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On September 5, Ottawa City Council’s Finance and Corporate Services Committee met to discuss the shape of the 2024 budget—also known as “budget directions.” This was the first formal, public step in deliberations for the budget, which will be tabled to Council on November 8. The directions were approved with votes in favour by Mayor Mark Sutcliffe and 11 councillors after a presentation from city staff and public delegations.
Decisions were made during this meeting that have great restrictions on what the next year will look like for Ottawa’s financial capabilities. Firstly, a maximum municipal tax increase of 2.5% was set. Keeping in mind that this tax is where the City of Ottawa gains most of its funding for essential services, it is a limiting budget. During a time where we are facing worsening crises of the climate, housing, and cost of living, an austerity budget will struggle to meet the challenges of the coming year.
Notably absent in this five-hour long meeting was discussion of the impacts of climate change and our natural environment. At the beginning, city staff mentioned substantially higher than average snowfall and precipitation, as well as costs of residual cleanup from the 2022 derecho. They presented these as the rationale that the 2023 Budget is projected to end in a deficit. Missing from this discussion, however, was the fact that with the worsening impacts of climate change, these phenomena are not an exception, but a new normal. The science is inarguable: for the foreseeable future, we will see increasingly extreme weather, such as torrential storms and tornadoes that Ottawa saw this summer, and with it the consequences on our infrastructure, including damages to housing and public land, storm and wastewater overflow, and public transportation breakdowns.
Despite the fact that this meeting was scheduled first thing in the morning on the first week after summer, several organizations and individuals offered public delegations that provided key insights into the needs of the city. Young community members and Horizon Ottawa brought up necessary improvements to the service and accessibility of public transportation in the city. With delegates speaking to unreliable service and some of the highest transportation fees in Canada, transportation in Ottawa needs rapid improvements. Yet, the budget directions proposed indicate a cut to the transit budget, alongside an increase in transit fees. This will only cause more people to stop using transit and force people into using private vehicles, which are one of the largest individual contributors to carbon emissions in the city, or canceling travel.
Overall, the budget directions were approved by the Finance and Corporate Services Committee with a vote of 9 for (Councillors Luloff, Dudas, Gower, Tierney, Brockington, Kitts, Darouze, Curry, and Mayor Sutcliffe) and 3 against (Councillors King, Leiper, and Menard). While there is still space for Council to make some firm commitments to climate justice and ecological responsibility, it is an austere and unambitious budget outline that leaves limited room for decisive, rapid action we need to see from our elected officials.
There are multiple ways you can get involved and let Council know what you expect to see in the budget. From September 13 to October 27, you can fill out this questionnaire to tell the City what they must prioritize in the Draft Budget 2024. Additionally, councillors will be leading public consultation sessions. Lastly, there will be continued meetings on October 3 and November 7 of the Finance and Corporate Services committee, where you can make your voice heard. Check out this website or email Ecology Ottawa for more information.
Gemma Patey is a community organizer on Ecology Ottawa's Breathe Easy campaign.