Tuesday, January 11, 2005

London Ontario - A Sinking Ship

We're screwed.

London council caved in on two key budget issues yesterday, ponying up extra cash to tap federal child-care funding and throwing Fanshawe Pioneer Village a lifeline. But with time running out to chop this year's threatened property tax hike, the mara-thon budget session left taxpayers facing more of a hike.

Council's budget additions yesterday, including $200,000 that was poised to be cut from ambulance service, means Londoners were looking at a 7.81-per-cent tax hike as debate ended about midnight.

The increase amounts to an extra $151.69 on an average home assessed at $152,000 and is up from a 7.7-per-cent hike -- an extra $148.53 on an average home -- before yesterday's session.

Yesterday's hit might have been worse, but for a $184,000 cut to the police budget -- which Chief Murray Faulkner said later will affect new hiring. He was not specific.

Child care was the big issue, with the city backing down on provincial conditions for London to access the money.

[. . . . ]

But in the end, councillors had no taste for cuts that would reduce affordable child care and threaten to shortchange ambulance service.

Only Deputy Mayor Tom Gosnell, Controller Gord Hume and Coun. Paul Van Meerbergen opposed the child- care funding.

Van Meerbergen argued unsuccessfully for council to resist the province, noting city finance manager Vic Cote has warned provincial downloading threatens to cost Londoners an extra $2 million a year from new Ontario programs.

Council also approved $290,000 in operating funds to keep Fanshawe Pioneer Village open. That's $20,000 less than the tourism site got last year, but better than the cutoff village supporters had feared.

Council's giving mood yesterday follows three days of public budget sessions in local malls where voters sent a resounding message they want the line held on taxes.

Last night, tempers flared as councillors realized they were achieving the very opposite.

DeCicco, one of seven council members who opposed granting funds to the pioneer village, admitted frustration.

"We seem to want to have it both ways," she said. "We talk about wanting to reduce and not having control over downloading, and then when we have items where we do actually have control, we still don't cut back and I do find that frustrating."

Coun. Joni Baechler called for a "symbolic gesture" to taxpayers -- a $1,000 cut to the $4,000 travel budget for council members. But that was lost with support only from herself and councillors Van Meerbergen, Bill Armstrong and David Winninger.

Most of the big-ticket items council had threatened either not to spend or to cut were aimed at voicing downloading displeasure to Queen's Park.

Council approved a more than $40-million fire services budget that will see 14 new staff hired and $2 million to address wage settlements and service expansion.

Coun. Rob Alder tried to introduce a swift cut -- $250,000 from three departments overseen by city manager Jeff Fielding-- to reduce the tax pain.

But Coun. Bernie MacDonald lashed out to defend Fielding's budget that came in with no increase.

"The city manager came in at zero and now he (Alder) wants to start whacking it," MacDonald argued.

"I think that's a disgrace."

Gosnell, budget chief, urged council "not to get personal."


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