Branscombe’s service review chair first casualty of zero per cent target
London Community News
By Sean Meyer/London Community News/Twitter: Newswriter22
Ward 6 Councillor Nancy Branscombe has long warned that another zero per cent tax freeze would lead to service cuts and higher taxes — down the road — for London residents.
It turns out Branscombe’s seat on the Service Review Committee was the first cut to be made after she came out on the losing side of an 8-7 vote to set a zero per cent target for upcoming budget deliberations.
After two previous attempts to set a zero per cent target were defeated by 7-7 votes (a tie vote is a loss under council’s procedures), councillors supporting the tax freeze finally had the majority during council’s meeting on Tuesday (July 24). Voting to set the zero per cent target were Mayor Joe Fontana and councillors Stephen Orser, Bud Polhill, Joe Swan, Dale Henderson, Paul Van Meerbergen, Denise Brown and Sandy White.
With the two sides in the zero per cent debate firmly entrenched, Branscombe clearly saw the writing on the wall and had a letter prepared announcing her immediate resignation as both chair and member of the Service Review Committee.
“While I am not opposed to trying to keep tax increases to zero, I did not support the manner in which this was done last year. I along with an unprecedented number of other councillors (six) voted against the budget last year,” Branscombe wrote. “The only way to get to zero is via permanent reductions in our operating budget. This can certainly be done, but along with permanent reductions comes political pressure and difficult decisions. We couldn’t do that last year, raiding reserves was easier. It will happen again this year and I won’t support it.”
Ward 2 Councillor Bill Armstrong said it was unfortunate Branscombe had come to this conclusion, but supported her decision. Armstrong said Branscombe’s resignation letter from the committee raised several valid points, chiefly among them, “going after reserve funds is not the way to go.”
Ward 13 Councillor Judy Bryant took Armstrong’s comments even further, using Branscombe’s resignation as an opportunity to caution those who support the zero per cent freeze as to what the impact of it may be.
“We will have service cuts. But the stuff you don’t see underground is deteriorating too,” Bryant said. “It isn’t just about service cuts; it is about having our infrastructure crumble. I feel quite sick about this.”
Fontana spoke up to remind councillors to keep their comments to Branscombe’s resignation from service review and that the work to set the budget won’t begin for another six to eight months.
Ward 8 Councillor Paul Hubert said he was saddened by Branscombe’s resignation, but supported her decision because it was driven by her personal sense of integrity.
“That word (integrity) is a challenge to us because as we go into the budget process we are going to have to have real strength and integrity,” Hubert said. “We are finding $25 million out of the base budget. We are going to need real solutions.”
For Henderson, the councillor for Ward 9, Branscombe’s resignation stands as an indication the city needs to do things differently. “We can’t start with 1.5 per cent a year and end up at zero. I think we can get $25 million, I believe that, which is why I am supporting zero.”
Ward 5 Councillor Joni Baechler, who currently sits as vice-chair of the Service Review Committee, asked staff how Branscombe’s resignation would affect the pre-budget process that has been previously laid out by council.
City Treasurer Martin Hayward said the targets are set in advance to give various departments, boards and commissions an indication of what council expects. And although civic departments are working towards that end, Hayward said he couldn’t guarantee the administration will deliver at zero when the budget is initially tabled.
However, Martin also said council will have all the information in the budget to achieve the zero per cent freeze should it ultimately choose to do so.
“What we have done by deferring the debate on the target is that conversation around the impact on services has been deferred to the actual budget process itself,” Hayward said. “That is where the information will be contained. That was the best we could do given the time we had.”
Orser, the councillor for Ward 4, thanked Branscombe for her service and years of friendship, almost making it sound like his colleague was resigning from council and not just the Service Review Committee.
However, that bit of humour aside, Branscombe’s resignation only represented — to Orser at least — another indication as to why serious discussion needs to take place around his favourite issue.
“I think her resignation is symptomatic of a greater problem I have brought up before. If we were a council that was full-time, operating Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., we wouldn’t need the service review,” Orser said. “We would be meeting in this room, dealing with all these issues. We could handle almost anything if we met full time and worked full-time like everyone else.”
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