Steve Collins covers urban affairs and other issues facing the nation's capital.
It's a football, it's a pie, it's… budget 2017?
This year's budget season opened with a perhaps justified wariness on the part of some councillors.
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This year's budget season opened with a perhaps justified wariness on the part of some councillors. The scene reminded me of the first panels of a Peanuts strip, Lucy holding that enticing football and offering Charlie fulsome assurances, as prelude to the seemingly inevitable “Auuugh!” “Whump!”
The same dissidents who voted against last year's budget (vets Diane Deans and Rick Chiarelli, first-termers Jeff Leiper, Tobi Nussbaum and Catherine McKenney) cautiously probed the defences erected around Mayor Jim Watson's two-per-cent cap on tax increases, determined not to have their priorities tripped up again in thickets of procedure.
Last year, Deans unsuccessfully attempted to inject $250,000 into the city’s social service agencies, first from reserves (ruled out of order) and then offset by job cuts (voted down). This year, some want to see a $500,000 boost. Another motion from Nussbaum last year to freeze transit fares and make up the difference by increasing the transit levy on taxpayers also failed.
Those were straight votes, but the some councillors felt stymied by the rules. An ostensibly simple take-a-penny, leave-a-penny principle, which stipulates a committee can only introduce new spending by cutting the same amount elsewhere in their budget, or from another budget with a full council vote, came up for an extended metaphorical examination.
Keith Egli, angling for more clarity, or perhaps still savouring a happy Thanksgiving, engaged city treasurer Marian Simulik in a lengthy discussion on pie: “As I understand the process, we can be as creative a baker as we want with that pie. So we're constrained by the size of the pie, but we can cut it up however we want to cut it up. So when you come forward with a budget, we can say 'I want this slice bigger for that, and that slice smaller for this,' as long as it all fits within the pie pan. Is that correct?”
Simulik: “My interpretation is that when you're at committee, yes, the size of the pie doesn't change. You can just slice differently. That's up to you. When you get to committee of the whole, you can in fact increase the pie if you want to increase the tax levy. But as the mayor has said, he has ruled in the past that you have to continue to abide by the [principle that] if you want to add a dollar you have to take a dollar out. And it would be a motion that would be debated and would have to be voted on, and a majority would win as usual.”
Egli: “But at committee of the whole we have a whole bunch of pies. So I can take a slice of apple pie and put it in the blueberry pie and I can put the blueberry pie in the apple pie, correct?”
Simulik: “Uh, continuing with the pie analogy, yes, you can make mixed pies.”
With $3 billion in, er, pie on the table, the mayor insists it should be simple enough to still stick to the two per cent diet he campaigned on, and for which council voted for in 2014. This year, an increasingly assertive bloc of city councillors seems keen to challenge some of these baked-in restrictions.