The public finally got their chance to speak their minds about the budget before, and directly to, City Council this past Tuesday, and guess what was on the mind of most of them. But there was actually much more on the minds of speakers as they talked about an array of issues to consider before the final budget is passed this Wednesday.
Anastasia Ziprick was the first delegate and she spoke to council on behalf of several major arts festivals including the Guelph Jazz Festival, the Guelph Contemporary Dance Festival and Hillside, remarking about how rental fees on the River Run Centre need to be lowered. Ziprick said that it’s hard to deal with mounting expenses and if fees at the River Run’s Co-operators Hall aren’t reduced, then the Jazz Festival may have to relocate.
Sandy Ferguson-Escott spoke next on behalf of the Guelph-Non Profit Housing Committee. She was looking for tax relief on the GNPHC’s development on Paisley Road. The problem for GNPHC is that they got a bad deal when the project was developed in 2005, which prevents them from seeking additional revenue by transferring it over from one of their other eight sites. Without the tax relief, Ferguson-Escott said, there won’t be enough money to pay for the bills, and the project will be effectively bankrupt.
Terry O’Connor on behalf of the Income Security Action Group for Poverty Task Force, was the first to talk about the proposed service cuts and fee hike to Guelph Transit. He was also the first to talk about the possibility of introducing a low income bus pass directed not just at people of limited means, but could also be used to help people on EI, CPP, the disabled and seniors be mobile. O'Conner pointed out that numerous other municipalities across the province already have something similar in effect, and that Guelph support agencies already give away tens of thousands of dollars worth of bus passes and tickets per year already.
Next, community activist Ben Bennett took the podium and opened with a broad swipe. "It took so long [to walk up here], I should have taken the bus perhaps," he joked. Bennett began that if cutting transit was so controversial, then the simple solution would be to not cut it at all. Bennett added that the City should be making people "excited about the possibilities, and not depressed about the on-the-street realities. [...] Transit needs to be affordable and reliable; do it right, or don't do it." Bennett's remarks won a warm round of applause from the crowd and an admonishment from Mayor Karen Farbridge, who asked the people in the gallery to contain future exuberance.
Barb McPhee, on behalf of Community Voices, also spoke about the transit fee increases and said that a meeting her group had about the subject drew three-times the number of people they were expecting. She explained that a fare increase will leave people stranded, and that the continued lack of stat holiday service is creating a city of haves and have nots. She also noted that many of the people that have to work on stat holidays are the very same people that take the bus to their places of employment, and those that have the day off are left unable to enjoy city festivities like Canada Day in Riverside Park. McPhee suggested that the City should look two hours of transfer time instead of one, and that the goal of transit should be to treat riders with respect and to make sure people make can their transfers on time.
On another subject, Konnie Peet, Executive Director of the Guelph Community Health Centre on behalf of the Wellington-Guelph Drug Strategy Committee, asked for $30,000 in new funding from the City and the County of Wellington in order to hire a co-ordinator and help fund overhead costs. This money would be an annual budget line item to help the WGDDSC with its outreach, treatment, harm reduction and prevention programs.
Andrew Seagram of the Guelph Wellington Task Force for Poverty Elimination brought the conversation back to transit. He reiterated the points of no fee increase, the revival of stat holiday service, and the introduction of a low income bus pass. Paul Clarkson, who followed Seagram, tried a different approach in advocating for transit by referring to a study that says that people that take public transit are three times more like to get 30 minutes of moderate physical activity. This got the attention of some of the councillors, but Ward 6 rep Karl Wettstein wanted to talk about whether or not Clarkson had approached other levels of government about funding, in-part, Guelph Transit, before going on a bit of a tangent about how the Federal and Provincial government should be carrying a combined 40 per cent of the weight of city buses.
Paul Reeve, Chair of the Accessibility Advisory Committee, asked council about releasing $100,000 in this years budget to continue towards the goal of removing physical barriers from City rec facilities. Peter MacNeill of Guelph Tranist spoke on behalf of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 1189, and reiterated many of the same points made by Gary Daters in my interview with him a few weeks ago. Later, former council candidate Steven Petric added another transit suggestion by offering that idea that the Guelph Transit Advisory Committee should be re-initiated.
Before the end of the night, Guelph Chamber of Commerce President Lloyd Longfield took the floor to state his concerns about the City’s hiring of 87 Full-Time Equivalent positions saying that most businesses are continuing to act with an abundance of caution in these early stages of economic recovery. He also added that as much as he wants the City to help foster industrial and commercial development, he also wanted them to keep in mind residential growth, as many of the businesses he works with are telling him that they’re looking outside the city limits for skilled, and professional workers.
The last speaker was Lou Maieron, Mayor of the Town of Erin. who was looking for an ambulance to fill the newly constructed ambulance station at the Erin Wellness Centre. He also, apparently, went to the University of Guelph with Mayor Farbridge, which is an interesting bit of trivia to come out of the evening. (it helped keep things light.)
So it was a diverse pallet of opinions at the meeting. Reaction from the councillors seemed oddly stayed on the issue of transit. For the majority, perhaps that means there's some hope that transit won't be a victim in this budget. We'll know for certain on Wednesday, however.