BLOG #640: There are some contentious issues on tonight’s city council agenda. Some are strategic and some more personal, but each will likely create drama and perhaps a few nasty moments.
Tuesday, April 10, 2012 – London
Could be a testy night at city council. Significant personal and strategic items on the agenda. Lots of opportunity for drama, drama, drama.
Remuneration for city council hasn’t been adjusted since 2008. The proposal on the table, narrowly recommended by the finance and administrative services committee, uses the Ontario price index as the basis for a 3.1 per cent increase.
The mayor’s salary (full-time) would increase to $102,717 from $99,629, one-third of which is tax exempt. Councillors’ stipend (part-time) would increase to $32,970 from $31,979, one-third of which is tax exempt. Committee chairpersons, of whom there are now five, would receive $1,232 more. (The other two committees are chaired by the mayor at no extra fee).
Council seems split on this, some arguing an increase is bad optics at a time of spending restraint all round; other say councillors work hard and deserve more pay. The mayor sides with the latter group.
Where it could get nasty: The council divide is somewhat between the well-off who see council work as community service, and the not so who see it as a job, a full-time job some argue.
Prediction: Likely to pass.
Councillors can draw on an individual expense account of up to $8,570 this year, including vehicle expenses. The fund can also be used to buy some office equipment and supplies, rent space, hire part time staff, attend conventions, pay for announcement advertisements, and buy souvenirs and gifts such as clothing, umbrellas and pins.
The council average on gifts and souvenirs last year was just under $600. But Stephen Orser spent more than $4,000 and he’s mighty unhappy about a recommendation from the finance and administrative services committee to cap gift and souvenir spending for 2012 at $1,000.
Councillor Orser also spent more than $1,200 on donations to causes he felt worthy. Council has already eliminated this for 2012.
Where it could get nasty: “If I want to hand out 20 umbrellas at a function that's my decision,” Councillor Orser told the committee. You should see the civic pride when somebody has an umbrella, or a hat or a shirt.”
Prediction: Will pass.
London ended 2011 with a surplus of $5.9 million. The civic administration proposes to put $1 million in a reserve fund for future information technology purchases, add $300,000 to the London & Middlesex Housing Corp. budget and about $7,000 to a couple of advisory committees for special projects. The remaining $4.6 million it suggests be tucked into the economic development reserve fund “for investments in community initiatives.”
Sounds about right? The mayor thought so at committee and the majority agreed with him. But Joni Baechler and Nancy Branscombe argued council should follow previous practice and use the money to reduce debt. It quickly became an old vs. new argument, that will probably spill over to council.
Where it could get nasty: “We have access to some money if we get some priorities,” Councillor Branscombe told committee. “My concern is we don't. I find it difficult to earmark any more money (for economic development) until we get some priorities in place.”
Prediction: Will pass.
This actually has been passed by council during the budget debate. Seems many on council didn’t understand that. Now a charge after 6 p.m. is set to click in July 1 and everyone is getting antsy. It will take a two-thirds majority to overturn the earlier decision but there has been fierce lobbying by Down!own London and merchants.
There’s more at stake than the $70,000 the nighttime charge will raise this year. Free parking is also part of the city’s downtown development strategy.
Where it could get nasty: It probably won’t. Although a few suburban councillors have privately expressed concern about all the attention paid to the downtown, they are unlikely to express it tonight.
Prediction: Interesting but on a close vote free parking will prevail.
This is the marque debate of the night on a fundamental strategy, put in place by previous councils, to get London’s finances in order. Essentially the plan is this: Over a decade or more, water and sewer rates were to go up on average about 8 per cent a year until they generated sufficient revenue to put the utilities on a pay as you go basis.
But Londoners, being cost-conscious themselves, discovered conservation as a way to reduce the impact of rate increases. The result, according to a recent study by BMA Management Consulting, was budget shortfalls in seven of the last eight years to a total of $4.9 million.
This shortfall either must made up by extending the hefty increases another few years or by imposing a minimum monthly charge.
There’s been considerable opposition from this council to the hefty annual increases; in fact in 2011 Mayor Fontana a convinced council to keep rates at zero. This, of course, merely meant they were higher this year.
Where it could get nasty: This threatens to become another round of the zero tax increase fight with higher stakes. But water and sewer rates aren’t a tax, they are a user fee and either the city gets its utilities on a paying basis or we’re transferring the costs to our kids. A sizeable portion of council refuses to acknowledge that reality, instead casting this as an issue of over taxing in a depressed economy.
Prediction: By an 8-7 vote the minimum charge will move to the next round.