Pandemic putting pressure on Ottawa's 2021 budget

It's virtual budget day at Ottawa city hall, but the unprecedented pandemic-related financial pressures looming in 2021 are all too real.

Feeble transit revenues, demand for police reform among issues to watch

The city's 2021 draft budget will be tabled Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. (CBC)

It's virtual budget day at Ottawa city hall, but the unprecedented pandemic-related financial pressures looming in 2021 are all too real.

Thanks to COVID-19, OC Transpo is losing $4 million a week. There are no aquafitness classes taking place at city pools. Ottawa Public Health has been in emergency response mode for eight months, and has already projected it will need an extra $24 million next year. 

Back in the spring, when the city's chief financial officer was already warning of an "unprecedented" cash crunch, councillors froze millions of dollars in projects. Even so, upper levels of government had to help close the fiscal gap for 2020.

Mayor Jim Watson poses before his 2018 budget speech. He's expected to be in the council chamber Wednesday, but budget deliberations will happen largely online this year. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

City officials are counting on their federal and provincial counterparts to do the same in 2021. If they don't, council, as always, is left with two choices: cut services or raise taxes.

City staff, along with police, the public health agency and transit service were directed to come up with draft budgets that cap any property tax increase at 3 per cent overall, as Mayor Jim Watson promised during the 2018 election.

That would mean an increase of $115 on the average tax bill for an urban house assessed at $415,000, and an overall budget for city operations in the neighbourhood of just under $4 billion.

OC Transpo bleeding money

Some city councillors question when — or if — life in the capital will ever return to normal, and how the budget should reflect the current shift in habits, especially when it comes to commuting.

For cities, the pandemic has hit public transit systems especially hard. In Ottawa, ridership in September was just 30 per cent of normal levels, a decline transit boss John Manconi has said translates to $4 million per week in lost revenue. Still, OC Transpo staff and service levels remain relatively unchanged.

River ward Coun. Riley Brockington, who's also a transit commissioner, said he's watched empty buses go by and wondered if frequency could be reduced on some routes to save money.

OC Transpo is serving just 30 per cent of its pre-pandemic ridership this fall. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

"If there are rush-hour routes serving suburbs that basically shuttle federal government workers or university students, and those aren't in use, then I think there are some opportunities there," said Brockington.

He said he'll be studying OC Transpo's projected costs and revenues "with a fine-toothed comb" to make sure everything adds up.

"I don't think we'll even get close to 100 per cent pre-COVID [ridership] in 2021. I think this is a multi-year challenge," he said.

'Change budget' for police

The Ottawa Police Service is facing pressure from another quarter this year: the demand for sweeping cultural change. Coun. Diane Deans, chair of the police services board, promises its 2021 budget will be a "departure" from budgets past.

"This is a change budget for the Ottawa Police Service," she said. "We have heard loud and clear from members of the public that they want to see significant change."

The police budget will include $1.5 million to kick-start a new strategy for responding to mental health calls, money for a workplace culture review and to investigate claims of sexual violence and harassment, and funding for officer training.

The police will also spend money on neighbourhood resource teams, and will waive fees for background checks for non-profit organizations, Deans said, explaining those initiatives can be paid for with money initially set aside to overhaul the service's information technology systems.

The city's 2021 draft budgets will be tabled at 8:30 a.m. Once tabled, they'll be scrutinized by each department and agency. The public will get a chance to weigh in before a final vote Dec. 9.

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