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London, Ont. budget committee increases transit, library funding

London, Ontario's city hall as seen in October 2021. Matthew Trevithick / Global News

After a marathon of a budget committee meeting at city hall, the London Transit Commission (LTC) and the London Public Library (LPL) came out with some big wins.

In an 8-7 vote, city council voted to increase the commission’s base budget by $1.6 million for 2024, with a four-year increase of roughly $18.6 million.

The funding increase would allow 18,000 service hours to be added, which would help alleviate some capacity issues on existing routes.

The LTC originally asked for a 22-per cent year-over-year increase with an average increase of 9.2 per cent for the next four years. The increase would have added $2.5 million in 2024 for an additional 25,000 service hours, with 100,000 total over the course of the budget.

In the budget presented by Mayor Josh Morgan, the LTC was given their base budget increase, but no additional money for conventional transit hours.

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“We’ve heard time and time again that right now, people are being left at the side of the road because the bus is too full and it passes by them,” Ward 11 Coun. Skylar Franke said.

“I think that we need a healthy transit system for residents of London to be able to get to work, to be able to get to school, and right now with no service growth hours, I don’t think that that necessarily is going to meet the demand and need of Londoners.”

Ward 13 Coun. David Ferreira, who is a council appointee to the LTC, previously put forward an amendment to add 18,000 service hours for conventional transit.

“Londoners have definitely been standing up and speaking up on this one, and I know that we’ve all heard it,” Ferreira said.

“We should give Londoners what they want on this one…this is a big need for the city.”

However, other councillors weren’t so keen on the idea of increasing the LTC’s base budget.

Deputy Mayor Shawn Lewis says the LTC was already getting a significant increase to their base budget, along with paratransit.

“I’d call it a historic investment in paratransit service to improve service for the most vulnerable and most hard-pressed to find mobility option members of our community, and they’re getting over a 49-per cent base increase,” Lewis said.

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“I’m not putting this on the tax base. There are options for LTC to put together a business case for assessment growth for new hours in next year’s assessment growth cycle.”

Ward 10 Coun. Paul Van Meerbergen voted against the amendment, saying a majority of Londoners “want their individuality with their own vehicles.”

“The transit service in London, Ont., is a secondary transportation service, it will always be that, it will never ever be the primary service.

“Here we are trying to cater to seven, perhaps eight per cent of transportation users to get around our city and we’re going to significantly raise their property tax in a city which cannot afford it.”

Councillors Ferreira, Franke, Hadleigh McAlister, Anna Hopkins, Jerry Pribil, Corrine Rahman, Susan Stevenson, and Sam Trosow all voted in favour of the budget increase. All other members of council opposed.

The LPL came out with a slightly smaller win, but a win nonetheless.

The library’s 2024 budget was amended from a 5.4 per cent increase to a 7 per cent increase, roughly $330,000. However, subsequent years stayed at the same increases currently tabled in the mayor’s budget: 6 per cent for 2025, 5.1 per cent for 2026, and 5.2 per cent for 2027.

Ward 6 Coun. Trosow says the library scores first in user satisfaction for Londoners.

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“Consistently, this is what people say they want to be spending their money for,” Trosow said.

“If we’re going to be asking residents to increase their taxes, which we are, we need to be giving them something that they really, really like and that’s their libraries.”

Ward 4 Coun. Stevenson, while not enamoured with the idea of raising an already high tax rate, says library services are too important to have branches closing.

“Libraries are a community service to the neighbourhoods, and I don’t think that we should be looking at it from a return on investment.

“These neighbourhoods all deserve to have a place to go, so as much as I really, really support the library, I dislike the threat of closing branches based on return-on-investment calculations.”

Ward 3 Coun. Peter Cuddy, who serves on the library board, says council needs to focus on their budget, even if that means closing some of the branches.

“We have to take a hard and fast look at the at the branches that are not performing for us because like any business model, the entire business will fail if we concentrate on those small ones that aren’t doing their job and that’s what we have in the library system today.”

In addition to the budget increase, several other budget amendments came through: a one-time $31,000 funding for expansion at the Central Library’s second floor creativity lab, an investment of $100,000 into the children’s digital literacy programs split over 2025 and 2026, and a one-time funding of $100,000 to ensure that the LPL can replace high-demand children and teen books.

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Also of note was a motion from Coun. Franke to remove $8 million over four years from the police budget to support several housing programs, such as the Housing Stability Bank and case management for Housing Support programs.

The motion failed 3-12, with councillors Ferreira, Franke, and Hopkins the yeas.

The tax increase as it stands sits at 8.7 per cent for 2024, 8.6 per cent for 2025, 5.8 per cent for 2026, and 6.8 per cent for 2027, with an average increase of 7.5 per cent.

An 8.7-per cent tax would add roughly $285 to the tax bill of the “average” London homeowner, with the average being a home assessed at $252,000.

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