REPORT #1,139: Mayor Matt Brown will give his second State of the City address to the London Chamber of Commerce breakfast on Tuesday. It will be interesting as much as for what he says and for what he doesn’t.
Monday, Jan. 25, 2016 – LondonOntario
The mayor of LondonOntario makes the annual State of the City address to the Chamber of Commerce breakfast Tuesday, a semi-swank affair at the Convention Centre attended by upwards of 1,300 well-dressed folks from the local business and professional world.
As always, there’s speculation about what will be said, how it will be said, and in particular what will not be said.
In his first speech last January, after being elected mayor in the fall of 2014, Mayor Matt Brown used the occasion as more of an introduction of himself, a rookie in the job, and his council, mostly rookies to politics.
It got generally favourable reviews, including what The Free Press described as a rare standing ovation from the audience.
This time around, however, both the mayor and his 14 colleagues from the wards of the city have had a chance to actually put some marks on their record book. The enthusiasm may be more muted.
Over the years, our mayors have used the breakfast to lecture the audience about what London needed to do to get ahead (Dianne Haskett); to review what had been accomplished by council, and others, in the past year (Anne Marie DeCicco-Best); and to promise major developments just on the horizon (Joe Fontana)
It was Mr. Fontana who looked into his crystal ball in his last year in office and saw a downtown skyway whisking tourists across the city. Unfortunately he didn’t see the judge would find him guilty of fraud and breach of trust and that he would be forced to resign in disgrace five months later. Turned out, there was no skyway either.
But that wasn’t Mr. Fontana’s biggest miscue. In his second address, he announced a $200 million (later reviewed to $350 million) twin-tower condo project for SoHo anchored by a wellness centre. The project was to be completed by his good friend Loredana Onesan, CEO of a company called FinCore Canada.
It hasn’t happened, doesn’t appear it ever will. Recently at least one resident of SoHo has sued FinCore and Ms. Onesan for breach of contract because a property sale fell apart. And although FinCore Canada’s website is still up and contains images of the SoHo Wellington Centre, the listed company telephone number, 519-667-1700, is answered by a recording: “The number you are calling cannot receive incoming calls.”
Mayor Brown, both in his style at council and in his State of the City address, seems determined to follow Ms. DeCicco-Best’s lead. Several months ago the word went out to all departments at City Hall as well as all boards and commissions for a list of accomplishments, big or small, in the past year. Doubtless we’ll hear about many of them on Tuesday.
Four items deserve special attention from this audience:
The London Plan: Mayor Brown often talks about this proposed revision of the city’s official plan as if it was already the law. It is not. In fact, this council has never debated the document. That will come in the next month or so.
Based on their public utterances, both during the 2014 election and since, it is assumed most members of council support the London Plan, and in particular its call for a future city built upwards rather than outwards. But we’ll see.
Once finally passed by council, the plan must be approved by the province and withstand the almost certain appeal to the Ontario Municipal Board before it becomes law, perhaps sometime in 2017.
Rapid Transit: As Mayor Brown will doubtless repeat, London is Canada’s largest city without rapid transit. Council is determined to fix this, and there appears to be solid support within the community – and certainly among the Convention Centre audience. The mayor will say again building this would be the largest civic investment ever made.
However, the mayor and the civic administration have taken to linking the well-documented need for a rapid transit solution with a model that includes light rail, for which there is at present no documented need. We are not the biggest city in Canada without a light rail system; Winnipeg, with almost twice our population, is and last year its council decided against light rail and instead expanded their bus rapid transit system.
What was mentioned by the mayor in last year’s state of the city address as a $380 million plan for fast buses has ballooned in a year to a $900 million proposal, including light rail The city’s share remains $125 million but the ask from the provincial and federal governments is wishfully assumed to cover the rest. Neither has yet said yes.
Multi-Year Budget: Instead of a budget for one year, this council has accepted a desire by a civic administration for a multi-year budget – that is, four years in one. It proposes annual tax increases of somewhere between 2.6 and 3.1 per cent, depending whether a basket of special projects is approved or not.
Clearly a four-year budget makes sense from the administration’s point of view. They can plan well ahead, knowing the money is already in place. But it is putting an enormous strain on this council to absorb all the implications of billions in spending that stretches to 2019.
Embodied in the budget is the administration’s response to council’s strategic plan – which, in truth, the administration mostly wrote anyway.
Mayor Brown sees completion of the strategic plan, in his first 100 days, as a major accomplishment of council. Others see it as a classic play of manipulation by the administration of the elected neophytes.
The Stat Plan, as everyone seems to call it, begat a long list of projects. As at least one councillor has opined: “This list isn’t my list.”
Back to the River: Council has approved a $7 million project that would beautify the Forks of the Thames, including a walkway onto the river.
The walkway assumes restoration of Springbank Dam which, when closed in the late spring, creates a mini-lake that backs up the Thames past the downtown and provides opportunities for boaters.
However, it’s now clear restoration of the dam cannot proceed without new permissions from local, provincial and federal environmental authorities – permissions which seem less likely than ever to be granted.
It would seem likely Back to the River is going to require a significant rethink before the money starts to flow.
For Mayor Brown, however, this will require some back paddling. During the election he promised the dam would be repaired, a stance he has maintained since.
So beware the bobbing and weaving on those four points.