They called it “the housing budget,” with tens of millions to repair public housing, build more affordable units and tackle homelessness.
But it comes with the property tax hike hitting 4.4 per cent this year, tacking an extra $124 on the property tax bill of an average home assessed at $241,000.
“What choice do we? We can’t abandon the most vulnerable in the city,” budget chair Josh Morgan said after helming the last of six all-day budget meetings.
“We were dealt a very difficult situation and council was unwilling to forgo important investments . . . Really, the bulk of our new investment is in housing and homelessness-related activities. Those are really the significant investments that drove the budget up.”
So, too, did provincial downloading — millions of dollars shifted by Doug Ford’s provincial Progressive Conservative government to city hall’s bottom line in an attempt to help balance Ontario’s books — in areas like childcare, transit and conservation authorities.
Add in ballooning ambulance costs — the bill city hall receives from Middlesex County is expected to rise an average of 12.2 per cent a year until 2023 — and you’ve got city spending that tops $4.2 billion over the next four years.
A trio of city politicians opposed the multi-year budget during a final vote Friday afternoon.
Councillors Michael van Holst, Phil Squire and Paul Van Meerbergen slammed the budget as out of touch with the realities facing Londoners.
“We don’t want to be out of sync with the people getting the bills, and that includes the commercial sectors and industrial sectors. They’re all wealth generators,” Van Meerbergen said.
All others were in favour, with Mayor Ed Holder striking a diplomatic tone: “We’ve all had our favourite issues as it relates to this budget . . . and some things we didn’t want.”
“Council was hoping the number would come in at something, I would say certainly, under three per cent,” Holder added after the meeting.
But he pointed to not just housing investment, but also big bucks for London’s transit agency to keep it from rolling back service hours after promised gas tax increases from Queen’s Park never materialized, and the long-awaited funding for a green bin compost system as critical proposals.
“We made the decisions we did for London’s sake,” Holder said.
Friday was a faster debate than normal, with politicians voting decisively to trim back new infrastructure spending and delay a decision on the divisive Back to the River revitalization at the forks of the Thames River.
New lower ambulance cost estimates from city treasurer Anna Lisa Barbon and Morgan came as a surprise on Friday morning. The reduction marked one of largest last-minute changes to bring down the tax hike.
The $91.3-million price tag over the next four years may not seem like a gift. But when it helps shave $10.6 million off a very tight budget, it starts to look like a Valentine’s Day present.
The lower ambulance costs, along with a $10-million chop to infrastructure spending — intended to chip away at a $530-million funding gap for soon-needed repairs — brought average annual tax hikes down to 3.9 per cent over the next four years.
Still, that’s nearly double the rate of inflation and the equivalent of an extra $117 a year on the property tax bill of an average Londoner, with a home assessed at $241,000.
The four-year tax hikes are front loaded, starting with a 4.4 per cent increase this year, rising to 4.5 in 2021 before falling to 3.4 per cent in 2022 and 3.3 per cent in 2023. Council will deal with the 2021 to 2023 budgets again during annual updates to account for any changes or unexpected pressures.
Friday’s decisions must be rubber-stamped by council when it finalizes the budget on March 2.
BACK TO THE RIVER SIDELINED
The project to build an outlook jutting out over the Thames River and create community space to revitalize the forks remains in limbo after the London Community Foundation asked politicians to press pause. The foundation, which has lined up $3 million in private donors and wants another $8.6 million from city hall, plans to work with York Developments — the new owner of historic property at the forks, including the former Middlesex County courthouse and jail — to bring back a new plan that considers the entire area and downtown development. For now, $5 million in a reserve fund will remain “earmarked” for the project.
AMBULANCE COSTS DRIVE TESTY DEBATE
The lowered ambulance costs, down more than $10 million after the county got more accurate call volumes from the past year, were still too high for many politicians. Coun. Stephen Turner, a former paramedic, was enraged, saying there wasn’t enough information about what was driving up the budget. Ambulance service is provided by Middlesex County, and a bill is sent to London city hall for its share. The city’s ambulance budget is set to rise an average of 12.2 per cent each year over the next four, which many politicians described as unsustainable. Deputy Mayor Jesse Helmer said it’s a “sign of something that’s broken.” A meeting of the long-dormant city-county liaison committee is in the works to discuss the ambulance service and what can be done to save money for both Middlesex and London.
DEARNESS EXPANSION GETS GREEN LIGHT
A renovation and expansion at Dearness Home, the city-run long-term care facility, was unanimously approved on Friday, with Coun. Phil Squire saying he felt “almost guilty” that residents didn’t have appropriate facilities. The $2.45-million construction will largely be debt-financed, with taxpayers picking up a $512,000 tab for the 1,400-square-foot addition and 2,800-square-foot renovation.
FANSHAWE COLLEGE GETS MILLIONS
It wasn’t exactly what it asked city hall to contribute, but Fanshawe College was quick to accept $2.5 million over 10 years when politicians floated the idea. Former mayor Anne Marie DeCicco-Best and Fanshawe president Peter Devlin were in council chambers to watch the debate about the college’s proposed $58-million Innovation Village. The school expects the business hub to be an economic driver and create hundreds of jobs.
INFRASTRUCTURE SPENDING TRIMMED
Politicians voted to put $7.5 million toward extra infrastructure spending over the next four years, rather than the $17.5 million proposed. That’ll include a $750,000 investment this year, followed by contributions of $1.5 million, $2.25 million and $3 million in each of the following three years, a proposal put forward by Helmer to keep working away at repairs to city assets. There’s about $530 million in needed fixes expected over the next decade.