City council’s most influential committee might be short-changing the downtown wards if tax revenue by district matters when it comes to representation.
The makeup of the finance and economic development committee received attention this past week as council was presented with an opportunity to make a change.
Downtown councillors pointed out that none of them sat on the top leadership committee and they advocated for Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper to take over chairing the transportation committee and to take a seat on the finance committee.
Council refused with a 15-7 vote, instead promoting Beacon Hill-Cyrville Coun. Tim Tierney to transportation chair.
Big jobs are assigned to the finance committee: setting up the annual budget process; monitoring the budget; receiving updates on the city’s litigation; managing real estate; making rules for operations and expenses of council offices; making recommendations on accessibility; overseeing debt and investment policies; and managing non-transit-related labour relations.
Anything that doesn’t fit neatly into the responsibilities of other committees and boards usually falls to the finance committee.
Perhaps most importantly, given the current transit drama in Ottawa, the finance committee is in charge of overseeing LRT contract and construction issues.
There are 12 members of the finance committee, including the chair, Mayor Jim Watson. The membership represents half of the 24 total councillors.
The city took in nearly $1.7 billion in property taxes in 2019. Decisions about how much tax money is required from landowners start at the finance committee.
Of 11 ward councillors on the committee, only three represent wards that are in the top 11 wards that generate the most tax revenue for the city. They include Barrhaven Coun. Jan Harder (No. 9 on the top tax-producing wards), Alta Vista Coun. Jean Cloutier (No. 5) and Kanata North Coun. Jenna Sudds (No. 4).
That means the three wards at the top of the tax revenue list don’t have representation on the committee.
According to figures produced by the city’s finance department, Somerset ward generated the most tax revenue for city hall in 2019 by a long shot, with about $171.8 million coming from landowners. Catherine McKenney represents the ward.
Second on the list was Leiper’s Kitchissippi ward ($94.4 million) and third was Rideau-Vanier ward ($91.4 million), represented by Mathieu Fleury.
Yet, the bottom three tax-generating wards — Rideau-Goulbourn at No. 21, Osgoode at No. 22 and West Carleton-March at No. 23 — have representation on the finance committee.
In fact, of 18 wards generating the most tax revenue for the city, only five are represented on the finance and economic development committee.
Another way to look at the tax haul is to examine the average contribution by residential landowner.
By that measure, Capital ward, represented by Shawn Menard, came out on top last year at $5,296, followed by Kitchissippi at $5,027 and Rideau-Rockcliffe ward, represented by Rawlson King, at $4,580.
The rankings are different when it comes to average commercial tax contributions to the city. The top three wards are Kanata North ($52,723), Barrhaven ($43,855) and Kanata South ($38,620) and all of their councillors sit on the finance committee.
Still, of the top 11 wards on the average commercial tax contribution list, those three, plus Innes ward at No. 11 ($25,994), are the only ones represented on the committee.
There’s no policy that sets membership of the finance committee based on geography or tax representation. It’s settled through the nomination process at the beginning of the term and ultimately starts with a proposal from the mayor.
However, the membership is locked in based on decisions made about other committees and ceremonial positions.
Chairs of standing committees — transportation, environment, audit, planning, rural affairs and community and protective services — plus the transit commission chair and the three deputy mayors automatically have seats on the finance committee.
There is one at-large member of the finance committee who isn’t handed an automatic seat. That had been Tierney.
With council’s vote on Wednesday, Tierney has an automatic seat on the finance committee.
Cumberland Coun. Stephen Blais is running for the Liberals in Orléans in the provincial byelection, which is why he stepped down from chairing the transportation committee.
If Blais is elected to the provincial legislature on Feb. 27, a spot will open up on the city’s finance committee.
It would present another opportunity for council, but mostly the mayor, to consider representation on the de facto cabinet of council.