BLOG #708: Nancy Branscombe, the councillor for Old North's Ward 6, resigned this week as chairperson and a member of city council's services review committee. She is not convinced council is prepared to do the heavy lifting needed to truly reach zero tax increase, nor ready to endure the political fallout tough decisions brings.
Thursday, July 26, 2012 – London
When a city politician makes good on his or her promise to keep your property taxes at zero for another year, do you ever stop to consider how it really happens?
There are costs and consequences to zero. And if you're not the one doing the paying or suffering, someone somewhere else is.
This week, for example, a dozen middle managers in the city's technology, finance and recreation departments were escorted from the work stations by security, their jobs eliminated. Why? Well in the interest of more efficiency the city has found other ways to get their jobs done.
Efficiency saves money. Money saved keeps costs down. Lowest costs translate into zero budget increases.
Nancy Branscombe, the three-term councillor for Old North's Ward 6, has been the chairperson of a council committee which for the past three years has had the specific assignment to find efficiencies at City Hall.
Over the course of their mandate, which continues, Ms. Branscombe and her committee colleagues, along with senior civic administration managers, have found millions of dollars’ worth of ways to do things differently and better. The service committee's work has been the principal reason city taxpayers have enjoyed two years of zero tax increases.
Ms. Branscombe, once a candidate for the Reform party, is very much a Conservative. She believes in efficient, no frills government. She believes in zero – but, as she said over and over during the budget debate this past February, not zero at any cost.
She was appalled when council, to get to zero for 2012, shifted $3 million from reserves to make it happen. Several weeks ago, when council began arguing over what the target should be for 2013, she presented a motion that if zero was to be the target it should only be accomplished by making real and permanent budget cuts, not by robbing tomorrow to benefit today.
“The motion was to help me determine whether council would be prepared to do the hard and politically uncomfortable work of permanent operational cuts,” she explains.
The motion was defeated. So she put her council colleagues on notice she would quit the services review committee if zero was approved as the target without a corresponding promise not to use reserves to get there.
To reach zero for 2013 spending must be reduced or revenues increased by about $25 million. That will, warns City Treasurer Martin Hayward, almost certainly mean service cuts or staff layoffs next year.
Tuesday night, on its third try, city council approved a budget target for 2013 of zero. They did so without making any promise not to use reserves. After which Ms. Branscombe resigned both as chairperson and a member of the services review committee.
In a statement she read to council, this is part of how she justified her decision:
“We were the first municipality in Ontario to produce a 'service-based' budget. The reason we moved in this direction was to improve the transparency of how our tax dollars were being used and to be more productive and nimble in setting priorities on behalf of our citizens within a climate of keeping taxes low.
“Getting to zero by raiding and diverting our reserve funds and other 'one time' money, as was done (in 2012), is not sound financial management. . . . The only way to get to zero is via permanent reductions in our operating budget. This can certainly be done, but along with permanent reductions come political pressure and difficult decisions.
“We couldn't do that this past year; raiding reserves was easier. It will happen again (next) year and I won't support it.”
Meantime, Joni Baechler, the councillor for the adjacent north London Ward 5, who is vice-chairperson of the committee and who shares many of Ms. Branscombe's views on how civic government should operate, is considering her options. She, too, may resign.
There may yet be other defections from the committee's membership of Mayor Joe Fontana, Joe Swan (Ward 3), Matt Brown (7), Paul Hubert (8), Dale Henderson (9), Denise Brown (11) and Harold Usher (12).
Stephen Orser (4) and Paul Van Meerbergen (10), two of the most outspoken advocates of zero and two of council's least engaged members, have publicly declared they'd like to join.
One suggestion Wednesday was that Mayor Fontana would take over as chairperson. That would make sense. The reason we're facing year three of zero increases in budgets and taxes – and potentially significant cuts in service – is that the mayor promised us just that during his election campaign.
Seems only fair he should wear whatever glory – and pain – Zero III will bring.