Centretown Buzz column: What are your budget priorities?

What are your budget priorities?
On December 9th, Ottawa City Council will make a decision about the 2021 budget. 

That decision will reflect what our priorities are moving into 2021.  Will transit fares increase? Will we spend more on police, or less as many residents have been asking?  Will we ensure that there is money in the budget to address our housing and homelessness emergency?  Will we consider the needs of seniors and youth in determining how much we spend on recreation and other activities?  Will we commit funding to tackle climate change?

Like you I will be focusing on many aspects of the budget. 

The direction from Council to staff was to allow a 3 per cent increase to property taxes in 2021. Additionally, transit fares would increase by 2.5 per cent and the Ottawa Police Services budget will increase by 3 per cent.  I did not support this direction because I felt that it did not leave us with the flexibility we need to address the growing needs in the city.

I also oppose transit fare increases. I believe that transit should be used by everyone, and therefore it should be paid for by everyone. If we want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in our City, we must reduce the number of cars on the road. If we want to make our streets safer for everyone and reduce congestion, commute times, and have a healthier population, we need to get as many people as possible out of their cars and onto buses, trains, and bikes.  

We can’t achieve that if it’s cheaper to drive and park then it is to use public transit.  

I also oppose the 3 per cent increase to the police budget.  We need to examine why the cost is so high and whether there are tasks that go to the police that would be better handled by civilian-led mental health and social workers.

I will also be looking for a critically-needed commitment to social infrastructure and affordable housing funding. I have heard from many of you about the need for additional community housing. The wait list for affordable housing is over 12,000 households and most will wait for 6-8 years for an offer of housing. According to the City’s Auditor General in a 2019 report, we spent $24.5 million dollars to shelter families in hotels and motels between 2015 and 2018. One family, one hotel room, $3000 per month. 

That’s almost double what it would cost to place these same families in a for-profit apartment and far more than it would cost to house families in safe and affordable community housing. 

At the same time, we need more funding for social services. 

Every community in Ottawa deserves a range of social services, such as accessible mental health counselling, playgroups that nurture child development, or “Meals on Wheels” to help seniors stay independent longer. Ottawa’s most vulnerable citizens are being placed at risk because these and many other essential social services are being eroded. Funding for them has simply not kept pace with the City’s growth, and rising levels of demand and complexity in our population. People are at risk of falling through the cracks. Critical social services need to be a priority in our City. We all benefit when we have a strong safety net that includes comprehensive, accessible and sustainable social services. 

Between November 17 and December 2, the City’s standing committees will be holding hearings on the budget. The meetings are public and citizens can register to speak at the meeting (they’re currently held via Zoom). You can also submit a written statement via email and the Clerk will ensure it goes to every member of the Committee. You can see all the details about the budget and the committee meetings at https://engage.ottawa.ca/draft-budget-2021

The final budget will be decided at a City Council meeting on December 9. I hope by then you will have had an opportunity to read, discuss, and comment on your budget priorities. 

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