Photo: Ottawa City Hall Credit: Mike Foote/Creative Commons
by Josh Lalonde
Budgets are typically not exciting documents: rows and columns of numbers do not make for a page-turner. They are, however, intensely political documents. They express in concrete form what an organization’s priorities are. It is one thing to express support for an idea, but quite another to actually allocate money to its implementation.
With this in mind, what priorities does the Ottawa municipal budget for 2021 express? What alternatives were there to the draft budget presented to council on November 4? To answer these questions, The Leveller spoke to organizations involved in the Ottawa Coalition for a People’s Budget, who have collaborated on producing an alternative budget with a different set of priorities.
With two visions for the city that are so opposed, it is no surprise that there has been intense campaigning around the 2021 budget.
What’s In the Draft Budget?
The municipal budget is technically not a single budget but a set of budgets, each under the supervision of a committee of Ottawa City Council, or separate boards such as the Police Services Board or the Transit Commission. Together they make up the Draft 2021 Tax and Rate Supported Operating and Capital Budgets. After the presentation of the report on the 2021 draft budgets to Council on November 4, each committee or board evaluated its draft budget and passed on its recommendations to council, which met to vote on the complete set of budgets on December 9.
The November 4 report describes the proposed allocation of resources in the budgets as “prudent.” It is constructed around a cap on the increase in municipal taxes at 3% overall. Each department was instructed to compile its budget based on a proportional distribution of this increase, meaning that the budget as a whole is largely the same as last year’s.
What does this mean for the provision of city services? It means primarily that the number of full-time equivalent (FTE) city staff positions is to increase by a net of 21, for a total of 15,629 budgeted FTE staff positions. The only departments to see an increase in budgeted FTEs are paramedics (14 FTEs) and police (30 FTEs), while Community & Social Services loses 7 FTEs, Transportation Services loses 15, and the Ottawa Public Library loses 1. Notably, the draft budget includes no change in permanent staffing for Ottawa Public Health, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
In financial terms, the “total 2021 tax-supported operating expenses are projected to be $3.52 billion, a $156.7 million increase over 2020,” according to the budget report. This increase includes a $13.2 million increase in the police budget, of which $5.8 million is listed as “Growth needs.” By contrast, the library and public health service areas see no increase under “Growth needs” and small increases ($1.1 million each) to maintain services
The Alternative Budget
The Ottawa Coalition for a People’s Budget is made up of 18 community organizations from across the city, including Horizon Ottawa, the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition, and Climate Justice Ottawa. These organizations came together to draft an alternative municipal budget, modelled on the alternative federal budget released annually by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. As the budget states, it “attempts to show what the City of Ottawa could accomplish if they were guided by a true commitment to values of social equity, human dignity, fairness and environmental sustainability instead of the interests of a privileged few.”
The coalition’s aim was less to produce a budget that could be implemented in 2021 — the alternative budget requires changes to provincial legislation to give the city greater financial powers — than it was to educate Ottawa residents about the budget process, to challenge the city to take action, and to inspire residents to imagine possibilities.
In contrast to the “prudent” draft budget presented to City Council, the alternative budget describes itself as “a progressive and ambitious vision for the City of Ottawa and its finances.” It includes $662.8 million in new spending on city services and $215.5 million in new capital spending. This is balanced by $193 million in new tax revenue and cuts of “$235 [million] from the police budget and $390 [million] from planned fossil fuel infrastructure,” as well as an additional $60 million in federal and provincial grants.
The new spending would include $237 million to provide free childcare for residents below the poverty line, $200 million to make public transit free at point of service, and $100 million for acquiring and constructing affordable housing. These investments in social infrastructure, transit, and housing would reduce inequality within the city, enhance residents’ quality of life, and reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions.
The budget also calls for the city’s $190 million endowment fund to be transferred to a new Climate Finance and Economic Development Corporation. This fund would provide low-interest, long-term financing for retrofitting buildings and to develop renewable energy infrastructure.
The cut to the police budget amounts to a 63% divestment. It would leave police responsible for “all investigative services” but would reallocate funding for frontline services such as “support for mental health crises, incidences of violence, and harm reduction services” to other agencies. This reallocation would mean a shift from punitive responses to crime, centred around police and the criminal legal system, to a crime prevention approach that addresses the root causes of crime, in particular poverty.
The $193 million increase in tax revenue would require legislative changes at the provincial level to give the city greater powers to levy taxes. While raising property tax rates on the most expensive properties — a change that could be implemented under current legislation — the budget also calls for a land transfer tax and a vacancy tax.
There is already a provincial land transfer tax that is applied when a property is sold, but the City of Ottawa and other municipalities do not have the power to levy one under current legislation. Gaining this power is far from impossible, however. The City of Toronto already has its own land transfer tax after the 2006 City of Toronto Act granted Toronto enhanced taxation powers.
Likewise, Vancouver recently implemented a vacancy tax that is applied when a housing unit remains empty for six months, but Ontario municipalities do not currently have the power to levy such a tax.
In addition to raising revenue, these taxes would also have the effect of de-incentivizing real estate speculation and making housing more affordable for residents of the city. (Ottawa City Council passed a motion on December 9 directing staff to study the viability of a vacancy tax.)
The Budget Battle
With two visions for the city that are so opposed, it is no surprise that there has been intense campaigning around the 2021 budget. Horizon Ottawa, one of the organizations making up the Coalition for a People’s Budget, has been among those pushing for a more ambitious budget. The Leveller spoke with board member Sam Hersh about how the organization has been involved in the budget process.
Hersh explained that Horizon Ottawa’s goal for the 2021 budget process was to raise the level of engagement among people who haven’t previously been involved. One way they do this is by live-tweeting budget meetings to make them more accessible, as not all residents can take hours out of their day to attend the meetings themselves. They have also been encouraging residents to speak at committee meetings, where the “community consultation” portion has often been a mere formality.
When asked about the draft budget presented to Council, Hersh described it as a “disappointing, unimaginative, uninspiring document” and pointed out that it includes an increase in spending for police that is 27 times greater than the increase for childcare. He argued that the process of creating the budget has become centralized in the mayor’s office under Jim Watson, leaving only a month for public consultations on hundreds of pages of difficult documents. He contrasted this approach to the participatory budgeting process used in cities such as Reykjavik, Iceland, where 850 million Icelandic Kronor (approximately $8.5 million) of the municipal budget is allocated to projects proposed and voted on by city residents.
Climate Justice Ottawa (CJO), another of the organizations involved in the Coalition for a People’s Budget, has a similar evaluation of the budget process. CJO member Aaron Thornell described the draft budget as “pretty disappointing from a climate action perspective.” In particular, he noted that even though the city’s Energy Evolution Strategy includes specific budget recommendations, these are not reflected in the draft budget.
Thornell called the process of creating and passing the budget “opaque” because much of the budget is “set in stone” by the time public delegations happen. He also criticized the “disconnect” between City Council’s public declarations of climate and housing emergencies and the contents of the budget.
The Police Budget
The most controversial of the budgets has been the police budget, which is set to increase by $13.2 million to hire 30 new officers. Automatic increases in police budgets have come into question in the wake of protests across the continent against police killings of Black and Indigenous community members — including the 2016 killing of Abdirahman Abdi and the 2019 killing of Greg Ritchie by Ottawa police, as well as the October death of Anthony Aust during a police raid. Organizations in Ottawa have been calling to defund the police — or at the very least, stop the planned increase in the police budget.
On November 19, there was a a rally at City Hall against the proposed increase led by the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition, Ottawa Black Diaspora Coalition, and KZ Land Protectors (Algonquins from Kitigan Zibi, the closest Algonquin Anishnaabeg reserve, whose land Ottawa occupies). Within an hour, the protesters moved to the nearby intersection of Laurier Avenue and Nicholas Street, where they set up an encampment. The organizations issued a list of demands including a freeze on the police budget.
Ifrah Yusuf, co-chair of the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition, told The Leveller that the occupation of the intersection was a “peaceful protest and community healing space,” and that the protesters prayed and danced together. After negotiations with police liaison officers, they agreed to leave one lane of the intersection open for emergency vehicles.
On November 20, the protesters were told that they would get to meet with city councillors and members of the Police Services Board the following day. However, at around 3:30 AM on November 21, the police raided the encampment and arrested 13 people. One person, a minor, was later released without charges, while the other 12 were charged with mischief. Yusuf described the arrests as “appalling, disgusting, and violent,” and called them a “betrayal” given the meetings scheduled for the following day.
A few days later, on November 23, the Police Services Board meeting at which the draft police budget was to be voted on drew so many delegates that the meeting had to continue into a second day. More than 90 delegates from the public — almost all of them opposed to the proposed increase — spoke at the meeting, whereas last year there had been none.
However, the chair of the Board, Councillor Diane Deans, stated at the outset of the meeting that she would vote in favour of the budget, despite the public delegations against it, and the Board ultimately passed the budget. The police budget then went to City Council for a vote on December 9, where it also passed.
When asked about getting their vision of the budget implemented in future, all three organizations The Leveller spoke with agreed on the need to build on this year’s organizing for next year’s budget process. Yusuf called for “more pressure” on elected officials to ensure that they are accountable to the communities they represent, while Thornell said CJO would “continue coalition-building to develop broad support.” Hersh likewise argued for forming a coalition of community organizations from across the city to expand on the Coalition for a People’s Budget.
Council may have passed the business-as-usual 2021 budget, including the increase to the police budget, on December 9. Yet the new energy around the municipal budget promises to make 2022’s budget process at least as contentious as 2021’s.