BLOG #700: Paul Van Meerbergen, councillor for Ward 10, missed Monday’s meeting of the strategic priorities and policy committee which grappled with the divisive issue of setting the target for next year’s budget. Half the council wants zero, half wants to keep staff and service. Council will decide tonight. Will Dr. No be there to vote?
Tuesday, June 26, 2012 – London
Ever wondered what one city councillor is worth?
Well based on what happened Monday night when council gathered as the strategic priorities and policy committee, the value is somewhere between $25 million and priceless, depending which side of the another-year-of-zero tax debate you’re on.
What happened is that Paul Van Meerbergen, known to many as Dr. No for his inability to vote yes to anything that costs money except road construction, missed the meeting. On divisive issues, a missing member of Councillor Van Meerbergen’s stature pretty much renders council about as effective at propagating policy as a eunuch.
So for want of this vote, council tied 7-7 on a motion to set the budget target for 2013 for all city departments, boards and commissions at zero. Tie votes at council matches equal defeat.
Should you be among those in the city who worry – as do some on council – that successive zero tax increases are simply setting the stage for massive hikes in the future, Monday was not necessarily a day to celebrate. After 185 minutes of debate, the committee voted 11-3 to refer the decision to tonight’s council meeting when, presumably, Councillor Van Meerbergen will be in attendance.
The veteran councillor from Ward 10 is less likely to vote no to a motion setting the target at zero than a tiger is of changing its stripes.
It will come as no surprise to veteran council watchers that the way council split on which way to go on taxes – zero and risk massive cuts, in the magnitude of $25 million, to services and very likely significant layoffs; or an increase of as much as 5.5 per cent to keep everything the way it is now and perhaps a little bit more – remains predictable.
Voting for zero: Mayor Joe Fontana, Bud Polhill (Ward 1), Joe Swan (3), Stephen Orser (4), Dale Henderson (9), Denise Brown (11), Sandy White (14). Councillor Van Meerbergen would usually be in this list, too.
Voting against zero: Bill Armstrong (2), Joni Baechler (5), Nancy Branscombe (6), Matt Brown (7), Paul Hubert (8), Harold Usher (12), Judy Bryant (13).
The sharp-eyed will notice Councillor Armstrong has changed sides. Husband of Teresa Armstrong, the New Democrat MPP for London Fanshawe, he joined the mayor’s team in February to pass the 2012 zero budget, in the process removing $2 million from reserves to make it happen.
Monday night Councillor Armstrong lectured his fellows – “in hindsight it should have been 1 – 2 per cent in the last two years and maybe we wouldn’t be looking at the scenario before us today” – without once mentioning his own indiscretion in helping to make it happen. A growing number of Ward 2 voters, apparently, do not have such faulty memories.
Of course, it’s early days on all this budget talk. As Mayor Fontana reminded more than once, “we’re not setting the budget tonight.” In fact, that won’t happen until late February, 2014.
But what is being set is the starting point for every branch of the vast city empire which collectively will spend more than $800 million of our money. In previous years, council set a target and worked down; this time the target is down but may, given the predictions of dire consequences, get raised.
The scenario before us today, as Councillor Armstrong put it, could include layoffs in the police service, the fire department, the health unit, London Transit and at City Hall. It could include services cuts for a range of activities from recreation to retirement, from entertainment to education, from transit to transportation, according to information presented by Martin Hayward, the city treasurer.
There are differences of opinion on the gravity of the situation, however. The mayor, as ever, is optimistic. “I’m prepared to say zero because I think it is obtainable. Can we do everything for less money? We’ve proven we can.”
On the opposite side is Councillor Branscombe, chairperson of council’s service review committee which has the daunting task of finding the savings. “Do the arithmetic, there is no way we can get $25 million without serious service impact.” she said. “Zero can all be done, but let’s be really clear to the public what will happen if we do. It won’t be pretty. There will be casualties.”
None of that, however, will stop council from voting 8-7 late tonight in favour of a third year of zero. You ‘No’ who will be the tie breaker.