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Feb 14, 2013  |  Vote 0    0

Public takes centre stage in council’s budget debate

London Community News

Councillors have delivered a lot of bluster, and occasionally anger, during the 2013 budget debate, but London residents delivered just the opposite when given the chance to have their final say on the process.

During the Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee’s public meeting on Wednesday (Feb. 13), more than 30 speakers offered their feelings on everything from the importance of cycling infrastructure to the need to need to support affordable housing. And while some of the city’s loudest budget comments have been around the need to support services, several presentations were also made in defence of the zero percent target.

During the first half of the meeting alone city staff estimates there were 175 people in attendance between the public gallery and the available overflow seating.

Sue Wilson from the Multi Faith Social Action Coalition of London started off, the discussions, perhaps appropriately, with a focus balancing the conflicting decisions ahead of the councillors.

“Budgets are moral documents,” Wilson said. “They are documents that reveal the core values of a community and they shape significantly how the people of that community will be with each other.”

Even with those thoughts in mind, perhaps the only contentious discussion of the evening centered on allowing a presentation from Anne-Marie Sanchez from the Centre for Organizational Effectiveness. Sanchez was to present the findings of Ward 8 Councillor Paul Hubert’s recent budget survey.

However, Mayor Joe Fontana said some members had questioned using the public meeting as a forum for presenting the survey. Ultimately, it was decided Sanchez should go ahead with her presentation, which pointed to how a majority of the 1,552 respondents would support a small tax increase in 2013.

“Most people were comfortable with a two percent tax increase,” Sanchez said, adding that people “just really want council to work together in cohesion to make these difficult decisions.”

One of the strongest contingents of the evening was a group of students from King’s University College. The group saw three presentations around the 2013 budget: sticking to budget cuts already turned down by committee (library, transit, affordable housing), transportation needs and social housing.

Sydney Bergeron, one of the Kings’s contingent, focused on the city’s cycling infrastructure and the impact it could have on the local economy.

A national study in the United States, Bergeron said, London could expect between a 20-1 and 12-1 return for every $1 invested. A separate study, Bergeron said, shows “investment in cycling infrastructure results in approximately 11.4 jobs for every $1 million spent.”

Michael Wickett, an avid cyclist himself, echoed this position by sharing his own experiences in city streets. To further his point the city needs to invest more in cycling infrastructure, Wickett describes his own cycling commute from Hyde Park to Fanshawe College as ranging from “mildly intense to totally terrifying.”

Sarah Merritt was one of several speakers championing Old East Village. Merritt, manager of the Old East BIA, focused on how the village is breaking down long-held stereotypes by showing “ongoing growth and prosperity.”

It was a position Ward 4 Councillor Stephen Orser strongly supported. “Old East is on the threshold of becoming the destination of choice not only in London, but in southwestern Ontario.”

John Casselman spoke in defence of the city’s budget cuts, saying he supports the efforts to maintain the zero percent promise made by Mayor Joe Fontana during his 2010 election campaign.

“Budgets don’t always need to go up, especially when so many other options are available. There are holes in the city’s pockets and you can’t fix them by stuffing more money in.”

Ward 10 Councillor Paul Van Meerbergen — a man second only to the mayor in championing zero percent — said that message was just one of many received by councillors.

“We have heard from the spectrum, those who advocate for a tax hike and those who hold the line,” Van Meerbergen said. “And I think that is very reflective of what is going on out there.”

Whatever the position or topic presented by the speakers, the preparation that went into them wasn’t lost upon members of council.

Ward 5 Councillor Joni Baechler said in her 12 year on council she had never seen “better or more researched presentations” while also being impressed with the diversity of the subject matter.

“I think it speaks to the way citizens of London are really starting to sit up and think about the budget, think about the implications of the budget,” Baechler said. And it isn’t a lot of the usual faces at city hall and that is very impressive to see.”

Fontana said he was equally impressed with the quality of presentations and the spectrum of issues they felt passionate about. And while pleased with the overall tone of the evening, regardless of subject matter, the mayor did offer extra gratitude to one group in particular.

“I think they all made a compelling case. But maybe it was the King’s college students, who put forward three presentations, they are our youngest citizens and were talking to us about everything from housing to transit and I think all those things are important.”

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