Council votes to spend surprise surplus on infrastructure

Five Ottawa city councillors took a stand against the 2018 budget Wednesday, despite having earlier supported a surprise move by Mayor Jim Watson to invest a $10-million surplus into infrastructure renewal.

2018 budget keeps tax hike at 2%, dedicates unexpected $10M surplus to roads, parks

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson will lead the final debate and vote on the 2018 budget. (Joanne Chianello/CBC)

Five Ottawa city councillors took a stand against the 2018 budget Wednesday, despite having earlier supported a surprise move by Mayor Jim Watson to invest a $10-million surplus into infrastructure renewal.

The five who voted against the budget all believe some of the spending and revenue estimates presented in the document are unrealistic.

"I believe that this budget is full of overly optimistic targets," said Coun. Diane Deans. "We seem to be budgeting on the hope that it doesn't snow, at least not too much, that we have less freeze-thaw cycles, that ice rentals will finally generate the revenue that we've been unable to meet for years, and that OC Transpo's revenue will finally skyrocket."

In addition to Deans, councillors who voted against the budget package include Catherine McKenney, Tobi Nussbaum, Jeff Leiper and Rick Chiarelli.

The 2018 budget will mean a two per cent property tax increase, which translates to an extra $76 for the average urban homeowner and $62 for rural homeowners.

Transit fares will rise about 2.5 per cent, while most recreation fees will increase by two per cent — except for arena rentals, which will see a 5.6 per cent hike for the second year in a row.

'A Christmas miracle'

Wednesday's council meeting to debate the 2018 budget started with treasurer Marian Simulik informing councillors that the city will end this year with a $10-million surplus instead of an expected $5-million deficit.

Most of the windfall came from higher-than-expected property assessments of new homes that were added to the city's tax roll partway through 2017.

Simulik said she received the November numbers from the Municipal Property Tax Assessment Corporation late last week, and let the city manager and mayor's offices know once the figures were confirmed.

Not all councillors were buying that explanation for the sequence of events leading to the mayor's motion, however.

"This is a Christmas miracle to have this kind of revelation on the budget morning," quipped Coun. Rick Chiarelli.

Tax levy plan undermined

The mayor's motion completely undermined the plan by eight councillors who said late last week they would support an additional .5 per cent tax increase to raise about $8 million for road, sidewalk and park repairs.

That more than one-third of councillors were willing to defy the mayor's election promise not to raise property taxes beyond 2 per cent represented an unprecedented level of opposition around the council table.

In the end however, those eight councillors supported the mayor's proposal, and Leiper withdrew his original motion for a tax increase.

Some councillors appeared upset that they were not told about the surplus before the meeting. 

"I told councillors at the same time, at the beginning of this meeting," said Simulik. "If the mayor told people, that's on him."

Watson said he started telling some councillors about the surplus a couple of days ago in order to whip up support for his motion. The mayor pointed out that the eight councillors who were proposing the 0.5 per cent increase didn't let him know about their plans before announcing it on Twitter. 

Council finds $100K for social agencies

After the community and protective services (CPS) committee heard last week from dozens of groups that don't receive city funding for the social services they provide — including one organization that told councillors four of the homeless teenagers under its watch died last year — Deans proposed one-time funding worth $100,000.

Deans, who chairs the CPS committee, said she had asked for $500,000 to be included in the 2018 budget, but it didn't materialize.

Despite the fact that staff said the funds were available, and that staff has a list of appropriate groups eligible for the money,  Coun. Allan Hubley said he couldn't vote for the motion because he worried the money amounted to a "secret fund."

Deans shot back that that Hubley had voted for the mayor's motion to spend $10 million on infrastructure without seeing a list of projects.

"On a $100,000, you gotta see that list?" she asked.

Hubley and Coun. Stephen Blais dissented on the motion.

The city plans to conduct a full review next year to determine which social agencies might need new funding.

Council also approved the installation of 10 portable toilets in public parks, within the parks and recreation department's existing budget. The toilets should cost about $600 each, according to the motion moved by Deans and Coun. Riley Brockington.