By Kate Porter
Ottawa's 2021 budget has passed despite the objections of one-quarter of city council who rejected the spending plan over concerns about police funding and transit fares.
Most residential property tax bills go up three per cent and water bills by 4.5 per cent, part of the nearly $4 billion to be spent on operations and $780 million on capital projects next year.
Councillors decided against cutting services in 2021 despite the unprecedented $153-million deficit expected to result from the ongoing pandemic. The city will spend more on public health than ever before, while revenues from transit, parking and recreation fees continue to plummet.
Instead, Ottawa is counting on upper levels of government to "help make municipalities whole as the pandemic continues in 2021," according to Mayor Jim Watson.
If that relief fails to materialize, Ottawa, like other cities, faces major service cuts.
"They will be painful, I can assure you of that," warned city manager Steve Kanellakos.
Fare freeze, social services boost rejected
Coun. Catherine McKenney made a bid to raise taxes by another 1.3 per cent in order to generate an extra $13.2 million for housing and dozens of local groups that provide social services for vulnerable residents.
"They need our help, and we're not doing enough," said McKenney. "You're not out there on the front line. You're not at St. Luke's right now with a lineup of people around the corner just needing to be fed."
Watson warned a further tax increase would push others into poverty, however. In the end, McKenney's motion gained the support of just one-third of council.
OC Transpo fares to rise 2.5% in new year
The transit budget also proved contentious, as OC Transpo's service levels remain relatively normal despite historically low ridership, due mostly to the pandemic. Some councillors objected to raising regular fares by five cents, and regular adult monthly passes by $3, when many riders are hospital employees and grocery store workers.
An attempt by Coun. Rawlson King to freeze transit fares was rejected, and the transit budget passed 15-9.
New police hires could include social workers
The police budget, which promises changes to how the force deals with mental health calls, neighbourhood patrols and workplace culture, includes a $13.2-million increase for 2021. That would mostly cover inflation and contract settlements, but also add 30 new officers assigned to patrol neighbourhoods and investigate cases involving partner assault and violence against women.
It passed 19-5, with the majority of council voicing support for Chief Peter Sloly and his restructuring efforts. Those who voted against saw 2020 as the moment to divert some police spending to social services, and to listen to the social movements calling on cities to "defund" their police services.
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Coun. Diane Deans, chair of the city's police services board, said she heard that distrust, and has promised a working group to draft a 2022 budget that keeps police spending at 2021 levels.
Responding to concerns from some community groups, Deans said not all of the 30 new hires need be sworn officers. Instead, she said police will consider a combination of officers, social workers and mental health workers.