Just as the City of Ottawa embarks on consultations and deliberations for the 2017 budget, a new Carleton University report says it's been spending relatively less on social services — even though those services' workloads have increased.
The study, conducted by researchers Steven Pomeroy and Maude Marquis Bissonnette, found that the city's own spending on social services — omitting provincial programs the city administers itself — fell on a per capita basis from $222 in 2012 to $200 in 2016.
Looked at another way, money spent on investments in community social services represented 15.8 per cent of the budget in 2012, compared to 13 per cent in 2016, according to the provocatively titled report, "Is the City of Ottawa balancing its budget on the backs of the poor?"
The research was partly funded by the Coalition of Community, Health and Resource Centres, which contributed $3,000 to the work. Pomeroy said the findings were based on the city's annual budget documents and consolidated financial statements.
'This may make [council] a bit more cognizant of the consequences on their decisions.' - Carleton University researcher Steven Pomeroy
"I don't think council is being vindictive," said Pomeroy. "The intention is not to point the finger, but this may make them a bit more cognizant of the consequences on their decisions."
To Coun. Diane Deans, who chairs council's Community and Protective Services Committee, the report comes as no surprise.
Case loads more complex, numerous: Deans
"I think the Carleton report is basically just telling us what many of us already know," she said.
"The people working in the social services area, [including] myself as the chair of the committee, we've known for a long time that it's getting more and more difficult out there. Many — not all — but many of the organizations are struggling to keep up. The case loads are more complex and more numerous than they've been in the past."
Deans said she's been hearing from many social service agencies that not only do they have more actual cases, but the complexity of each case has also increased, particularly with the influx of Syrian refugees.
Cases take more time to process, language barriers create problems, and "case workers are finding that just the time it takes to deal with some of these issues is greater than it has been in the past," Deans said.
During last year's council budget debate, Deans tried to move $250,000 from a contingency fund into the social services pot. She was ruled out of order by Mayor Jim Watson, however.
Following the rancorous exchange, Deans voted against the 2016 budget, and commented: "This is your budget, Mr. Mayor. It's not mine."
(At the time, the city was facing a $35-million deficit for 2016 that it was going to have to cover. But just last week, councillors heard the city could end the year with a $6-million surplus instead. Given that new fiscal reality, not to mention that the city's operating budget is more than $3 billion, denying social agencies $250,000 seems even more stingy, in retrospect, than it did at the time.)
This year, Deans — and the social services community — are more prepared.
On Wednesday, the activist and research group City for All Women Initiative (CAWI) will be asking for $500,000 to be added to the budget to support the city's social service agencies, in order "to mitigate the crisis agencies are facing in not be able to meet our clients' needs," said acting director Tong Zhao-Ansari.
The group will also ask for funding for a low-income bus pass, as well as a long-term investment plan into social services, Zhao-Ansari said, "now that research has shown the city's investment is not keeping up with growth."
Deans will be arguing for the fund to be included in next year's budget, for which public consultations start this week.
Although the city is now forecasting a modest budget, with Watson's promise of capping tax increases at two per cent, meeting the city's growing needs and demands will still be tough. Still, Deans said she's "very hopeful."
"I don't think we can continue to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to our most vulnerable citizens," she said. "And that's what we've been doing."