With the introduction of the City’s 2023 budget, the people of Ottawa got some insight into what Mayor Sutcliffe’s promised 2.5% limit on property tax increases will actually mean. This is not a ‘tight’ budget that managed to avoid cuts to services but a reactionary budget that attacks the wellbeing of many of Ottawa’s working people, especially those with the lowest incomes while doing nothing to address the fundamental challenges facing the city’s residents such as the shortage of housing and essential social services that leave people feeling insecure, inadequate schooling and climate change.
First, the budget simply ignores the effects of inflation. It calls for a 2% increase in the compensation paid to city workers. But with inflation running at around 6%, that translates into a 4% cut in their real wages! Moreover, many city services involve purchases of materials and services from the private sector. The same $15 M allocated to affordable housing in this year’s budget as was included in last year’s is really a cut. It will result in less new housing being built due to the increased costs of land and building materials. Indeed, even the increased money allocated to filling potholes in the budget is unlikely to make the roads much better since the price of the asphalt used to fill them has increased by more than 20% in the past year.
Then there is the matter of the fees people are charged to use public facilities and programs that constitute a growing proportion of city revenues. These are of little concern to more affluent residents who mostly rely on private programmes, camps (and schools) for recreational, cultural and educational services for themselves and their families. Much attention has been paid to the cut in the fees for the City’s summer camps and drop-in programs targeted at vulnerable young people and the fact that transit fees have been frozen for one year. However, the fees for the main city recreational programs and facility rentals (rooms in community centres, ice time, soccer fields) are being increased by around 2%. These programs are already beyond the means of many lower income, often racialized, families, and the fee increases will only increase the numbers who are marginalized.
Finally, there is the budget’s failure to meaningfully address climate change, the effects of which (hotter temperatures, more violent storms) are placing a growing financial burden on governments (for storm cleanups, backup generators, etc.) as well as citizens (to air condition and/or insure their homes). The transportation sector is the major single source of the GHG emissions in Ottawa causing climate change and the vast majority of it comes from private automobiles. Meaningful reductions in GHG emissions can’t be achieved without getting people out of cars and onto public transit. But this can’t happen without an adequate transit system and OC Transpo is anything but adequate. It is costly, unreliable, slow, inconvenient to use and often unavailable. The budget actually cuts $43 M from the transit budget although some people have suggested that the buses being eliminated are extremely unreliable, and clog up the maintenance system so much that the actual number of buses in service at any time will not decrease without them. Perhaps. Still, there is nothing in the budget to fund improvements that would attract riders such as new and/or more frequent services, improved routing so as to reduce the number of transfers needed to get places, or expanding bus only lanes to make service faster and more reliable. While improving the transit system would increase public expenditures (and the taxes to pay for them), these increases would be offset by decreasing private expenditures, as many people would be able to avoid spending the $10,000 on average annually required to maintain a car in Ontario. Instead, the budget continues to devote tens of millions of dollars annually to road widening, effectively encouraging car dependency.
The money allocated to road – widening projects would be much better spent by reallocating it to expanding transit services, building more social housing, or developing job creation programs especially one targeting people in areas of high unemployment. Planned spending on road widening is not the only part of the budget where reallocation of funds is in order. The police budget is another candidate. It continues to fund duties such as dealing with people in mental distress for which a police response is inappropriate. Others, such as monitoring road construction sites are simply wasteful and frequently involve nothing more than sitting in a car with its motor running.
This is a budget that is primarily concerned to serve the interests of the wealthy. It delivers the services they want – roads for their cars, police to protect their businesses – while minimizing the taxes they pay by keeping expenditures on services they don’t use – city recreation programs, social housing, public transit and public schools – as low as possible.
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