The London Free Press headline neatly sums up the City's 2008 budget as it heads to Council on February 5 for review… and, it should be added, the City's budgets over the past decade. If the budget is passed as expected, property tax rates will have risen 35 per cent since 2000, not including assessment increases, while water and sewer charges will have soared by 86 per cent. Numerous constituencies, such as arts groups and municipal employees, have certainly benefited from City Hall's generosity, but the ordinary taxpayer who looks for and receives only basic property services from the City has nothing new in particular to show for his taxes over this time — apart from a $351.2 million debt that cost $51.4 million to service last year, and a potentially enormous infrastructure deficit, of course.
While Council might be applauded for not increasing spending as dramatically as it had during the earlier part of the decade when massive capital projects were the rage, it has still not shown any inclination to rein in program costs, and in fact continues to fund new liabilities or expand existing ones even if they are on a smaller scale than before. When the provincial government relieved the City of a $3.9 million cost for drug benefits and disability programs, Board of Control committed $2 million to new spending as outlined in the Free Press article rather applying the whole amount to reducing the tax levy increase. More than $2.7 million* of last year's $7 million in surplus revenue was committed to new discretionary spending as well.
Councillors have shown themselves over the past decade to be fairweather administrators, idly and without trouble distributing increasing taxes as long as revenues keep comfortably pouring in and taxpayers are able to bear the burden. It would obviously be too much to call them leaders… when they have not followed City staff's lead on almost every budget item, they have followed the earnest requests of almost every hopeful dependent that has come before them for municipal funding. They have even followed where they pretended to lead, acceding to almost every budget request from municipal boards, commissions, and departments that exceeded the generous targets that Council had set for them. They have even indulged the pretense that they must follow by refusing to exercise the express control allowed to them by provincial legislation over provincially regulated programs because it provides them with "57 per cent" innocence.
Council even follows its unions, whether or not taxpayers have an interest in the outcome. Despite an 80.7 per cent budget increase to the Dearness Home this year, and an astonishing one thousand per cent increase since 2000, Council overwhelmingly voted to prohibit outsourcing services to reduce costs at the long-term care facility as union members packed council chambers. Coun. Nancy Branscombe even chastised Coun. Paul Van Meerbergen for just discussing the idea on a local radio show, demonstrating that her commitment to political opportunities with select constituencies are more important than her commitment to the people whose money she's buying them with. Coun. Susan Eagle actually swooned before the union audience: "They have a lot of wisdom to give us." One hardly knows where to begin with a statement like that, except that the union's wisdom, such as it might be, is obviously dedicated to getting what the union and not the taxpayer wants. As for Coun. Eagle, we can assume whose wants have her sympathy.
We should also note that the Dearness Home is provided to comply Ontario's Homes for the Aged and Rest Homes Act, requiring that "every municipality […] shall establish and maintain a home for the aged." Nowhere does the legislation make any requirement for the size and number of beds that that home shall provide, however. If Council really wanted to be creative, it could keep four beds in one room and rent out the rest of the Dearness Home building.
*Correction: We originally reported the portion of surplus revenue committed to new spending as $6 million. We regret the error.