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Ottawa's finances a growing concern for some council members

Coun. Rick Chiarelli called the 2018 draft budget "fake," and it appears he's not alone in that assessment.

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson speaks to reporters following the introduction of the city's budget on Wednesday Nov. 8, 2017

Ryan Tumilty / Metro

Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson speaks to reporters following the introduction of the city's budget on Wednesday Nov. 8, 2017

Concern is growing about the city's financial health after the mayor tabled the 2018 draft budget, drawing criticism from some members of council that it contains unrealistic numbers. 

Most of the concerns centre on areas where, while the city is budgeting more compared to the 2017 budget, the figures are smaller than what the city has actually had to spend, on average, over the last five years. 

Road maintenance is one such number: in 2017, the city budgeted $111 million, but expects to actually spend about $126 million once the final bill come in. In 2018 they have budgeted to spend roughly $117 million.

Watson blamed this year's high bill on a bad winter. But if you look at years previous, 2017 was actually a pretty average year for road repair spending. The city spent $128 million in 2016, and $121 million in 2015. 

Coun. Rick Chiarelli made headlines on Thursday with his claim that it was a “fake budget” filled with “fake numbers,”—but he’s not alone on that claim. 

“It’s very clear that the actual spending and the amount they plug in are different,” said Coun. Diane Deans. “And the number they plug into the budget is lower.” 

The mayor, in response, said “I’d encourage members of council to read the budget before they criticize it, and I know that Coun. Chiarelli missed the presentation by [deputy treasurer Isabel Jasmine] because he was doing a press conference.”

Several councillors have quietly expressed agreement with Chiarelli’s assessment of the budget, and in recent weeks and months, the wisdom of Watson’s two per cent cap has been questioned. 

In pre-budget consultations, urban councillors got behind the idea of going as high as three per cent to fund more social and environmental programs. Back in September, police board chair Coun. Eli El-Chantiry criticized the cap for the pressure it was putting on the cop budget.

More significantly, it’s unclear if that support will last into the next term of council. Senior city managers, said Deans, are “constantly warning councillors that we can’t sustain what we’re doing now.” 

The impact of this approach can be seen in the city’s depleting reserve funds, Deans said. 

“We’re running out of money. There’s limited funds, and we’re getting to the point of no return. Judgement day is coming.” 

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