10 ways the City of Ottawa budget needs to change

Shawn Menard
Councillor, Capital Ward

Phone: 613-580-2487

It is budget season at City Hall, and the events of 2020 have posed unique challenges and opportunities going forward. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the city’s financial health. Revenues have declined, but the needs of residents haven’t.

We often hear calls to “keep taxes low” while sweeping and unhelpful changes do the opposite. We should be debating how to cut from wasteful projects to fund ways to build a better city. Here are 10 suggestions.

  1. Do Not Expand the Urban Boundary – Ottawa has recently approved another large expansion of its urban boundary that will add houses to its periphery. It will force higher taxes, harm our environment, spread city services even thinner and won’t improve the affordability of housing. We need to do better with respectful intensification, like Calgary has done.
  2. Affordable Housing and Homelessness – To provide housing for the homeless and house-insecure is not only the right thing to do, it also saves on social-service costs and helps people contribute to local communities.
  3. Reduce New Road Building Projects – Ottawa needs to keep up existing roads, but we shouldn’t be expanding roads and building unnecessary new ones. It is a common myth that widening roads reduces congestion, but it doesn’t because more people choose to drive if there is more space. That drives up capital and maintenance costs. One example is the widening of Strandherd; it’s expected to cost over $100 million, six times more than the city’s “record investment” in new affordable housing.
  4. Fighting Climate Change: Buildings and transportation are the top two sources of emissions in Ottawa. Investments in building retrofits, LED lighting, efficient HVAC and alternative forms of power reduce emissions and save money. So do simple measures to encourage cycling and walking, like the inexpensive pylons on the Bank Street Bridge.
  5. Parking, Congestion and Ride Shares: While most user fees have increased dramatically over the last decade, parking rates in Ottawa are still quite low. More expensive parking is the most effective way to reduce congestion. We need to bring in demand pricing and spend that revenue on sustainable transportation options that save money. Companies like Uber and Lyft pay pennies compared to what they cost our city in infrastructure, reduced transit ridership, environmental damage and congestion. We should pressure them to pay their fair share, in line other North American cities.
  6. Vacant Buildings: Many buildings sit vacant in Ottawa. They are a drag on our economy. We should charge progressively higher fees for boarded-up buildings to boost revenue and encourage redevelopment. I’ve pushed for the new bylaw update to include this mechanism.
  7. Brownfields Subsidies to Developers: The city gives developers a lot of money to help them remediate development sites, funding up to 50 per cent of clean-up costs. For example, the city approved $60 million for the Zibi development. The city needs to rein in the influence of large development companies and ensure fairness in Ottawa.
  8. Reducing P3s: We’ve seen it with LRT and Lansdowne. Public-private partnerships seem to overpromise and underdeliver. We get fewer benefits than if we just paid for, built and maintained these projects ourselves. Our top project debts in the city are P3s with high-risk factors, legal implications and increasing costs when things go wrong.
  9. Examine the Police Budget: Police budget increases have far outstripped inflation and population growth over the last 20 years. We need to look for better ways to address mental health issues, poverty and drug use. Places like Oregon have saved money by transferring many police calls to mental-health workers who produce better outcomes.
  10. Transfers from Other Levels of Government: We must ensure the city gets its fair share from other levels of government. Transfers represent about 20 per cent of our annual revenue. We must do all we can to enhance transfers from sources like the federal gas-tax fund which go mostly towards transit.

There are many innovative ways to improve city finances by reallocating inefficient spending, but city hall doesn’t currently seem to be looking for innovative solutions.

That’s why we need the budget process to change. We need participatory budgeting, where residents can have a greater say in decision making. Last year, city council passed my motion to study such changes. We need more transparency. The budget is now handed to city council for approval within a month with minimal changes, even when consultations have produced excellent suggestions. The city needs to do a better job of listening and incorporating these ideas into its plans.

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