Long-term, predictable funding is missing piece in city's budget
Budget doesn't provide sustainable solutions for social and cultural sectors
A Jim Watson budget isn't usually full of surprises.
The mayor campaigns on what the tax increases will be and sticks to those numbers throughout his term.
Many of the projects the mayor rhymed off in the draft budget speech delivered Wednesday morning — from hiring 24 new paramedics to starting work on the Clegg Street bridge — have already been announced, while most of the roads and cycling path works have been built into the city's plans for ages.
However, there were a few new initiatives that social and cultural groups were looking for, and the budget didn't disappoint. Well, at least it didn't completely disappoint.
Social services get $610K in immediate relief
The low-income bus pass? Well, even that was pre-announced, except for the price. It'll cost $57. That's half the price of the regular adult pass, but still higher than the $41.75 other vulnerable residents pay in Ottawa.
Advocacy groups were looking for that lower price, but say they're still pleased with this first step.
Social service agencies also had a good-ish day. These community partner agencies have been struggling to keep up with their growing list of clients, whose files are becoming more complex and time consuming.
They were looking for a $500,000 sustainability fund that was cut a few years ago to be restored. That happened and then some — in addition to the $500,000, social services agencies will see their 1.5 per cent inflationary increase jump to two per cent, which translates into an additional $110,000.
That money is a great stop gap. But social agencies were also looking for the city to commit to "a long-term social infrastructure investment plan" — a much bigger rethink about how to deal with poverty and other social problems in a holistic way, from housing to social programs to crime prevention.
There was no talk in the budget speech about developing such a plan.
Arts and culture funding mostly project-based
There appears to be a similar dearth of long-term planning in the arts and culture sector.
This fall, some groups complained that a multi-year "action plan" approved by council in 2012 didn't really materialize. The plan called for stable, predictable funding for Ottawa's arts and cultural community, adding more than $1 million to the base budget in each of 2013 and 2014, and lesser but still substantial amounts in subsequent years.
By now, operating budgets for artistic endeavours should be $3.7 million higher than they were back in 2012. They are not.
The city has spent millions on the arts over recent years, but largely on capital projects. The Arts Court and Ottawa Art Gallery project is a worthy addition to the city, as is the rebuilding of the French-language theatre La Nouvelle Scene (which cost the city $17.6 million and $2 million respectively).
And the 2017 draft budget has some money for arts projects — $1.3 million worth. Half a million is for "facility development" and $800,000 is related to 2017 festival support or one-off projects. There's also a $150,000 Arts Momentum Fund that will go directly to artists who successfully apply.
These are not bad things. But they do seem like one-off projects that keep the arts community, much of which operates on financial tenterhooks, constantly scrabbling to find funds to keep going and plan events, let alone hire workers at a living wage.
New and improved buildings are important, but funding for programming needs to improve and be predictable over the long term, if those new buildings are to be used to their full potential.
So while the budget addresses some short-term demands and fills some immediate gaps, it doesn't provide a vision for some of our softer city assets, not for the social ills that plague us, nor the cultural community that can help lift us up.