Volume 12 Week 5

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In staff we trust

The city is about to embark on another budget setting process, but for intent and purpose it was over before it even started.

City staff have been working on the budget for months. In fact, while all the councilors were our campaigning to get elected, city staff were crunching numbers and working within priorities already established by the previous council in 2011.

The current budget process is all about maintaining the status quo, or to be more specific, sticking to the priorities already established in the Long Range Financial Plan, the Master Transportation Plan and the Strategic Plan.

The Long Range Financial Plan establishes how everything is going to be paid for, including how mush debt the city is willing to take on; how high our water and sewer bills are going to go and how much homeowners subsidize the transit system.

The Master Transportation Plan lays out how many roads, bike lanes and pathways are going to be built; when they are going to be built; and how they’re going to be funded.

Finally, the Strategic Plan is the key corporate planning document that defines what Council plans to accomplish over its four-year term.

According to the City of Ottawa’s own definition, the Strategic Plan forms “the foundation of the City’s work efforts to deliver quality and relevant services to residents by providing strategic guidance to all departmental plans, policies and programs, and supports long-term sustainability goals".

All of which sounds wonderful if you’re into navel-gazing and establishing a corporate vision yaddy, yadda, yadda. But in the end it is staff, and senior staff in particular, who run their departments the way they see fit as long as they stay within the parameters of the Strategic Plan and as long as they don’t go over budget.

The only problem is that nothing gets done without the proper funds and the city doesn’t have any, or at least is doesn’t have any extra money to spend on promises or commitments made by unknowledgeable, ambitious city council wannabes in the middle of an election campaign.

And that’s what a lot of these men and women don’t realize… there is no money for pet projects or empty campaign promises, and the deck is stacked against them
should they even attempt to try.

As I wrote earlier, the budget process is designed to maintain the status quo. Each committee will look at their departments’ respective budgets, must will simply be rubber-stamped. There may be the odd committee member who will try to table an amendment that will either save money, or a program or project that will end up costing more money, but more times than not they are shot down never to see the light of day in front of the full council.

The only way to add anything to the budget is to first get the approval of the Mayor. Without Watson’s approval you’re doomed. You’re especially doomed if you can’t find the necessary offsetting savings to pay for your wonderful idea. But even if you do, you must still get the approval of a majority of you colleagues, which once again is nearly impossible without the Mayor’s blessing.

If it’s a one-time expenditure, say for more crossing guards, or for speed bumps on Viseneau Avenue, you can always try your luck by accessing funds in two envelops stuffed with cash that have been set aside for what’s called “Strategic Initiatives”. These are funds that will be doled after the budget is passed.

There is $4.9 million in the Strategic Initiative envelope for operating expenses and $31 million in the strategic initiative envelop for capital projects. According to the city, the money has been set aside to help fund initiatives that will be coming out of the 2015-2018 Strategic Planning process which will begin right after the budget is passed in late March or early April. The only problem is that a lot of councilors made a lot of promises during the election$35.9 million doesn’t go as far as it used to.

It will be interesting to see which councilors have the gravitas to get a piece of the Strategic Initiative pie, and to what degree the process will be influenced both
behind the scenes and in the public eye by Mayor Watson.

Here in the east end someone like Jody Mitic, who promised to fix traffic concerns on Bearbrook, Forest Valley, Viseneau and Mer Bleu Roads as well as turn the Blackburn Arean into a community hub, will have his work cut out for him. First, he has to compete with veterans like Stephen Blais and Bob Monette. And second he will have stiff competition from fellow first-timers like Tobi Nussbaum, Catherine McKenney, Jeff Leiper and Riley Brockington whose resumes coming into the job are far more extensive than his and who have already demonstrated some skill for the job during the first two city council meetings.

It’s also interesting to note that Mitic is the only new councillor who wasn’t given a deputy chair position on any of the standing committees. Instead, he was named the city’s first sports commissioner which is largely a ceremonial role in which he will be the mayor’s proxy in dealing with groups who want to bring a major sporting event to the city.

Make no mistake about it, this is Jim Watson’s city and he plans to run it his way. I said the same thing when he first got elected four years ago. He is the antithesis of Larry O’Brien. Like O’Brien he wants to run things his way, but unlike O’Brien he has the political acumen to make it seem like all those around him are an integral part of the process. Their ideas and opinions are deeply valued, but in the end Jim will do whatever Jim wants to do. Kind of like the current state of party politics in Canada.

And although on one level it’s all gum drops and moonbeams, especially if you’re happy with the status quo, but on the other if you have some new idea to offer that will help make the city a better place, say invest more in social services, or properly maintain this city’s sports fields, or facilitate the efforts of volunteer organizations by investing staff time and dollars without hand-cuffing them with cost recovery nonsense then God help you, because the powers that be at 111 Lisgar
Street aren’t going to. It’s not in their Strategic Plan.

(If you wish to comment on this or any other View Point column please write to Fred Sherwin at fsherwin@magma.ca).


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