Ottawa’s budget, transit fares, Lansdowne: Highlights from a packed council meeting

Ottawa's 2021 budget was approved Wednesday at a total of $3.94 billion with a property tax increase of 3.0 per cent. Nick Westoll / File / Global News

Ottawa city council went through a series of high-profile items during a long meeting on Wednesday, approving a $3.94-billion budget and changes to the city’s deal with the Lansdowne Park operators but finding little common ground amid battling councillors.

Mayor Jim Watson started Wednesday’s meeting stating his belief that the 2021 draft budget “strikes the right balance” of delivering key services to residents during the novel coronavirus pandemic without overburdening property owners with a tax increase of more than three per cent.

He said that families in Ottawa are “realistic” about the municipality’s “fiscal capacity” amid the pandemic’s pressures on the city services, partially because households are having to make similar decisions at home.

“Many families are living paycheque to paycheque, and the city has a responsibility to tighten its belt and not add to that financial burden in these times,” he said.

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But councillors such as Somerset Ward’s Catherine McKenney said that now was the time to spend more in order to protect vulnerable residents, not only through the COVID-19 pandemic, but through substance abuse issues and the housing and homelessness crisis that council declared earlier this year.

McKenney went as far as to call the proposal “the worst budget we’ve ever had in front of us in terms of priorities” over the course of their time on council.

The tension between tightening the city’s belt during the pandemic and changing spending priorities in the name of supporting vulnerable or marginalized residents was at the heart of many key issues during the budget debate on Wednesday.

Police budget passes

Ottawa council approved a $13.2-million increase to the Ottawa Police Services (OPS) budget in 2021 with a vote of 19 yeas to 5 nays.

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Among the line items on the proposed increase were 30 new officer hires and $1.5 million to craft a new mental health response strategy.

Dozens of delegations came forward to the Ottawa Police Services Board during the city’s budget deliberations over the past few weeks to call for a freeze on the force’s budget in 2021.

Numerous councillors acknowledged that trust between the OPS and the community it serves, especially Black and Indigenous residents of Ottawa, is lacking.

Knoxdale-Merivale Coun. Keith Egli said Wednesday that though the trust is “broken,” he remained hopeful that the relationship could be fixed.

Councillors disagreed on how to repair the relationship between police and members of the community.

Some, citing the concerns of OPSB delegations, said that increasing the police budget without the support of the community would further erode that trust. Watson and others, signalling their support of OPS Chief Peter Sloly’s plans to reform the force, said denying the service its requested funding would amount to undermining the chief.

Diane Deans, chair of the OPSB, reaffirmed the board’s commitment to improve the way it consults with and serves members of the community.

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“I know that many of you are not satisfied… but the board is determined to see change happen,” she said.

Deans also said the board will explore the possibility of keeping the OPS 2022 budget at 2021 levels.

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Affordable housing boost denied

A motion from McKenney to boost the planning and community and protective services committees’ funding by $13.2 million — equivalent to the OPS budget increase — through an additional 1.33 per cent hike in property taxes failed by a vote of eight yeas to 16 nays.

McKenney, council’s liaison for housing and homelessness, sought to boost support for affordable housing and other social services.

The additional funding was proposed on top of $15 million in new spending on affordable housing and a $31.9 million grant from the federal government to create 109 new affordable units. The city maintains $33 million in spending on homelessness solutions in the budget.

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While funding for social supports has increased year-over-year in Ottawa, McKenney said Wednesday that spending has not kept pace with other priorities, such as policing.

They advocated for higher near-term spending to stem the worsening crises of homelessness, addiction and mental health.

“We are not staying the course. Things are getting worse in our city. And eventually we’re going to have to pay for it,” they said.

Innes Coun. Laura Dudas said she couldn’t reverse course on her promises to her constituents, as she only asked them to sign off on a three-percent tax increase in 2021.

Deans disagreed with Dudas, and joined McKenney’s calls for a budget that goes beyond the “status quo.”

“Now is exactly the time to consider it. This is the budget. This is the time we make choices and when we make pitches for priorities,” she said.

A later vote that could have seen McKenney replace Kanata North Coun. Jenna Sudds as chair of the community and protective services committee saw them lose a vote to Orléans Coun. Matthew Luloff.

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Luloff then stepped down from his role as deputy mayor and Watson appointed Sudds in his place.

Transit fare freeze fails

Rideau-Rockcliffe Coun. Rawlson King, who backed McKenney’s motion to boost social spending in the budget, also called for a full transit fare freeze in 2021.

His motion was defeated with 7 yeas to 17 nays, and so general transit fares will increase by 2.5 per cent in 2021. The price of the EquiPass, EquiFare and Community Pass programs will remain at 2020 levels.

McKenney noted that whenever they take transit lately, the people with them on the bus or light-rail are largely front-line workers. They said it’s unfair to put a fare increase on the most vulnerable residents who rely on transit during the pandemic yet are the ones who are keeping the city running.

But pushing for a one-time fare freeze, which council was able to accomplish last year through an expectation that LRT builder Rideau Transit Group would cover the expenses, would have long-lasting implications on the city’s transit plans, the city treasurer warned during the meeting.

The topic of “empty buses” driving along their routes came up numerous times in the discussion, prompting questions from councillors as to why OC Transpo has not reduced service amid drastically lower ridership levels during the pandemic.

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“Ten months in, it just feels like there should be some recommendations to dial back some spending inside,” Deans said.

OC Transpo boss John Manconi said Wednesday that the local transit agency has indeed found $11 million in savings across its operations in light of the pandemic, including measures to conserve fuel and work to manage contract expenses.

He said reducing transit service during the pandemic, as some jurisdictions across Canada have done, would get the city into trouble when it has to scale service back up.

Running the occasionally empty bus, therefore, is a cost the transit agency is willing to run to ensure it’s able to meet future service demands, assuming ridership returns to pre-pandemic levels.

Less crowding can also be important in restoring that confidence, Manconi noted.

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“Customers are not comfortable getting onto packed buses,” he said.

Watson pushed back against the transit fare freeze in the name of preserving service levels in the city.

“Less money for transit means less transit,” he said.

Lansdowne deal changes

After passing the 2021 budget, Ottawa council also signed off on changes to the city’s partnership with the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG), which runs operations at Lansdowne Park, though that discussion also failed to fully find common ground.

Council approved changes to the OSEG deal that will see the group, which also owns the Ottawa Redblacks and 67s teams, given access to $4.7 million from Lansdowne’s lifecycle reserve.

It will also get a 10-year extension to the original 30-year deal with the city to manage Lansdowne’s commercial elements in hopes of salvaging a return on the ownership partners’ initial and future equity contributions. The city, which is no longer expected to collect its accrued interest on the project, will continue to lease the land to OSEG at the cost of $1 per year for the extra decade, forgoing market rents for those years.

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OSEG will now move forward on its plans to refinance a $106-million loan, which it is in danger of defaulting on in the next two years. The group has indicated it will look for a silent partner to bring into the retail segment of Lansdowne to help lighten the load.

The ownership group also pledged earlier this week to continue running the Redblacks and the 67s teams for an extra 10 years past its initial eight-year commitment should the deal changes be approved at council.

Watson said after council on Wednesday that a written commitment that the teams will continue to play at Lansdowne Park is a “big factor” in the success of the entire site, as restaurants and businesses in the area lean on game nights to attract tourists and residents.

“The teams really act as the anchor, and when they do well, the site does well,” he said.

Capital Coun. Shawn Menard had put forward a motion making the approval of the changes contingent on OSEG presenting a full business plan explaining how its finances, which were already struggling before the COVID-19 pandemic hampered in-person events at the site, will improve under the new plan. It would also have seen the auditor general prepare a report on the financial impacts on the city.

Roger Greenberg, one of the ownership partners, alleged that Menard’s motion and his associated financial projects on the proposed changes were off-base. Watson, backing Greenberg’s comments, contended that approving Menard’s motion would worsen Lansdowne’s prospects.

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“If you want to kill Lansdowne, vote for this motion,” he told his council colleagues.

Menard’s motion was defeated with seven yeas and 16 nays.

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