Of the 37 delegations that came out to speak on the 2016 Budget last night, over a third of them were in some way concerned about the proposed service cuts and fare hikes to Guelph Transit, but that wasn't the only issue that got interest from multiple parties. From condo owners wanting to be able to access city waste collection services, to those concerned about a bigger tax bill next year; from fans of the library to opponents of changes to Niska Road, there was a lot of passion on display in front of the horseshoe.
Three members of the group Fair Tax Campaign were among the first batch of speakers. Their concern was the cost of condo owners needing private collection because the city is unable to collect from their buildings or complexes. Ted Pritchard said, "garbage collection should be a universal right," and that they "pay taxes but don't get the city service."
According to Pritchard, 40 per cent of condos can currently accommodate the three cart system, while the other 60 per cent are subsidizing the system, and effectively paying twice for garbage pick-up. Meanwhile, private collection doesn't pick up green bin/bag waste. Carolyn Lance added that the inequity reaches to areas like sewers, water mains, hydrants and snow removal. It's an imbalanced that needs to be addressed as condo owners represent a large and growing portion of the Guelph population.
Vlad Kovac pushed for the city to consider small trucks that might be able to navigate tougher areas of the city, and perhaps even a return to six day service for the downtown. Additionally, the FTC delegates want a working group dedicated to the issues of condo owners to be considered.
Others had concerns about taxes, more specifically they had concerns that they're already paying too much and are about to pay more. Concerned citizen Pat Fung thought he had found a smoking gun in looking at the per person averages of money spent on roads, parks and other services in Guelph as compared to our neighbours in Kitchener and Cambridge. Fung believed it showed "inefficiencies in our spending," and that the city spends "too much time looking at the expansions and the reductions" as opposed to the total level of spending.
After the delegates were all heard, Ward 3 Councillor Phil Allt asked if city staff could provide clarification on the numbers that Fung presented. Staff said that measuring per person costs between cities is irrelevant, as things like a high student population, and other factors can skewer the numbers.
Former Ward 6 Councillor candidate Glen Tolhurst was thinking about the future, calling the proposed initial 1.58 per cent increase for the 2016 budget an "unsustainable tax increase" as it was 58 per cent greater than the consumer price index, an important bench mark that many on council want to limit any tax increase to. Tolhurst called it "poor budgeting" and said that "council's putting its hand in for my taxes now."
Tolhurst compared the yearly tax increases to the frog in the pot of water being brought to a boil. "It's time to make tough budget decisions," he said, "departments are running negative variances" and hard work needs to be done to find the cause, and hold department managers accountable for not meeting their budgets.
Speaking to the other end of the argument, that city council shouldn't look at cutting spending in order to offer low tax increases, was Janice Folk-Dawson, President of the Guelph and District Labour Council. She called Guelph a "bastion of awesomeness," and that "residents looking forward to progress on projects in the near future," but cutting funding to keep taxes low "threatens to slow progress or halt these projects."
Folk-Dawson then said that Guelph could absorb a five per cent property tax increase over the year, a move that seemed meant to provoke more conservative members of council, and indeed both Mayor Cam Guthrie and Ward 1 Councillor Dan Gibson took the bait.
Gibson asked Folk-Dawson to affirm the five per cent figure, and added that he had talked to a senior who said 100 per cent of her old age pension was taken already by property taxes. Folk-Dawson said that the City also needs to move beyond property taxes, and look at new revenue streams like getting more municipal funding through the provincial and federal governments. Guthrie tested Folk-Dawson's point that the City of Guelph "has responsibility to provide good jobs." She clarified saying that the City should be an example to other business in offering well-paying jobs, to which Guthrie clarified if those jobs should be union jobs.
Less controversial were speakers wanting to assure continued funding for Guelph's para-medicine programs. Jennifer Mackie of the Guelph Family Health Team said that the Royal City's "institutions and entities do a great job as silos and work with each other in different ways," in the cause of preventative medicine. Over 5,400 residents have chronic diseases, she said, but community para-medicine programs reduce demands in emergency services.
Bonnie Burgess of the Age Friendly Guelph Leadership Team also urged for continued support for the program saying that awareness of "other services could be more effective in meeting [people's] needs than calling an ambulance."
Mira Clarke of Action Read was concerned about funding for Guelph Libraries, although the proposed budget has no new cuts to the library budget, there's also no new spending either. "Libraries support the work that I do at Action Read, and [supports] anybody that cares about reading and learning," Clarke said.
"A zero per cent increase means library will have to cut services," she added asking that council consider an increase in funding, and later operating hours for Guelph's libraries as they "offer much more than reading material," and considering the "close linkage between libraries and happiness in communities."
Karen Calzonetti, program manager for J.O.E., which is a program where adults with developmental disabilities sell coffee to library patrons, also spoke highly of the library. "The impact is huge on many levels, and not one of my staff has missed a day of work," she said of J.O.E. and the library's partnership. "The library is a 're-purposed jewel,' managed to remain vibrant and reinvent itself again and again and again," she added. Council, she said, has a "vested interesting in protecting this vital community space"
There was another more contentious matter, and that was the proposed redevelopment of the Niska Road bridge. A Separate council meeting later this week will deal with public feedback about the bridge specifically, but on Monday night, Susan Ratcliffe was already pretty mad.
"I'm angrier this year than last year," she told council. Why? There's a line item in the capital budget to replace the Niska Bridge even though no decision has yet been made to the bridge's fate. "Who decided to replace the bridge? Who approved the project? Have you voted on that yet?" she asked. "The whole process of decision making has been flawed, manipulated, unfair, and contrary to the City of Guelph's policies on open government."
Radcliffe wanted the line item removed as it being there said that, "All their [community activists] work in a fair process was worth nothing. [...] "It's time to listen to the people of Guelph rather than consultants."
Laura Murr, meanwhile, was worried about throwing good money after bad. She was concerned about $450,000 spent on the traffic lights at Niska and Downey Roads in 2014, and whether that work will have to be redone once a decision has been made about the bridge. She also wanted to see an update of the Hanlon Creek watershed plan, which she said has not been monitoring since 2000.
Nicole Abouhalka wants to see more traffic calming measures along Downey Road, but does not want to see that point get pulled into the debate over Niska Bridge. Staff later told council that there is a long waiting list for traffic calming measures across the city, so an immediate remedy to Abouhalka's Downey Road concerns may not be possible.