With the 2014 budget pending approval at next week's City Council meeting, the Environment Committee's focus during their November 19th meeting was the draft operating and capital budget for the upcoming year. Councillor Maria McRae, alongside of Staff, began with a presentation highlighting some of the key investments that will be going towards the environment. Most notably, the investments into forestry services, McRae says, will aim to replenish Ottawa’s trees at a 2:1 ratio to combat the emerald ash borers, leaving the city in better shape than it was before the invasion. She assured that the money will go towards tangible projects with real benefits for residents, and will contribute to a safe and cleaner city. Staff presentation later also highlighted the investments into the city's sewer system ($12.6 million), the Ottawa River Action Plan ($65 million), and other clear initiatives designed to minimize our city's carbon footprint, such as a gas collection system expansion, tree renewal program and Smart Energy ($8.7 million).
Although we know of an additional investment of $1.2 million into forestry services, specifically for tree replacement initiatives to aid in the fight against the emerald ash borers, Staff announced that there will be a reduction of 55 full time equivalent jobs (FTEs) in the upcoming year. This issue raised concerns with a few of the councillors during that morning’s meeting, specifically Councillor Diane Holmes, Councillor David Chernushenko and Councillor Mathieu Fleury. Their reoccurring concern was that this cut in FTEs would result in a sacrifice of staff efficiencies and capacities, which has historically been unsatisfactory in their wards. These issues included everything from a lack of response when emails are sent in to the actual tree removal process, where it has been seen to take months to fully remove, and over a year before a tree is finally replanted. Apart from these concerns, Councillor Holmes said she did not approve of the forestry service cut because she and her residents actually care about the trees in their ward, especially since there are so few trees left. While he echoes her concerns, Councillor Fleury says that his main concern is the response time, because the actual service itself is great, as seen with the Emerald Ash Borer invasion. Agreeing with his colleagues, Councillor Chernushenko also added that his concerns were not just with planting new trees, but with other important services, such as a proactive evaluation of older trees with regards to safety of residents and their property. Staff said that the FTE reductions would not affect efficiencies because responsibilities were now better assigned to maximize efficiency with existing staff. While we hope that staff is right in this perspective, it is difficult to imagine that a reduction in staff will have zero impact on their performance and efficiencies.
When it came time for the vote, the Environment Committee approved its $122 million operating budget, as well as its $352 million capital budget. However, both Councillor Holmes and Chernushenko dissented on the point regarding forestry servicing reductions under Item 1, but the item was still passed by a majority vote. Ecology Ottawa would like to give a thumbs up to Councillors Holmes, Chernushenko and Fleury, for speaking up for important forestry services that directly influences the tree renewal process.
As the meeting came to an end, Councillor McRae made the announcement that the previously scheduled meeting for December 17th was moved up to 5th. However, Staff immediately said that the requested reports and documents would not be ready in time for that date, so Councillor McRae suggested that December’s meeting be cancelled altogether. True to form, the committee agreed. This is yet another example of the Environment Committee’s failure to remain consistent and proactive in the 2013 year; this cancellation means that the committee has only met 7 times this year, fewer than any of the other standing committees. Ecology Ottawa believes that the committee has more than enough topics that warrant the committee’s attention, which does not justify a cancellation of next month's meeting. For example, the Ottawa River Action Plan outlined plans to develop and implement a "Water Environment Strategy", which was scheduled to be tabled in Q1 of 2013. When asked about the Water Environment Strategy, Ecology Ottawa was informed that a draft strategy was scheduled to be presented to the Environment Committee this fall. However, there has not even been a mention of the project over the last 3 months and evidently there will not be any more discussion on this topic this year.