Ten Ways the City of Ottawa's Budget Needs to Change
1) Do not expand the urban boundary. Recently, Ottawa approved another large expansion of its urban boundary, adding houses to the periphery. It will cause taxes to go up, harm our environment, make it harder to provide services in communities, and won’t put a dent in the affordable housing backlog. We need respectful intensification, as Calgary recently approved. That city will avoid wasteful spending because it chose to keep its urban boundary steady.
2) Affordable housing and homelessness. Some people feel that putting money into affordable housing is too costly, but housing people who are house-insecure is not only the right thing to do, it also saves on social service costs and helps people contribute back to local communities.
3) Reduce new road expansion. Ottawa has a lot of roads that need fixing. We should repair the pot-holes and apply stringent asset management. Instead, we are expanding roads. It is a myth that widening roads will help reduce congestion; instead, more people choose to drive as it “induces” demand and fills up the new road space. It is incredibly expensive, not just in capital costs but to maintain those new kilometres (snow clearing, repairs). The new Strandherd Road widening is expected to cost over $100 million, six times more than the city’s “record investment” in new affordable housing builds.
4) Fighting climate change. Buildings and transportation are the top two sources of emissions in Ottawa. Investments in building retrofits, efficient HVAC and alternative forms of power generation save us money while also helping reduce emissions. The more we can induce activities such as walking and bicycling, the more the city saves. As we’ve seen with the Bank Street Bridge, sometimes all it takes are inexpensive pylons. We should accelerate investments of this type to achieve savings.
5) Parking, congestion and ride shares. While every other user fee has increased dramatically over the last decade, parking rates need examination. This is the most effective way to reduce congestion without building expensive infrastructure. We should bring in demand-pricing, and shift that revenue to sustainable transportation, which saves money. Uber and Lyft pay pennies compared to what they cost in infrastructure, reduced transit ridership and congestion. They need to pay their fair share.
6) Vacant buildings. Many buildings sit vacant and drag down our neighbourhood economies. We should be charging progressively increased fees for boarded-up buildings with steeper penalties to encourage redevelopment, improved use and city revenue. I’ve pushed for a new bylaw update to include this.
7) Brownfields subsidies to developers. The city gives developers a lot of money to help them remediate development sites, up to 50 per cent of the clean-up costs. A few years ago, they approved $60 million for the Zibi development. Developer influence needs to be reined in.
8) Reducing P3s. We’ve seen it with LRT and Lansdowne. Public-Private Partnerships seem to overpromise and under-deliver. This is while providing fewer benefits than if we’d maintained these projects ourselves. Our top project debts in the city are risky P3s, with legal implications and increasing costs when things go wrong.
9) Examine the police budget. Police budget increases have outstripped inflation and population growth in the last 20 years in Ottawa. We need to better address mental health issues, poverty and drug use. In Oregon, they have saved funds while transferring a large percentage of police calls to mental health workers. Cities around the world are now examining and implementing similar models.
10) Transparency in budget process. Currently the budget is hyper-controlled with very limited changes after being released. We need more accountability at city hall, which could come from methods such as participatory budgeting, where residents can take part in the decision-making and reallocate inefficient spending.