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Can we please talk about budgetary outrage while I eat leftover tacos?

In this week's Market Squared, Adam wonders whether, despite council's stand to the contrary, a bit more drama might not be good for city hall
tacos stock

I’m now sitting in front of my computer at home. It’s 11 o’clock at night on Wednesday, and I’m eating leftover tacos because I skipped dinner. As I eat, and type, I’m trying to think about what I came away with at the public delegation night for this year’s budget.

Thankfully, this year had over 20 delegations on the speaker’s list with another dozen correspondences included in the meeting agenda package. It’s better than last year when a baker’s dozen of Guelph citizens came out to speak to the budget, but it’s worth point out that more than half of the delegates were speaking to the same, singular line item.

Having said that though, it’s a far cry from the nearly 50 delegates at the first budget meeting I covered live on Twitter in 2015. People were worked up that year because of service cuts to transit, which were more or less continued without much fuss in 2016, but maybe there’s really nothing for the average Guelphite to get too worked up about the 2018 budget.

No unifying theory of outrage, as it were.

Of course, there were still the usual suspects. Cover city council long enough and you get to know the regulars. People like Pat Fung, who usually comes to council with a spreadsheet meant to demonstrate how the City of Guelph is the municipal version of the drunk trophy wife with a black card.

I admire Pat’s moxy even though I wonder every time if he’s tilting at windmills. In the past he’s compared Guelph’s bottom line to Kitchener and Cambridge, which is fine though unfair considering that the Region of Waterloo does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to things like transit and garbage. This time, Pat came armed with figures from Barrie, but it remains to be seen if this is more persuasive.

Ted Pritchard of the Fair Tax Campaign is another familiar face, appearing at council this time every year to ask for fair and equitable treatment for condo owners when it comes to city services like garbage collection. This has been a 10-year odyssey for Pritchard and his group, which may be why Pritchard himself was the only one to speak to the matter on Wednesday night.

The irony is that Fair Tax has never been closer to achieving their dream. New trucks are finally coming that will give townhouses and other condo developments the option of having their waste picked up by the City. You’ve heard the expression, “better late than never,” but this decade-long campaign has done nothing for the stereotype that government decision-making always moves at a glacial pace.

If there’s one group in the City that knows about patience though, it’s transit riders. Guelph Transit Advisory Committee member Steve Petric returned for his annual pep talk to council about getting high on reliable and versatile transit service. This year it was in the shadow of the less-than-stellar reception of the route realignment and a difficult contract negotiation.

Petric did get some help though from a couple of others. Christine Hassan, who seemed to be representing no one but herself as a delegate, had sensible, pragmatic concerns about the emphasis on the university corridor for service, and how the #10 Imperial doesn’t go into the West End Rec Centre anymore.

And then, an unusual transit advocate appeared in the form of Guelph Chamber of Commerce President Kithio Mwanzia, who along with warnings about not inflating the tax increase too high, advised council that Transit needs a business-centric facelift to be attractive to new enterprise in the Royal City.

You know the situation with transit is desperate when the business community’s ambassador is saying that it needs more attention, but more ambitious change to the system will have to wait until after the service review is complete next year. In the meantime, perhaps transit users can take heart that there will be no cut in service next summer.

But the biggest story of the night, by far, was the intense advocacy effort on the part of the Guelph Neighbourhood Support Coalition, who had its own members and staff, as well as delegates from partner organizations like the Guelph Police, and Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health, come out and speak in favour of an additional $100,000 in funding.

It was an impressive effort, especially when you consider that the extra money for the GNSC represents a fraction of a fraction of the City’s total proposed $232 million budget. It shows the value of lobbying because sitting there amongst the dozens who came out to support the GNSC and the speakers, you’d be hard pressed to see a circumstance where council could possibly vote against the ask.

So now there’s a two-week break until the final vote on December 5. Aside from a stray reference about media hype about a 4.84 per cent rate increase, this budget process, despite being the last before an election, has been a relatively drama free affair. So where will the debate begin a week from Tuesday?

Mayor Cam Guthrie said he’s unlikely to support the proposed expansion items with the exception of lay-ups like more money for paramedics. No one is ever going to argue once that we have too many paramedics (even though Pat Fung tried to argue that we’re being screwed because we’re spending so much on the fire department and we’re having fewer fires).

Councillor Mark MacKinnon drew a line in the proverbial sand saying that he’s unlikely to support any thing above a three per cent increase. MacKinnon also said he’s going to get all his questions answered in advanced of the December 5 meeting, which is in keeping with the “no drama” approach to the budget from both the council, and seemingly, from the general public.

After Pat Fung, there was only one other delegate who spoke on the idea that taxes are too high. Chris Keleher said he’s heard a lot about the low-hanging fruit, but why can’t council get their ladders out to get the high hanging fruit. Keleher didn’t have any specific suggestions, but it is interesting to note that the internet erupted with news of a potential 4.84 per cent increase to the rate this year was published. I do wonder where these people are I.R.L.?

I guess what I’m saying is that the budget is probably the biggest, attention-grabbing, controversial item before council on a yearly basis, and I wouldn’t mind there being some more noise, and some more drama. The narrative from critics is that council doesn’t listen, but how can they listen when no one stands up to say anything.

Potential social anxieties aside, and one person speaking for the GNSC said they themselves were overcoming such an impediment by delegating, if something matters then people need to speak to it, and they need to speak to in front the council lights where it’s broadcast on Rogers, YouTube, and covered by the various media. In that light, where council can’t dismiss your tweet, ignore your email, or move on to another question, every message matters.

Having said that, if you have budget concerns, the time is now to make your voice heard. Operators are standing by!