There is no doubt that today's draft budget for 2017 will include a two per cent tax hike, as council directed city staff to create a budget based on that increase.
But there are other issues still up in the air, mostly surrounding social and cultural files — and even whether the final tax increase will remain at two per cent.
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Last month, Mayor Jim Watson announced the budget would include a low-income bus pass for those living under the low-income cut off. The move was applauded by poverty advocates, but they are still concerned about the price. They're looking for a pass that costs no more than $42 a month, which would cost the city about $3 million.
'There's a lot of really good ideas … And I think people will be really pleased with what we've come up with.' - Mayor Jim Watson
Some arts groups have complained the city is millions behind in delivering funds under a long-term plan approved by council in 2012.
However, Watson said arts funding has gone into capital projects, such as the $41-million Arts Court redevelopment and Ottawa Art Gallery renovation. In 2013, the city gave the Great Canadian Theatre Company a $250,000 bail out. As well, the mayor pointed to $500,000 for local artists to put on 2017 events.
Will there be more money for arts groups? It's not clear, although Watson indicated there may be more funds for 2017 events, including artistic projects.
"There's a lot of really good ideas, and my job is to balance the really good ideas that are spending, with the really good ideas that are savings for a balanced, progressive budget," Watson said Tuesday. "And I think people will be really pleased with what we've come up with."
Some of the folks lobbying the hardest this budget season have been social service agencies, who say their existing budgets are insufficient to deal with ever growing — and ever more complicated — cases, despite a 1.5 per cent increase from the city each year.
A Carleton University research paper commissioned by the Coalition of Community, Health and Resource Centres posited that social service spending at the city has been falling on a per-capita basis since 2012 (a premise that Watson disputed at the time).
These groups, led by the City for All Women's Initiative, are looking to have $500,000 added to the baseline budget for social services. That's a big ask considering Coun. Diane Deans tried to table a motion at last year's final budget deliberations for $250,000 for these groups, but was ruled out of order by the mayor.
Final budget may not be 2 per cent increase
Last year's brouhaha over whether Deans was really out of order led Coun. Tobi Nussbaum to formally seek clarification from clerk and city solicitor Rick O'Connor about whether motions like Deans' are actually allowed. The inquiry also asked whether there are any reasons that council couldn't approve a tax increase of something other than two per cent, which was part of Watson's 2014 election platform.
The answer came this week: "There are no legal or procedural constraints to Council" for either of these scenarios.
That means that at the final budget meeting on Dec. 14, councillors could — in theory — add to the budget, resulting in a tax increase of more than two per cent. As 14 votes would be needed, a hike of more is unlikely, but it's possible.
Some budgets already tabled
Budgets for various city boards have already been tabled over the past week or so. Public delegations can make presentations at upcoming board meetings, and council will be called to pass these budgets on Dec. 14.
Ottawa Public Health
Ottawa's board of health is mostly funded by the province, but the city does cost-share some provincial programs and contributes money above and beyond the programs that the province delivers. The draft budget was tabled Nov. 3.
Of the $59.7 operating budget being proposed for 2017 — which represents a 1.5 per cent increase — only $13 million will come from the city. That's a $375,000 increase over the city's 2016 contribution and would have a negligible effect on homeowners' overall tax bills.
The board identified a number of challenges for next year, including: keeping up the level of health services while absorbing cost of living increases; delivering quicker response times for health inspections complaints and inquiries; and finding $300,000 in funding needed to inspect additional food-related events during the 2017 celebrations.
Ottawa Police Services
The Ottawa Police service tabled its draft budget on Nov. 7, two days earlier than usual. Traditionally, the police service budget is tabled early the same day as the city-wide budget. But this year, four Ottawa Police Services Board members could not attend the meeting, including Coun. Jan Harder, who is planning to attend the opening of a new Costco in Barrhaven.
Police are expecting an additional $8.9 million increase that would bring the 2017 operating budget to $320.2 million. The increase would be paid for by $3.3 million in assessment growth and a two per cent police tax increase — an increase of about $11 for the average homeowner.
Among the highlights — and challenges — of the police budget are the hiring of 25 new officers (the second of a three-year plan to hire 75 officers), instituting a plan to reduce overtime and finding $1.5 million for policing 10 major events for Canada's 150th anniversary celebrations.
Most of the increase will be spent on keeping up with regular policing in the city, such as dealing with a record number of shootings and unusually high levels of homicides. Unexpected legal issues, such as dealing with illegal marijuana shops, also put pressure on the police budget.
Ottawa Public Library
Tabled Tuesday evening, the public library's draft budget calls for a $1.35 million increase for a total 2017 budget of $46.7 million.
In addition to its day-to-day operations, the library will fund a number of strategic initiatives in 2017, including: $2 million for the planning phase of the new central library, the location of which is expected to be announced early in the new year; $85,000 for accessible public workstations; designs for a new branch in Riverside South; and a business-case analyzing whether the century-old Rosemount branch should be refurbished, expanded or moved.
The library is also putting aside $115,000 for Canada 150 projects.