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Feb 21, 2013  |  Vote 0    0

Council facing cross-fire of opinions (Phil McLeod column)

London Community News

This is the time of year when you might want to spare a thought for your friendly neighbourhood city councillor. He or she has a lot on the mind.

Next Thursday council casts its final vote on the 2013 civic budget with Mayor Joe Fontana keen to secure the third straight with no increase in taxes.

Meantime, pressure is mounting on all sides to spare cuts to or increase spending on key services. There’s talk of using reserves to balance the budget, or to raise debt levels, or perhaps to sell significant city assets.

The result is council gets caught in the cross-fire of competing points of view.

A public participation meeting last week, the second in this budget cycle, provided a good example of the taxpayer divide.

Sue Wilson spoke on behalf of a number of London faith groups which last year contributed $2,154,442 in human and financial resources toward addressing poverty issues.

“We are stretched to the limit,” Sister Wilson said. “We need the City of London as partners in this work.”

On the other hand, Mary Lou Ambrogio of the Forest City Institute called for more fiscal prudence on the part of city council. “Less tax creates more growth,” she said, urging staff cuts and outsourcing to control costs.

Courtney Vaughn and Sydney Bergeron, students at King’s University College, expressed concern about threatened cuts to public transit. “These are decisions that influence greatly whether we continue to call London home,” they said.

And Candace Stewardson, also a student at King’s, noted that “for London to be a truly great city we need to take care of everyone. We are only as strong as our most vulnerable citizens.”

Al Harrington took an opposite view. “This city has given you a mandate,” he told the council. “They do not want more taxes. Same money, same services – it can be done.”

Perhaps, but what can’t be done is satisfying all the citizens all the time. So in the midst of all the clamour for more, or less, council members are forced to make choices.

“Our reasonable constituents know and are cognizant that councillors are privy to much information that they do not see,” says Harold Usher, councillor for Ward 12, “and they expect we will make the best decision accordingly.”

Denise Brown, in neighbouring Ward 11, says she does a lot of personal research before making her mind up, and also “asks a specific group of residents throughout the city for their feedback. I vote how I believe is best for the entire city.”

Sandy White (Ward 14), who often supports the mayor, says she “votes on the merits of each individual item.” And so she has, casting key votes against service cuts several times during the budget debate.

Paul Hubert (Ward 8), who commissioned what turned out to be a controversial poll on the budget, says he applies this test to budget decisions: “Is it consistent with the stated direction of council or does it make hypocrites of us all?”

His poll of 1,552 London residents showed only 34 per cent favoured zero this year.

Ms. Brown was among those who found flaws in that survey. She says that while all communications from constituents are important, “just as important are the one-on-one conversations I have with taxpayers.”

Philip McLeod is a longtime London journalist who writes a regular blog on civic affairs. He can be reached at phil@philipmcleod.ca.

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