It was budget day last Wednesday at Ottawa City Hall.
If you and your family didn’t notice, that’s exactly what certain people at City Hall were hoping.
Over my decade as an elected official, I have witnessed the budgeting process become increasingly more ‘closed circle’ with limited analysis or opportunity for challenge at the Council table.
At the ward level, I have hosted community meetings and brought city staff to explain what’s in the city budget. But my efforts and those of many other councillors to turn these community consultations into true two-way flows of ideas and information with the City have too often hit a wall.
What’s missing in the budget process is deep analysis, an open challenge function, program reviews, a comparison with other cities, a true reprioritization exercise, or meaningful debate.
No single person has a monopoly on good ideas and the mayor’s no-drama approach to budgeting stifles creative and bold thinking.
The city’s Auditor General is there to review programs and spending, but this office can only go so far with a staff of nine in 2021, rising to eleven for 2022 with a special audit being planned on LRT. Even with this one-time increase that’s one auditor for every 1,435 city employees.
We can do better.
Over the past four years spending increased in the City of Calgary by a total of 4.8 per cent while Ottawa’s rise was 14.4 per cent, exceeding even the City of Toronto.
Calgary’s long-term debt fell by 11 per cent while Ottawa’s rose by 73 per cent. Calgary, too, is building light rail, has a new central library, and is renewing its major infrastructure.
Calgary’s outgoing mayor recently said its financial accomplishments were achieved through zero-based budgeting, smart use of technology, prudent investments in frontline services, a culture of efficiency and a prudent eye on spending growth.
Ottawa residents tell me they don’t mind making investments in our city if it improves our quality of life and money isn’t wasted. Right now, Ottawa city councillors can’t give our residents those assurances.
This needs to change.
Some high-profile issues, like that of our LRT mess, are not strictly budget related. However, a lack of transparency and the stonewalling of council’s efforts to get more information on our financial exposure and the full range of options is problematic. Without this transparency, it directly undermines council’s ability to improve service, ensure safety, restore confidence, and get the reliable service we were promised.
Cities around the world are going through generational and transformational change – and not just because of COVID-19.
Moving forward, Ottawa’s leadership needs to think and act differently.
The budgeting process needs to come out of the shadows, and we need to be open to new ideas and respond to emerging priorities.
We need clear efficiency measures and performance targets.
We need a better approach to evaluating the social and economic costs and benefits of public programs.
Most importantly, we need real transparency, deeper scrutiny, and genuine public engagement to harness the big ideas for a better Ottawa.
Ward 12 Priorities
Housing and homelessness
• Seek funding to support mental health, addictions and tenants
• Develop a permanent strategy for public washrooms
• Advance affordable housing development of LRT lands, and approval of Inclusionary Zoning policy
• Match last year’s total amount spent on shelters/motels for new permanent housing
Community health needs
• Advance Mental health services (youth, families, low-income)
• Expand ageing in place strategy for seniors
• Seek funding for harm reduction treatment and safe supply
• Support community health services in Vanier and Overbrook
• Create dedicated community cleaning teams
• Seek funding to build a Boys and Girls Clubhouse in Lowertown
• Invest and expand recreation facilities and space
• Create a new and more accessible Vanier Community Centre
Infrastructure and planning
• Expand winter maintenance and sidewalk repairs
• Advancing community secondary plans
• Implement King Edward Avenue traffic
• New Cycling improvements (suggested for Chapel Street, Beausoleil Drive and York Street) calming plan