplements may be the cheapest way to obtain additional units, the contracts are for five years only, whereas building new affordable housing, which leverages $7 for every dollar invested by the city, provides affordable housing for the next 25 year.
The word “cheapest”, apparently offended Councillor White. She thought she should advise him that, “as a social worker in this city for over 20 years” she knew that all persons should be respected. Calling certain forms of housing as “cheap” was disrespectful to those who used it. “Be careful how you present it,” she advised.
Furthermore, she didn't appreciate the suggestion that rent supplements would leave the city with nothing in the end. And as for the million dollars for affordable housing to be discontinued, she wouldn't support that—she was putting the mayor on notice—but there was no policy or legislation that said they had to provide it. This, despite the fact that the current council had adopted a housing strategy predicated on just such funding. You don't create 1,000 new units over 5 years on a wing and a prayer.
Councillor Joni Baechler was dismayed at what was taking place. Already, members of the public had been delayed over an hour while councillors monopolized the time allotted. The members of the community had been invited to the meeting to provide their input, not to be chastised by their councillors. Council should be limiting its questions to those of clarification, not advising people how they speak.
“As a social worker in this community, I was providing clarification,” White huffed, completely missing the point.
Oudshoorn, however, took White's comment with equanimity. He had used the word “cheap”, he explained patiently, not as a value judgement but as a description of cost in terms of the budget. He was sorry if offence had been given.
There were other speakers, too, on the value of the city's world-class library, on the need to consider climate change in planning and development decisions, and the importance of protecting the city's brand as the Forest City, which surely would be threatened by the proposed cuts to the fund to deal with the Emerald Ash Borer.
All in all, they were thoughtful and thought-provoking presentations. Most of the spectators in the gallery stayed for all of them, a testament to the value of the ideas being presented and the eloquence of the of those presenting them.
The following evening, however, there were only a handful or two visitors to the public gallery. It was council night. There was not much on the agenda and few expected much in the way of the level of debate.
They will wait until the next public meeting scheduled for February 13.