London City Councillors will be put to the test during budget season.
Weeks after Mayor Matt Brown warned against a “budget creep,” there are increasing pressures on the budget that could see the proposed tax hike for 2017 rise.
London passed the multi-year budget for 2016-2019 earlier this year, but provincial law only allows one budget to be passed at a time, meaning the multi-year document will have to be reviewed every winter.
So far, budget talks haven’t attracted nearly as much attention as last year at the onset of the multi-year budget process. Only three people spoke at a public participation meeting held Monday to get Londoners thoughts.
Eight people had requested the chance to speak, but only three people followed through. The city hall gallery was largely empty for the discussion.
Those who did speak struck the same tone, highlighting poverty as an issue for council to focus on.
Jacqueline Thompson, co-chair of the London Community Advocates Network, called on city council to walk the walk.
“Last year we came to see you before the budget was passed and told you that the Mayor’s anti-poverty task force was bringing force and budget items needed to be addressed in the budget before it went ahead. It got passed without making any funds available. Now we’re at the point where you have to come back and say ‘yes we’re doing to do this’ or ‘no these consultations are a pointless waste of our time.'”
The London Community Advocates Network represents about 50 organizations that deal with people living in poverty in London.
Thompson called it a litmus test for council.
“Staff has concurred with this and the community has concurred with it. It’s a no-brainer, it’s a test to see if you actually follow through on what you committed to.”
Thompson gave a written submission for two operating budget amendments the group thinks should be accepted by council and become part of the budget.
1. Endorse request by London and Middlesex Housing Corporation for increase in operating budget to meet increase in demand for emergency building repairs.
2. Endorse Housing development Corporation request for additional investment in affordable housing development.
Thompson also encouraged council to follow through on proposal from the Mayor’s Poverty Panel report to let children under 12 ride the bus for free. Not only that, Thompson called for free bus rides for kids 13 and 14, something city staff would cost as much as $565,000 a year.
Free bus rides for kids will be debated when city council meets to discuss the budget on Thursday.
Subsidizing free rides for kids 13 and 14 would add one-tenth to the projected tax hike of 2.8 per cent. Earlier this month city staff presented 20 amendments to the multi-year budget that would also bump the 2017 hike to 2.8 per cent. At the time Mayor Brown warned against urged against a “budget creep” and urged council to hold the line.
If council were to subsidize free bus rides for kids 12 and under, that would cost about $150,000 a year.
If the LTC were to handle that cost, it would impact how much funding they receive from the province for the gas tax, which would leave the city to pay as much as $50,000.
LTC chair Sheryl Rooth spoke at the public participation meeting and said would be a big help for families.
“Taking two children on the bus to an activity is the equivalent to a bag of milk for the week, how do you choose? Your child is ill and needs to see a doctor but you can’t afford to take them on the bus, walking is too far. What do you give up to take your child to treatment?”
City staff have said there’s no funding currently available to pay for the initiative. Councillors directed staff last week to look for options ahead of Thursday’s meeting.
An initiative to slash the cost of a bus pass for low-income Londoners by 50 per cent has already received support from council, a revamped subsidy program will be discussed at a public meeting December 13th.
Currently kids under five and the blind ride for free while seniors get a 25 per cent cut on the $81 monthly bus pass.
Free bus rides for kids 12 and under was one of the 112 recommendations outlined in the Mayor’s Poverty Panel and was initially thought as one of the easier items to pass.
As it stands the proposed tax hike for 2017 is 2.8 per cent that would be an extra $76 on the property tax bill for the average London home owner (the average home in London is assessed at $221,000).
Increasing the tax hike for 2017 to 2.9 per cent would mean the average property tax bill would rise to $77.
It isn’t just poverty initiatives that could add to the 2017 tax hill.
City Manager Art Zuidema wants a “modest” $150,000 to go towards London’s Community Economic Road Map.
The job creation plan began one year ago, an update on the initiative was presented to the community last week.
Zuidema said a third of the money would go towards a city staffing resource.
Budget deliberations will begin Thursday at 1 p.m. when the Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee meets, then again on December 6th at council at 4 p.m.