BLOG #701: Paul Van Meerbergen was there for city council Tuesday, but Stephen Orser went home sick. And that left city council still stalled at 7-7 in the battle to set a 2013 budget target at zero tax increase.
Wednesday, June 27, 2012 – London
Politics, someone mused at city council Tuesday night, is a funny thing.
Well maybe funny isn't the most appropriate word in the circumstances. Perhaps strange would be a better choice to explain why your elected leaders tied at 7-7 once again in their search for an appropriate target to start the 2013 budget process.
Yes, Paul Van Meerbergen was in attendance. But Stephen Orser wasn't, he having withdrawn claiming illness just at the start of the debate. Councillors Van Meerbergen and Orser are both zeroes when it comes to civic finances.
So, as had been the case the previous night at committee, the vote to set the target for next year's budget at zero has been deferred to the next council meeting, to be held July 24 when there may or may not, given it is the holiday season, be a full complement of council members present.
Although Tuesday's debate covered much the same ground as the previous day – that zero would cause “massive staff layoffs and unprecedented service cuts” as claimed by one side, or could be fairly easily accomplished by “thinking outside the box, doing things in new ways” as claimed by the other – it was far more personal and bitter.
Nancy Branscombe, for example, staked her continuance as chairperson of the services review committee on her council colleagues committing not to raid reserves to balance the budget, as happened this year to balance the budget. That idea was rejected on a 7-7 vote.
“We can’t continue using reserve funds and have any kind of long-term stability,” she said. “I can’t support that. (Zero) will mean massive layoffs, no community funding, no new projects, no economic development funding, no transportation master plan. That can be done, but council needs to be honest with the public about what it is going to mean. Just because election promises were made there are going to be big casualties this year.”
Not so, said Mayor Joe Fontana, who then declared he was “getting a little tired about getting threats that I won’t do this or that. We are democratically elected to do our work, no pre-conditions. The worst of this council is very disheartening. What’s wrong with trying to tell our community that we want to try and control our costs? We are not proposing to cut taxes. We are proposing to take the taxes given to us and get the best bang for the buck.”
Dale Henderson declared getting to zero “is going to be easy if we change how we live” – this despite a staff warning it will require $25 million in cuts on top of the $24 million which has been trimmed in the past two years. Not to worry, said Councillor Henderson: “There are ways of doing things we just don’t look at. A paradigm shift is needed in the way we buy things and do things. Taxpayers can’t keep paying.”
One suggestion for doing this differently: “We have to go to zero based budgeting.”
Turns out, though, the services review committee is already moving that way in several departments starting with this budget cycle. Although it’s long been approved, Councillor Henderson didn’t seem to know that.
Joni Baechler teed off on council members who find it “so easy to sit here and say zero and then do nothing, absolutely nothing, not even offer up a suggestion for one cut. Half of you don’t understand what growth and non-growth is, what is capital cost and operating cost. There’s no rational thought to some of the conversations. I won’t support zero because it is a lie.”
That got Joe Swan fired up. “People’s positions are so rigid they have left the room.” He then declared he’d be happy to chair a committee to determine how best to get to zero. “We will do the hard work, look for revenue growth, look for the cuts. There are many ways we can make this happen. We are hard-working intelligent people. We are not dumb. I take offense from some members of council that we don’t know what we’re doing. So step aside. Lots of us will be happy to do it.”
There were no immediate takers to his request for committee partners, nor was it clear Tuesday night whether the existing committee is still functioning.
And so it went. Nowhere for now, as it turned out.
We are, clearly, going to get a resolution at some point, probably whenever an odd number of council members turns up for a meeting. Whatever happens, though, it would seem about half the group won't support it.
But on any night in the future when all 15 members of council are present, clearly those who back setting zero as the starting point for this year’s budget will win, 8-7.