London

Council approves measures to trim services amid COVID-19 fallout

A staff report lays bare the damage COVID-19 has done to the city's finances, and councillors debate whether to keep River Road golf course closed this season.

Some savings include River Road golf course staying closed and police given fewer hires

LTC Ridership plunged by as much as 30 per cent from mid-March to late April, according to an internal report from the London Transit Commission. (Colin Butler/CBC)

With the COVID-19 outbreak delivering a big blow to London's bottom line, city councillors approved a number of staff-recommended money-saving measures Tuesday night, amid warnings that there are likely more tough decisions to come. 

Back in April, staff had warned that London could face a deficit of up to $33 million by Labour Day due to extra costs and lost revenue as a result of the COVID-19 shutdown.

However, a staff report to the strategic priorities and policy committee outlines service cutbacks, many already underway, that will limit the deficit to about $13.5 million.

The reductions include everything from scaled-back grass cutting on city property to sidelined sports field upgrades and delays in fully implementing a plan to help street-involved people downtown. 

City councillor and budget chair Josh Morgan gives London Morning a glimpse of what COVID-19 will cost the city. 6:52

Councillors spent almost an hour Tuesday debating a staff recommendation to close River Road — one of three city-owned golf courses — for the rest of the season. 

Golf course debate

Based on the comments around the council horseshoe, frustrated golfers have been filling many councillors' in-boxes with complaints about their difficulties getting on the course.

A combination of a late start to the golf season, tee times more staggered for safety reasons and golf being one of the few sports available during the pandemic has lead to space pressures at all city courses. 

River Road operates at a loss — in fact an auditor's report presented to council in January recommends closing it  —  and staff said running it this year would result in an estimated loss of up to $80,000. Staff also said losses are expected across the city's entire golf program this year due to COVID-19 restrictions, including the inability to host tournaments.

Treasurer Anna-Lisa Barbon said tapping the golf program's $265,000 reserve fund would leave it in a "precarious" position going forward. 

"That is the only money that funds the entire capital plan for all three golf course in the future," she said. "If that fund is depleted, there is no money to move forward with the golf plan in the future, or to support any of your capital projects." 

Coun. Van Meerbergen moved a motion to keep River Road open this season. He argued that golf offers one of the few available recreational outlets for Londoners after a long spring shut inside, and limited summer travel options. 

"People just don't have a lot to do they're desperate to get outside and get involved in recreation," said Van Meerbergen. He said it makes more sense for River Road to stay open because it would be "packed." 

Others on council argued that golf can wait with more important city services under threat. 

"What we need right now is net revenues," said Coun. Josh Morgan, who is also the city's budget chief. "We've got a problem, the problem is we don't have enough money to pay for the things we're supposed to be doing. What we don't need is to add to the problem that we already have in this report."

In the end, the motion to keep the course open lost 10-4 with councillors Van Meerbergen, Steven Hillier, Steven Lehman and Michael Van Holst voting in favour. 

LTC: no quick return to revenue

Among the city services facing the greatest cash crunch is London Transit Commission (LTC). 

The service moved to rear-door boarding back in March to keep physical distance between drivers and passengers. The move's downside, however, means passengers aren't paying fares. The lack of revenue plus the need for extra cleaning has gobbled up more about $5.5 million in LTC reserves, even with buses operating at Saturday service levels and a planned service expansion pushed back to next year. 

A sign aboard a London Transit Commission bus advises passengers to stay back of the driver. Since the Covid-19 outbreak began, the LTC has moved to rear-door boarding and stopped collecting fares. (Andrew Lupton/CBC)

A report coming to the LTC's board meeting Wednesday says Plexiglass shields are on order that will surround drivers and allow fare collection to resume. Unfortunately, they won't arrive until July and won't be installed in the system's more than 200 buses until October at the earliest. 

Also, it's unclear whether how much, or how soon, ridership will bounce back.

LTC chair Coun. Phil Squire said he's counting on the LTC receiving some relief from senior governments to address the shortfall (more on that below).

Police request shifted to housing

One of the steps in staff recommendations to deal with the COVID-19 budget crunch is a plan to hold back on requests for growth funding allocations. This is revenue that comes through the construction of new buildings. Generally, the money is spent on covering the costs that new growth creates. About $13 million came in this year, with half of it already allocated. The rest staff recommended the city hold back half of the remaining allocation requests. 

A request for 10 new police staffers — a mix of uniformed and civilian positions — was chopped down, with five of those positions delayed until next year. Then last week, three more police hirings were shifted to next year. 

For now, the police will get two new positions hired this year, both communications officers who answer 911 calls. 

Council also agreed to a suggestion by police that the money saved by three of the deferred hires, about $500,000, go to homeless housing allowances.  

No details yet on senior government funds

City manager Lynne Livingstone gave council an update on the push to get senior governments to support municipalities that have been providing essential services during the COVID-19 fallout. 

Livingstone outlined extensive lobbying efforts by municipalities and spoke about the federal government's promises to help, including the early release of $2.2 billion in gas tax money and $14 billion in money to the provinces. While these are helpful steps, Livingstone said there are no details yet on how much London might receive, or when. 

"Our hope is that we will receive a response very soon," she said. 

Notes from civic works

Earlier Tuesday, members of the city's civic works committee gave unanimous support to a motion put forward by Councillors Shawn Lewis and Elizabeth Peloza for city staff to look into hiring a manager of active transportation, essentially a staffer focused on improving transportation infrastructure not related to vehicles (mainly cycling). 

The move comes with the city locked in a hiring freeze due to the economic impacts of COVID-19, but Peloza said it will not be an extra hire but "a reallocation of staff from one department to another" so there is no extra cost. 

Lewis said such a position is long overdue, and is something the cycling community have been pursuing for years.

EA recommends Roundabout, widening on section of Dingman Drive

A section of Dingman Drive in the city's southwest corner is slated for $14.5 million worth of upgrades, including a widening to four lanes between Wellington Road South and the Highway 401 overpass and a roundabout at the intersection of Dingman and White Oak Road. 

The work is outlined in a completed environmental assessment report.

After weighing different design options, staff recommend a 1.2 kilometre section of Dingman — currently a two-lane rural road — be widened to a width of 36 metres with a raised centre median, sidewalks and bike paths. There will also be separate left turn lanes where Dingman crosses Wellington. 

An environmental assessment looked at options for widening of Dingman Drive between just east of Wellington Road South to just east of the Highway 401 overpass. It calls for the road to be widened to four lanes with sidewalks and a separated bike lane. (City of London)

The area is slated for future development as the south end of the bus rapid transit Wellington Gateway route. The report says both the roundabout and widening of Dingman could be done in one construction season. The report says starting the work on Dingman in 2021 would be "challenging" and recommends the roundabout be built in 2027, pending a final public review of the environmental assessment.

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