With his dramatic exit from last month's budget meeting that resulted in emergency surgery later that same day, Mayor Jim Watson missed the traditional round of year-end interviews during the last weeks of 2017.
But now that he's fully recovered from his appendectomy — and with nine months to go until the municipal election — the mayor sat down this past week with Hallie Cotnam of Ottawa Morning and, later the same day, with Adrian Harewood of CBC Ottawa's television news to discuss everything from LRT and NHL arenas to "asset rationalization."
- Listen to Ottawa Morning's interview with Mayor Jim Watson here
- Watch Adrian Harewood's interview with Mayor Jim Watson here (starting at 15:00)
Here are four highlights of what Watson said, with a bit of context — and a dose of fact checking.
1. On when the LRT will be in operation
"The reality is that the sinkhole set them back more time than they thought it was going to," Watson told Ottawa Morning. "I've always maintained it would be up and running in 2018 … You can never attach a specific date because there are so many unknowns."
Fact check: The city's contract with Rideau Transit Group (RTG) calls for the consortium building the LRT to be substantially done by May 7, 2018. The final deadline to hand over the new transit system, according to the contract, is May 24. Although we won't know for sure until Jan. 24, it looks likely that RTG won't make that date.
Until very recently, RTG has been saying the LRT project was on schedule, despite the setbacks caused by the June 2016 massive sinkhole on Rideau Street.
And last April, the mayor told CBC that his goal was "to see that it's up and running by the first half of 2018."
When asked if the city would impose any fines if RTG was late delivering the light-rail system, the mayor said: "Absolutely."
2. On spending city money on LeBreton
Watson was unequivocal about whether he supported using public money to build a new NHL arena downtown at LeBreton Flats.
"No," the mayor said when asked about the possibility. "We've been very clear, the responsibility of getting an arena built is the private sector's responsibility, it's not the public that should be putting tax dollars into that."
When asked if the city would waive any other fees, or financially support the redevelopment of LeBreton in any other way, the mayor said it's the city's responsibility "to build roads and sewers, parkland and maintain that. We're not interested in subsidizing an arena, and the rest of the site is all commercial … We would be involved in the affordable housing component, for instance."
Fact check: The mayor is clear on where he stands on financing a new arena, an issue that has been contentious in other cities like Edmonton and Calgary. But Watson was not as clear on the issue of whether taxpayers might be on the hook for other costs in the LeBreton redevelopment.
For example, the building of city infrastructure like roads and sewers is usually paid for by the developers through development charges, while the city would be responsible for the maintenance. Would the city be willing to waive development charges? The city has done that before.
Considering the deal to sell the LeBreton lands isn't done yet, it may be too early to parse out these fine details. But it's something we'll be keeping an eye on.
3. On the art gallery, central library
"I very much want to invest in projects like the Ottawa Art Gallery, which is going to open later this year and it's going to be a great addition to the city," said Watson.
And the mayor said he's still lobbying Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly to partner with the city on building a new central library. The project is expected to be announced in the federal government's upcoming budget, but if it isn't, Watson said the city would go it alone.
Fact check: The new Ottawa Art Gallery was scheduled to be open by Canada Day 2017. And then by the fall of 2017. It's now set to open in the spring of 2018.
As for the plan for a new central library, it is months behind the originally proposed schedule. (Ottawa Library Board chair Tim Tierney had expected an announcement before the end of 2017.)
It's the first time we've heard the mayor on the record committing to moving ahead with a new central library — one of his 2014 election promises — even if the city has to do it without Library and Archives Canada.
4. On 'asset rationalization'
Asset rationalization is a bureaucratic way of saying, "closing stuff down" — think arenas, fire halls, or tennis courts. Ottawa Morning's Hallie Cotnam asked Watson if and when we'll know exactly which facilities the city might shut down in order to help close the $70-million infrastructure gap. (The gap is the difference between what the city spends to maintain its assets, and what it should spend to keep our stuff in good repair.)
"We actually did that already," said Watson, somewhat surprisingly. The mayor went on to say that the city scaled down the bureaucracy in 2016, cutting 177 jobs.
"The 2019 budget isn't going to have any deep cuts or any slash-and-burn because we made the tough decisions this past year," said Watson.
Fact check: The mayor appears to have confused the staff rationalization that occurred in 2016, and the asset rationalization that is planned for 2019. The fact is, the city's long range financial plan, which was approved by council last June, clearly states that the shuttering some city facilities is a real possibility.
"In order to help reduce the pressure of increased funding each year, other non-financial strategies should also be considered including but not limited to asset rationalization," according to plan.
But the city doesn't plan on presenting the rationalization plan until next term of council. Undoubtedly, many voters would like to know exactly what's being considered for closure before heading to the polls on Oct. 22.