While the festive season is upon us, it’s not quite as jolly at city hall. It’s budget time! I wanted to share some of my thoughts with you about it, and to get YOUR input on the important decisions that are soon to be made.
First off, I want to commend city staff for their hard work in coming up with a series of budget recommendations that seem to be finding approval and consensus around the horseshoe.
The biggest new item we are tackling is the proposed levy that would address the crippling backlog we have in keeping up with our aging infrastructure. We are really a generation behind in addressing the huge gap created by years of sending the true cost of keeping our city safe and sustainable down the line to the NEXT council so that we can keep our taxes unrealistically low.
I am sensing a positive shift in my fellow elected officials. We are starting to see that it can be a political asset to give top priority to keeping our city as healthy as possible. This is a shift from a prevalent belief that driving taxes down was a goal despite the impact on our marginalized citizens and our future generations. I am hearing our councillors reflect what seems to now be a common voice in our community: we want to ‘make things’ right, we don’t want to pass along the problems to our children, and we are willing to invest in that future even if it costs us a little extra now.
Taxation has become a bad word in our culture, yet some are now reframing the discussion so we can look at taxes as our prime means of contributing to the well being of our city. More and more of our citizens understand that it is more important for their leaders to demonstrate that they are getting the best VALUE for their tax contributions than to look for an artificial tax ceiling that can sometimes mean service and staff cuts that put that well being at risk.
Like all of us, I want my taxes to be affordable. My goal on council is to strive for affordability without sacrificing anything that would leave our most vulnerable citizens behind. Often our zeal to cut our expenses in an effort to lower taxes helps those who need help the LEAST, and negatively affects those who need that help the MOST.
A case in point for this is transit. Last year, in our efforts to meet our base budget goals, we essentially attacked the efficiency and the frequency of our bus service. This proved to be a disaster for our transit users. Some couldn’t get to work or school on time; the new schedules were confusing and frustrating; many were driven away from our system all together just at a time when we need the most effective public transit we can to meet our growth needs and our environmental sustainability targets. In our efforts to meet the challenges of climate change and our projected 46% growth by 2031, the last thing we want is to reduce the efficacy of Guelph Transit. For one thing, it grows our already severe income gap. Some of us CAN afford to take a car instead. Some can’t, and if they can’t navigate our bus system to meet their needs, they are out of luck. We’ll never get people out of their cars if they aren’t offered an alternative that is cheaper and more reliable. We CAN do this if we commit the funds and the energy necessary, and I feel we MUST. This is not the time to move backwards on transit. It’s a classic example of a tension that still exists on council: short term vs. long term thinking. We can no longer look towards saving a little now when it will cost us more in the long run. Efficient, safe, vibrant transit is one of the things that makes us a desirable place to live. It attracts employers who want to make sure their workers’ needs are met.
Staff tells us that it will cost 1.5 million dollars just to bring us back to 2015 levels with our transit. That’s a lot of money. Can we afford it? In some cases like this I believe that we can’t afford NOT to. We owe it to our transit riders to at least make up for the mistakes we made last year. We should be moving ahead, not falling behind.
Another area that we must move forward with is our investment in capital projects like the South End Recreational Centre and a new downtown main library. Again, we’ll lose our reputation as one of the best places in Canada to live if we can’t provide our growing population with the quality of life that brought them here. Our library was built in 1960 when our population was a third of what it is now. Despite the stresses on it, our library has the highest per capita membership in the province. It’s more essential and appreciated than ever. If you can’t afford a computer, internet service, if you don’t have a safe home or workplace to study or gather with your community, you head to the library where all are welcomed. It’s the age-old argument. Are our rec facilities, neighbourhood hubs, libraries, and our cultural centers “needs” or “wants”? More and more we are recognizing them as important elements in offering the sense of community that every city needs to remain vital and attractive. These are the things people expect a city to provide for the taxes they pay. And yes, these things cost money. To me, we are as behind in this area as we are with our infrastructure, so I am in favour of a proposed .5% City Building levy that would exist temporarily until those capital projects are completed. For the average home-owner, that’s just 2 dollars a month. These projects end up giving a handsome return on that investment. It’s visionary long-term thinking.
There are some on council who think we can pay for projects and our infrastructure with some quick cash through the sale of Guelph Hydro or by privatizing aspects of our services like waste and transit. All across Canada we’ve seen that when this happens, there IS money to spend in the short term, but prices go up, wages go down, and in the case of our utility we lose a steady income from a profitable company and we lose control of our own innovative energy initiatives.
I believe that we owe it to our future generations to be the best stewards we can be of our resources and our environment, and the best we can be at creating the kind of city that THEY will thrive in.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. I want to be sure that your voices are heard in this process. We discuss the budget, ( and public delegations are encouraged ), on November 30th. We vote on December 7th with the hope that we can act together on council to create a budget that we can celebrate in this season of giving and sharing!
thanks for reading and responding. James
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