There’s something just a bit wonky about a city budget written with fingers crossed. But that’s what happens here in Ottawa. And when the city budget – with its expected 2% tax increase was released on Wednesday – it was clear fingers are crossed tightly together hoping the nation’s capital has a light snowfall, little rain and no more than a handful of freeze and thaws.
Good luck with that.
In fact, throughout the budget it’s evident the past actual spending in areas across the city aren’t being used in the budget process. That seems a bit strange, doesn’t it? Not according to city treasurer Marian Simulik.
“These last couple of years have been abnormal winters. At least, I hope they’ve been abnormal winters,” Simulik said. There’s that hope again. “But we don’t go and say, ‘Well, we overspent by $8 million so we have to increase it by $8 million.’ We look at it on an average, what has the actual impact been to the budget.”
Simulik is one of the best-liked and most respected bureaucrats at the city. Rarely hear a bd word about her and there’s not many senior management you can write that about. While she insists it doesn’t make sense to budget according to what was spent last year, not many of us would feel comfortable running our households that way.
It’s certainly true Ottawa’s winters can wreak havoc on the winter maintenance budget, tear up the city’s roads creating potholes impossible to fill quickly enough and often chop up the sidewalks. And then, yes, there are the record snowfalls. But that’s just not new. Even Mayor Jim Watson got sidelined this past winter by a nasty pothole on his way to a city event. And he too is looking for some sort of divine intervention in keeping too much snow from coming our way.
“The changing weather patterns have created major challenges,”Watson said. “The abundance of rain and spring flooding, the extraordinary amount of snow and the number of freeze-thaw cycles, has significantly impacted the quality of our (roads).”
The problem is a bit of smoke and mirrors. When Watson talks about increases to the budget for things like road maintenance, he’s not talking about an increase over what was spent last year, but an increase on what was budgeted – even when the city goes over that budget.
And while reporters grilled both Watson and Simulik about the way the budgeting is done – and rightly so – the mayor’s angst was directed at College Coun. Rick Chiarelli. For my money, Chiarelli has the best sense humour around the council table. And he enjoys using his sarcastic wit to get under the mayor’s skin. It worked. Chiarelli, purposefully borrowing from The Donald, called the budget fake – pointing out the numbers being put forward weren’t sustainable.
Watson was not amused, pointing out Chiarelli was chatting with the media when much of the budget presentation was being made. I certainly was one of those reporters! Watson directed reporters to grill Chiarelli on the details of the budget if the College councillor was going to throw out those kind of accusations.
Maybe that’s fair, given reporters often tell Watson how he should do his job!