Ottawa’s $41M deficit is bad news for Mayor Watson

Jim Watson’s selling point was always competence. We voted him in for his managerial prowess, and we rewarded him with another four years after he’d cleared that not-so-lofty height. He was never the visionary; he was the steward, taking care of the city as it went through some major changes.

And, make no mistake, we’re seeing major changes throughout Watson’s tenure. The rejuvenation of Lansdowne and the building of the LRT are two of the most significant projects the city has seen in the last few decades, and it has been Watson’s job to see the come to fruition. Neither was his idea. He never offered this grand vision of a transformed city. Both projects were conceived before 2010, but it was his competence that has seen them succeed (to whatever degree we consider them succeeding).

This is why the $41M deficit that Ottawa is on the way to incurring during 2015 is such a blow to the mayor’s reign. This is competence. This isn’t the trusty steward. This is a fiscal and managerial screw up.

Prior to Watson’s term, we had the lovable/embarrassing Larry O’Brien. We had fiscal mismanagement (zero meant zero until zero meant a huge tax hike) and a splintered council. Watson has kept tax increases in line and built consensus and congeniality at council (though that’s starting to crack). He kept the city running, and kept service levels reasonably reasonable.

But thanks to the convoluted method of municipal tax gathering, Watson’s small 2% hikes are actually tax cuts. Tax rates aren’t staying in line with property values (which are trending up), and the 2% increase in tax revenue (which is actually a pretty slim increase to the rate of taxation…again, municipal tax policy is a mess) is lower than inflation, meaning the increased revenue isn’t enough to keep up with increased costs. Throw in a lot of snow clearing and some water pipe issues, and the budget has been shot to hell.

And, this is all with ever-so-slightly under-performing service levels. Yes, I just called them reasonably reasonable (and the mayor tends to be quick with a some-people-are-never-satisfied quip when a resident complains), but that’s because we generally meet the core needs, occasionally fall short, often cut corners, but never let things get too bad. The city is running just well enough to stave off all complaints.

Until it’s not, and that’s where we’re at now. The mayor decided to lowball our tax rate, coming in at a 2% increase rather than the 2.5% increase spoken of during the election campaign. It’s great to under-promise and over-deliver; it’s not so great to undercut your capacity to deliver. That .5% would be a great help right now. An extra .5% over the last five years and we’d likely be golden, still praising Watson’s capabilities.

Now, we’re talking about wringing out more dollars from parks and recreation (ignoring the fact that we have too few parks and rec services). Apparently, we have ample excess capacity that we begin renting out to bring in some money. If that doesn’t work, we can probably just cut some programs or shutter some facilities to save on maintenance costs.

Don’t worry, we’ll keep building the Hospital Link, more road-planning folly that’ll just put back any meaningful change for another five or ten years (or more). We’re still going to widen and extend more roads (and still pay for all the maintenance that goes with it).

Currently, the city can’t properly maintain its sidewalks or bike routes during winter. It can’t keep beaches staffed or pools open during heat waves. We have a rotting Science and Technology museum (well, I guess growing mould is a science experiment!). We are abandoning communities like Albion-Heatherington, barely willing to even study how to make our vulnerable communities safer and more vibrant.

But Jim Watson promised a 2.5% tax increase, and by golly he gave us a 2% tax increase. Why should we care that built up a massive $41M deficit.

There’s no pleasing some people, I guess.

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