Ottawa budget has good news, bad news for anti-poverty advocates

The revelations in the 2017 draft budget, tabled Wednesday morning at Ottawa City Hall, were about new social initiatives — and it was a combination of good news and disappointing news for anti-poverty advocates.

Mayor also announced low-income bus pass will cost $57 per month

Angela Richer and Leanne Meunier, who work at the Centre 454 drop-in, attended a rally ahead of the draft budget tabling on Nov. 9, 2016. Advocates called for the low-income pass to cost no more than $41.75, but the city later unveiled that it would be $57. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Urban homeowners will see their property taxes rise by two per cent, their transit levy hiked 2.5 per cent, and the fee they pay for garbage disposal go up by an extra $2 in 2017.

For an average city home assessed at $395,500, the homeowner will pay an additional $72 next year.

Those increases were mostly expected. The revelations in the 2017 draft budget, tabled Wednesday morning at Ottawa City Hall, were about new social initiatives — and it was a combination of good news and disappointing news for anti-poverty advocates.

Social services agencies had been looking for a $500,000 fund, in addition to their base funding, in order to help deal with additional — and more complex — cases.

In Mayor Jim Watson's budget speech Wednesday morning, he announced an additional $610,000 for those agencies, which includes a half million dollars for the fund and a slightly higher cost-of-living increase — two per cent instead of 1.5 per cent — to the grants that support those programs.

"They clearly indicated a will and a wish to support our organizations, so we're glad to see that," said Luc Ouellette of the Orléans-Cumberland Community Resource Centre.

Low-income bus pass to cost $57

The mayor also announced that the low-income bus pass will cost $57 per month, half the cost of a regular OC Transpo monthly pass, and that it will be offered starting in April 2017.

"This is what the city could afford, and this is why we proposed this rate," said Watson.

The new "EquiPass" will eventually cost the city $2.7 million annually.

While the mayor had already announced the introduction of a new low-income transit pass, he did not say at the time what the pass would cost.

"Obviously, if we had the support of the provincial government, as is the case in Calgary with the Alberta government, that price point could go down lower," said Watson.

Councillors attend morning rally

Anti-poverty and health advocates who were pushing for a pass that cost no more than $41.75 call it a step in the right direction.
Councillors Tobi Nussbaum, Catherine McKenney and Mathieu Fleury attended a rally where advocates called for a low-income transit pass priced no higher than $41.75 (Kate Porter/CBC)

"We still feel that it's not necessarily reasonable to suggest that poor people can afford even $57 a month, but it's certainly more reasonable than $113 a month," said Trevor Haché, citing the cost of a regular adult pass as of January 2017.

Haché, who is with the Healthy Transportation Coalition, has been pushing for the pass for months, and led an early-morning rally outside City Hall before the draft budget was tabled.

Councillors Catherine McKenney, Mathieu Fleury and Tobi Nussbaum attended the rally, where about two dozen people called for a low-income bus pass at that lower price. 

"Keep Ottawa great," McKenney told the crowd somewhat ruefully, echoing one of U.S. president-elect Donald Trump's catchphrases.

She went on to thank activists for "pushing" politicians to act on measures like the low-income bus pass.

"It's people like you who do keep Ottawa great."

Funding for arts and festivals

Arts groups and local festivals looking for more stable, predictable annual funding did not see the city recommit to a 2012 plan intended to bring per capita funding in line with other big Canadian cities.

However, Watson did refer to the 2017 celebration funds previously announced: $250,000 for local arts projects and $250,000 for festival marketing.

He also announced $150,000 for an "Arts Momentum Fund" aimed at showcasing local arts in the same vein as the 2017 projects but to last in years beyond the 150th celebrations, as well as a 1.5 per cent cost of living increase for the grants arts groups receive.

Still, the city is not fulfilling the multi-year promised operating funding of 2012.

"But it is a step forward," said Peter Honeywell of the Ottawa Arts Council, who pointed to how the $300,000 in base funding for 2017 and the indication of at least another $150,000 in 2018 is at least building in the right direction.

Bus routes, cycling and snow removal

Watson also announced the introduction of new suburban buses to help commuters get into and out of downtown during rush hours. The buses will start operation in late 2017, and will connect to the LRT when it opens in 2018.

The budget will also include $8 million for new cycling infrastructure, $5 million for sidewalk improvements, and $23 million for rural road resurfacing.

For the second year in a row, the city will also shovel $4.5 million more into snow removal, a department of the city that routinely runs a deficit.

Watson said $1.1 billion will be spent on capital projects including roads, bike lanes, parks and recreation centres.

Most of these project have already been announced, or were already in the city's plans.

The draft budget will be debated at committee and board meetings over the next month, when public delegations can make presentations. Council as a whole will debate, possibly change, and vote on the budget on Dec. 14.